UPN pins down changes

Net sked looks for laffs on Thursday

UPN is stepping into the ring on Thursday nights, slotting a buzzworthy Chris Rock-produced laffer to lead off a new comedy block that will push “WWE Smackdown” to Fridays.

It’s the first time the net has tried series on Thursdays since it started programming the night in 1998. Wrestling has done a good job of keeping UPN in the game on Thursdays, but it also made it tough for execs to establish any sense of schedule flow throughout the week.

UPN Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff admitted the new sked was a big roll of the dice for the weblet.

“This is a game-changing move for UPN,” she said Thursday during the net’s upfront presentation to advertisers. “We believe Chris Rock will have a huge impact on UPN (and that) the coming season will be a turning point in our competition with the WB.”

Rock provides narration (but does not star in) “Everybody Hates Chris,” a semi-autobiographical single-camera laffer about a teenager growing up in early 1980s Brooklyn.

Skein will air Thursdays at 8, followed by returning UPN comedies “Eve” and “Cuts.” New Shannen Doherty/Holly Robinson Peete laffer “Love, Inc.” will wrap up the night at 9:30.

UPN is taking a page out of the Fox playbook with its Thursday comedy strategy. During the early 1990s, net was able to successfully counterprogram with urban-tinged laffers like “Living Single” and “Martin” that had crossover appeal.

Making UPN’s move more logical is the fact that the other nets have all but abandoned comedy on Thursdays. The WB is switching to dramas on the night next season, while NBC has just one low-rated comedy hour from 8 to 9.

As for shifting the sure thing of “WWE Smackdown” to Friday, a night when there are fewer eyeballs watching TV, Ostroff doesn’t think it’ll be a problem. Wrestling, she said, “has a hugely loyal audience, and they will follow the show to Friday.”

Rest of UPN’s lineup is relatively stable, but not without change.

Net’s Monday comedy block returns virtually intact, with returning laffer “All of Us” moving to 8:30 p.m. (relocating from its current Tuesday slot).

On Tuesdays, UPN is replacing comedy with a repeat of “America’s Next Top Model.” Move is somewhat puzzling, since it doesn’t supply much of a lead-in for new 9 p.m. drama “Sex, Lies & Secrets.”

Still, UPN probably figures it can only promote so much new product in the fall. Net has been airing “Model” encores on Friday nights.

Original segs of “Model” remain Wednesdays at 8, with low-rated cult drama “Veronica Mars” inheriting UPN’s best lead-in at 9. The bad news: It’ll now face ABC’s mighty “Lost.”

Viacom co-prexy Leslie Moonves, who oversees UPN, called the net’s overall sked “one of the boldest strategies of any network.”

“In just a few short years, UPN has integrated itself and become an important part of our company,” Moonves said. “You can feel the difference.”

UPN’s upfront bash was a star-studded affair. Rock did some standup, while Tyra Banks brought out some of her “Top Model” finalists.

Jennifer Lopez also stopped by to promote her midseason drama “South Beach,” which stars Vanessa L. Williams.

Net also pumped up its association with Britney Spears, teasing the audience into thinking the singer was about to make an appearance. Instead, Ostroff emerged from behind a curtain “wearing” Bubbles, the snake Spears made famous during an appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Ostroff said UPN was well on its way to transforming itself into a net for young women.

“We have the youngest median age of any network and we’re up in all female demos,” she said. And, less than a year after unveiling its new game plan, “We’re beating WB in homes, viewers and teens. And we’re two-tenths of a point  away in women 18-34 and women 18-49.”