Having assembled the jigsaw puzzle of stations needed to launch the Fox network less than a decade prior, it might have seemed a cinch for Jamie Kellner and his team to do it again for the WB.
In fact, the task was much harder the second time around.
There were only three U.S. broadcast networks in existence when Fox launched in 1986 — and in most markets, there was at least one station not already affiliated with a net that could be brought into the Fox fold.
Jump forward to 1994, the year most of the WB’s initial carriage deals were signed, and the landscape of stations willing to affiliate themselves wasn’t as robust. “It looked like there were enough stations to start one more network,” says Kenneth Werner, the WB’s exec VP, distribution.
The problem was that while Kellner, Warner Bros. and Tribune were trying to launch America’s fifth TV network, so were Paramount and station group Chris-Craft, which had concurrently partnered to build UPN.
Tribune and Chris-Craft provided the outlets for each web in the biggest markets, but in midsize and small TV markets, they had to compete with each other for affiliates.
The fledgling nets gave contrasting pitches to station managers. The WB was offering its reverse compensation model — essentially, stations would pay it 25% of any incremental profits made above those earned before they were affiliated.
UPN had an advantage in the marketplace because it wasn’t charging prospective affiliates carriage fees — in fact, it was paying them to run its programming. WB officials hoped their proven network-making acumen — as well as a clearly stated programming vision of a network that would skew youthful and female — would be the deciding factor for pickup.
In many cases, it wasn’t.
“You’ve got one guy saying, ‘We’re not going to charge you anything.’ The other is saying, ‘We’re the people who created Fox and we’ve got what it takes.’ And in the beginning, there were lots of stations that went (UPN’s) way,” Werner says.
To get the WB in nearly 90% of U.S. homes — the clearance level generally deemed the minimum for a broadcast net — Kellner needed a key station group onboard in midsize markets.
He decided to create one himself. In 1997, Kellner partnered with Doug Gealy and Tom Allen to launch Acme Television, spending about $210 million in cash and credit to acquire stations in St. Louis; Knoxville, Tenn.; Provo, Utah; Portland, Ore.; and Santa Fe, N.M.
Currently operating eight WB affils in midsize markets, Acme remains one of the WB’s largest station groups, ranking only behind Tribune (20 outlets in markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) and Sinclair (18 stations).
Besides capital, innovation was employed. To get the WB on the air in small markets where no broadcast affiliates were available, a hybrid cable model was used. In 1998, the WB 100+ was launched, reaching 8 million households in markets ranking 100-211 in size through cable systems.
And as youth-targeted dramas such as “7th Heaven,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek” started to create buzz for the WB, a number of Sinclair-owned UPN stations, including KUPN-TV, switched over to the Frog in ’97.
Robert Weisbord, general manager for what is now Vegas’ KVWB-TV, recalls trying to create ratings projections for UPN programs including the urban comedy “Homeboys in Outer Space” and the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle “Hitz.”
“There was nothing you could compare them to, because there was nothing else like them on television,” Weisbord recalls. “(UPN) just wasn’t producing anything that was sellable at the time.”
With the change in affiation, he says improvements to its bottom line were immediate and dramatic. Frequent visits from WB execs including Werner — often bringing along network talent — only contributed to the enthusiasm on the part of newly minted affils, Weisbord adds.
“It was a great way to begin a network,” he says. “It really made you buy into the network and its shows.”