Last week’s announcement that the WB and UPN would shut down at the end of August leaves several unanswered questions.
For starters, while the two congloms begin ironing out the specifics behind the new CW Television Network, hundreds of weblet staffers — as well as TV stations across the country — anxiously await word of their fate.
“Because a lot of people did not know about this, the details were not worked out,” Warner Bros. TV Group topper Bruce Rosenblum says of the surprise merger.
The principals behind the new net finally started tackling some of those particulars after Jan. 24’s hastily organized press conference.
But days later, stunned employees and execs were still huddling at the WB’s Burbank ranch headquarters and UPN’s West L.A. digs, trying to figure out where they stand.
Meanwhile, station execs gathered last week in Las Vegas at the NATPE confab were jolted by the possibility of having to rethink their entire programming strategy for next fall.
“There are challenges with all of this,” says Nancy Tellem, president of the CBS Paramount Network TV Entertainment Group. “Anytime you make a change like this, there’s both good and bad.”
A few things were immediately clear. Fox must figure out how to program and rebrand its major-market UPN affils. The WB Entertainment president David Janollari, who lost his job in the process, must contemplate his next move. And producers whose WB and UPN shows were on the bubble ought to start securing new work for next season.
Rosenblum says the CW team will act fast to avoid leaving too many unresolved issues in the weeks to come. Here are some of the critical questions facing Rosenblum and fellow CW board members Tellem, Leslie Moonves and Barry Meyer:
Which stations outside the already announced Tribune- and CBS-owned outlets will score CW affiliations?
CBS and Warner Bros. will launch a bidding process for affiliation contracts over the next few months, looking not only at existing WB and UPN stations in certain markets but also other options.
Rosenblum says he won’t rule out signing a deal to air on an existing major network affil’s digital channel — as long as the channel’s got major cable distribution and the money is right.
“It depends how competitive and aggressive that big, booming station in a market wants to be,” he says.
CW distribution execs will be aggressively looking for reverse compensation, i.e., deals in which stations pay for the right to carry network shows. In some cases, both WB and UPN stations in a city may wind up in a pricey bidding war to grab the CW affiliation.
The CW partners also will look at stations with the strongest signals, the bigger ratings and the better promotions. Rosenblum says he hopes to iron out the net’s distribution relatively soon, giving non-CW stations time to prep for independence.
“While we recognize this new network created a significant amount of uncertainty in the local market business, this is a great opportunity for the CW to build a strong, vibrant distribution system,” Rosenblum says.
How will the lame duck networks operate, knowing their days are numbered?
For now, WB and UPN programming execs continue to work on their separate fall development. But incoming CW entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff will now oversee both weblets’ slates — and cherry-pick the best of both to pilot for the fall.
That means Ostroff needs to study the WB’s drama and comedy scripts — and shuttle between the Frog and UPN offices.
“There’s certainly going to be some focus in keeping these networks going while simultaneously launching the new one,” Ostroff says. “There will be a natural evolution to start thinking about the new network, what the schedule will look like, what the identity will be.”
Who will be asked to join the CW come September?
“I anticipate that Nancy, myself, (CW chief operating officer) John Maatta and Dawn Ostroff will identify the balance of the senior management team over the next couple of weeks,” Rosenblum says.
In order to avoid a mass exodus of employees who don’t make the cut, the WB and UPN will offer severance and bonus packages to motivate staffers to help keep the lights on until the end.
Which WB and UPN shows will make the leap to the CW?
Speculation has been rampant surrounding which shows will make the transition to the CW.
It’s safe to say “Smallville,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Gilmore Girls,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “Veronica Mars” and “Supernatural” will make the cut, while “Related,” “Twins,” “South Beach” and “Love, Inc.” won’t. Insiders say they don’t expect to see any of the shows dumped by WB and UPN to find a home elsewhere.
Also making the transition: the Saturday morning Kids’ WB block, which will maintain its brand (one last bridge to the past); the Sunday 5 to 7 p.m. “Easy View” block; and the Frog’s weekday afternoon block of off-net syndie fare.
What will Fox do with its suddenly UPN-free stations in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles?
Fox remains mum, but it’s clear execs are ready to move on: The net has already started scrubbing most mentions of “UPN.” Come fall, Fox could air syndicated fare from sib Twentieth TV in primetime. But long term, industry observers believe the company will launch some sort of programming service.
What that pseudo-network might be is anyone’s guess: News programming? More syndie fare? Repurposed Fox network and cable shows?
“They have a real ability to roll out a new national brand,” says one exec. “(Fox stations chief) Roger Ailes and Fox have a track record of building successful networks. The question is, what’s the idea?”
News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher says the company is “certainly not concerned.”
“This gives us an opportunity to revamp primetime on those stations,” he says.
UBS analyst Aryeh Bourkoff estimates that News Corp.’s nine UPN affiliates account for 20% of the conglom’s $1 billion annual broadcast TV revenues (or 5% of all of News Corp.’s revenue).
Four Fox UPN affiliates –in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Baltimore and Orlando — could conceivably bid for a CW affiliation, but with the level of acrimony that has developed between the two, it seems unlikely.
How will small-market outlets that don’t wind up with the CW survive?
The netlets’ primetime fare accounted for anywhere between 15% and 20% of an average affiliate’s ad revenues.
Larger outlets heading toward independence can probably find a way to make up for those losses — particularly now, because UPN and WB had already seen their ratings decline dramatically.
But smaller stations are in for a rough ride. Many of those outlets were launched specifically to affiliate with one of the weblets. Without UPN or the WB, they may no longer have a reason to exist
Expect to see several stations across the country put themselves up for sale in the coming months (and perhaps converting to Spanish, home shopping or religious programming). Others may try to make a go of it as independents, airing movies or syndie fare in prime.
Where will the new network be located?
The CW’s principals quickly decided that it wouldn’t be fair to park the new network at either the WB or UPN’s old digs. As a result, Rosenblum says the partners are already scouting out real estate to build offices.
The net will likely be located at a halfway point between CBS’ Fairfax headquarters and Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot — making Hollywood a possible choice. Unfortunately, one logical spot — Columbia Square, which is being vacated by KCBS and KCAL — has already been sold.
“We’re going to take office space somewhere in a convenient location,” Rosenblum says. “We’ll lease a space and build out.”
How will the two network cultures merge?
It’s easy to imagine former WB execs and UPN staffers sitting on opposite sides of the CW lunch room. But the CW partners say they’re counting on employees to check their old competitive biases at the door.
“We’re going to form som
ething new,” Meyer says. “We didn’t consider which brand was strong and which wasn’t. The people working for it will be working to make a successful, brand-new network.”
(Michael Learmonth contributed to this report.)