On track for black

Moonves: Hot sked could mean profit for UPN

If ad sales remain strong and some of its frosh skeins catch on with viewers, Viacom co-prexy/co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves said the “P” in UPN could soon stand for “profitable.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday during UPN’s portion of the television critics summer press tour, Moonves said he believed the netlet would eke out its first-ever profit sometime next season.

“All along, we’ve pledged fiscal health for UPN, and by utilizing the shared resources of CBS and generating more ad revenue, UPN’s bottom line has never looked better,” Moonves said. “We’re not there yet, but believe it or not, we very well could turn a profit this season.”

Moonves and UPN entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff spent most of their session with reporters defending the net’s upcoming reality skein “Amish in the City,” which bows next week.

Show, announced with great fanfare at the January press tour, was believed to be dead — but CBS execs, burned by several recent controversies (“The Reagans,” “The Real Beverly Hillbillies”) went underground and produced it (via New Line TV) in secret (Daily Variety, July 8).

“The idea of announcing this with a six-month lead time wouldn’t have done the show any good and would have created a greater controversy than we felt was necessary,” Moonves said.

Ostroff said producers fully disclosed their intent when approaching Amish communities, and that the participants — who range in age from 18 to 24 — joined the series “of their own free will.”

“It’s not like ‘Real World,’ where people just hang out and party,” Ostroff said. “And there’s nobody that’s eliminated on a week-to-week basis. It’s really more about self-discovery … I think you can say some reality shows have been certainly a little out there. And this is not one of these shows.”

Several critics and members of Congress have expressed concern over how Amish cast members are portrayed in the show, which features the Amish teens alongside non-Amish peers in Hollywood Hills. UPN unwrapped the show for reporters Tuesday afternoon, but Moonves said the net felt it was “inappropriate” to screen it for politicians prior to air.

“We certainly are not going to have screenings for any member of Congress who may have a problem with it,” he said. “I don’t want to be judged by a member of Congress before the show goes on the air.”

As for the profitability question, getting the network into the black would signify a major victory, given how much money UPN was bleeding just a few years ago.

The weblet has operated in the red since its 1995 launch, and at one point was so in debt Viacom execs (including the departed Mel Karmazin) strongly hinted UPN’s days were numbered.

But under Moonves and entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff, the net has started to turn things around. For one thing, UPN no longer carries the overhead it once did, as many of the weblet’s back office affairs are now handled by parent CBS.

And on the backs of the turbo-charged reality skein “America’s Next Top Model” and a solid batch of femme-friendly Monday night laffers, the net just came off its best upfront season ever, pulling off the largest CPM (cost per thousand) increases of any network.

“In just 2½ years we’ve changed the perception and the direction of UPN,” Moonves said. “It wasn’t that long ago that many of you thought that UPN structurally was unable to produce a hit, no less a hit schedule.”

In other UPN news:

  • Monday night laffer “Half & Half” has added a reality component: Show is conducting a real-life contest to find new musical talent, which will be conducted by one of the show’s fictional characters, a music exec. Contestants will face off via performances on the show.

  • UPN announced its fall rollout dates: Net’s Monday and Tuesday comedies bow Sept. 20 and 21, respectively; “Top Model” debuts Wed., Sept. 22, followed by the bow of “Veronica Mars,” which moves to its regular Tuesday slot the following week. Regular post-“Top Model” drama “Kevin Hill” bows Wed., Sept. 29; “Star Trek: Enterprise” returns Friday, Oct. 8.

  • Moonves again mentioned UPN is seriously looking at launching a sixth night, something he also revealed at the upfront presentations in May. “We’re not making predictions on that, but … we feel a lot stronger than we were a year ago,” he said.

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