Mixed views on WB, UPN merger

Some exex left jilted

Not everyone’s happy about the merger of UPN and the WB.

Dozens of programming and development execs will soon be looking for jobs. Pilots that last week looked like sure things are now long shots. And scribes looking to land a spot on a broadcast net now have one less buyer.

“There are always casualties in these kinds of mergers,” said one top agent. “A lot of (writers) will lose their development. Needs will change. Something that’s hot is now not.”

That same agent, however, describes the changes as “short-term discomfort.” And in fact, Hollywood’s initial take on the marriage is surprisingly positive.

“Big picture, you’re creating a better asset for everyone to make money with,” Endeavor partner Paul Haas said.

Gary Newman and Dana Walden, prexies of 20th Century Fox TV, said their studio will be better off with one strong fifth net.

“This is great news for suppliers (because) it’s another viable network, another place to bring our shows,” Walden said, noting 20th and some other studios often found it tough to set up shows at the WB and UPN.

“Both of these networks had difficulty helping shows create the appropriate perception of long-term value,” Newman added. “If this is a stronger network, and it’s indisputable that it is, that’s great for us.”

Lionsgate TV prexy Kevin Beggs, who has a pair of projects set up at UPN for fall consideration, agreed.

“I would rather take my chances on a strong fifth network than risk the uncertainty associated with a sixth network whose future is in doubt,” he said.

Peter Johnson, president of Wonderland Sound & Vision, said he’s not worried about how the merger impacts the chances that his WB skein “Supernatural” will be back next season, noting the press release for the new CW pointed to the show as one of its assets. He also thinks new entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff won’t view WB skeins less favorably than UPN product.

“I have to trust that there will be a pretty coherent and single vision applied to this new place,” he said.

Still, the CW will need fewer pilots this development season than the old combo of the WB and UPN.

It doesn’t help that, per CBS Par Group topper Nancy Tellem, UPN has quietly worked out a deal to keep WWE’s “Friday Night Smackdown” on the air for at least two more seasons.

CBS Corp. supremo Leslie Moonves said he wanted to get the merger deal done before most pilots were ordered so there wouldn’t be as much waste.

Expect plenty of lobbying from producers, agents and studio chiefs who will woo Ostroff into thinking their projects merit a greenlight. Ostroff said she’ll show no bias.

“There’s no ego involved here,” she said. “A good project is a good project. There’s going to be a lot less new product, but we will have some needs.”

Observers note Ostroff greenlit “Everybody Hates Chris,” even though the show was originally developed by 20th for Fox Broadcasting.

Somewhat minimizing the pain is the fact that the new net will program around 30 hours in total (including daytime, syndie fare and Sunday repeats). Frog was already keeping a tight lid on its development, dramatically scaling back on the number of projects it had in the works.

“Fox developed about 110 comedy scripts; the WB did maybe 15,” said UTA partner Sue Naegle, who said she thinks “the strength of this combined network could give the other nets a run for their money.”

Other industry insiders aren’t so sure.

One rival exec noted the WB and UPN both had only a couple of major hits, and that even shows like “America’s Next Top Model” or “Gilmore Girls” don’t pose a major threat to the Big Four.

“They’ll be lucky if they get 85% of the ad revenue the two networks would have earned separately,” one said. Moonves responded by noting operating costs for the CW will be much lower and that the new net will be better off financially than the old UPN.

Asked whether the CW will turn a profit its first year, Moonves answered with one word: “Yes.”

Not so lucky will be the programmers and developers who will soon lose their jobs. WB already laid off some key staffers last year, while NBC recently lost some bodies as well.

“It’s raining execs out there,” one wag said.

Speculation on who will stay and who will go is just that.

WB marketing chiefs Bob Bibb and Lou Goldstein have been asked to stay, insiders said, but they haven’t yet agreed to do so.

The Frog’s David Janollari has already left the network. Boss Garth Ancier, who’s opted not to stay with the new company, will oversee the dismantling of the WB and help with the transition to the CW. Ancier, who helped build the WB and Fox, said he’s planning to get more involved in the new-media world.

“I’ve done this for 20 years,” he said, referring to the business of building networks. “I don’t think there’s much in it for me emotionally anymore. I need some fresh challenges.”

All development from both UPN and the WB will now report to Ostroff, per Ancier.

One big challenge for Ostroff will be finding a coherent identity for the CW. Despite spin to the contrary, most industry insiders believe the Frog and UPN no longer had clear brands.

Lifetime chief Susanne Daniels, a WB alum, thinks Ostroff has a chance to finally create a solid fifth network.

“Rebranding for CW would be a good opportunity for both networks to make a strong choice about what the new network can do to position (itself) effectively,” she said.