Network launching 101

Topper banked on execs, know-how from Fox start-up

Launching any new venture is ripe with excitement, apprehension, fear and anxiety, and launching the WB was all that and more. I had already had the imposing task of working on the launch of Fox, at a time when everyone in Hollywood, especially my boss at that time, Brandon Tartikoff, told me it would be virtually impossible for Fox to succeed. So I was used to challenges.

With four broadcast networks to compete against, a limited supply of available television stations and the huge added complication of another upstart network, UPN, also launching simultaneously, the task of building the WB was not easy to say the least.

What made the launch of the WB rewarding and possible was the core group of senior executives who were instrumental in the successful launch of Fox — with the notable exceptions of Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch.

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Our team included Fox alums Jamie Kellner, Brad Turell, Bob Bibb, Lew Goldstein, Jed Petrick and Susanne Daniels as well as a hot young executive we plucked from Disney, Jordan Levin, and two industry vets, chief counsel John Maatta and chief financial officer Mitch Nedick.

Jamie was the perfect CEO for this venture and the camaraderie among the group was wonderful. Under his low-key leadership and with the self-assurance the rest of us had from our Fox experience, we never questioned our ability to make it happen.

But there was pressure. With UPN in the game, there was a huge battle for distribution outside the top 20 markets. UPN launched by paying stations to take its programming while we launched by asking our stations to pay us — and they had “Star Trek.” Because of that, the smart money might have been on UPN but we believed that our experience in network building would give our team the advantage.

We concentrated on forging a youth-inspired brand from day one in everything we did. To this day, the WB brand is our most valuable asset. We knew that to succeed we needed to be effective counterprogrammers, dynamic marketers, and our publicity department needed to create star-driven buzz in order for us to make it.

Problem was, UPN was ready to go on the air in six months, so we had to cobble together a lineup pronto and launch simultaneously with them or risk losing more ground in our early distribution battles.

We found busted pilots and scripts from all over town, including an NBC cast-off featuring Shawn and Marlon Wayans, two Fox alums from “In Living Color.” Amazingly, three of the four shows that debuted our first night — “The Parenthood,” “Unhappily Ever After” from “Married … With Children” creator Ron Leavitt, and “The Wayans Brothers” — all went on to produce more 100 episodes for the WB. As can happen in this business, the fourth show that premiered that night, “Muscle,” was the one that got the most attention at the start but quickly fizzled.

It wasn’t long before we tapped into another former Fox all-star, Aaron Spelling, who produced our first drama, “Savannah.” It became our first hot show and inspired us to develop dramas featuring empowered females — to this day one of the guiding principles of the WB brand.

Amazingly, to open the 1996 fall season we launched a group of shows that would be the backbone of the network for years to come: “7th Heaven,” which to this day is the highest-rated show in our history; “The Jamie Foxx Show” (also a Fox alum from “In Living Color”) and “The Steve Harvey Show.”

Right around that time, Joss Whedon and Gail Berman came in to pitch a failed 20th Century Fox movie as a series, and to their astonishment, we bought “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in the room. Then Susanne Daniels found a busted Fox script from Sony called “Dawson’s Creek” from unknown writer Kevin Williamson and we quickly ordered it.

“Dawson’s Creek’s” launch, only three years from the day the network was born, was the moment the industry believed the WB had arrived. One show can ignite a network, but at that time we already had “7th Heaven,” “Buffy,” “Jamie Foxx,” “The Wayans Brothers” and “Steve Harvey” on the air and going strong. Six months later we launched “Felicity” (from J.J. Abrams) and “Charmed” on back-to-back nights. At that point we were here to stay.

The WB was blessed with a great executive team, unwavering support from Bob Daly, Terry Semel, Barry Meyer and Bruce Rosenblum; risk-taking creators; and exceptionally strong actors. All of that combined to make the dream of a successful fifth network a reality.

Without any of those ingredients, we wouldn’t have made it.