It’s nervous time for UPN execs

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

First, UPN President and CEO Dean Valentine must decide how to fill the vacancy left when his top entertainment executive, Tom Nunan, leaves some time this summer.
Then Mr. Valentine and his new entertainment chief must develop a hit and a brand the network can call its own.
Those are areas in which Mr. Valentine has been his own worst enemy, say those who cite the shows that got away and became signature hits for other networks. UPN could have had “Malcolm in the Middle,” but Mr. Valentine didn’t like the comedy, which went on to become an instant signature show for Fox. He didn’t want to give “Survivor” a 13-week commitment.
Mr. Valentine concedes he passed on “Malcolm in the Middle,” explaining, “I didn’t think `Malcolm’ could live on UPN. There were no other half-hour shows to pair with it. It didn’t fit with `Moesha’ or `The Parkers’ or `Malcolm and Eddie.”’
But he maintains it was a different story with “Survivor.” “We desperately wanted to make `Survivor,’ but we just didn’t have the resources in the summer budget,” Mr. Valentine said. That situation went beyond me. Neither Tom nor I had anything to do with it.”
Mr. Valentine “has controlled the development,” says one of the TV executives familiar with what Mr. Nunan was not able to effect and why. “I feel sorry for him,” said one source, who described Mr. Nunan as “the face on Dean’s many bad decisions.”
Mr. Nunan himself bristles at that description. “Anyone who could reduce programming decisions to one person doesn’t understand the networks business,” he said.
Mr. Valentine was also baffled by the charge. “Clearly networks are run by groups of people who make decisions. Tom and I are parting amicably as friends,” he said. “When he came here, we had two nights of African-American programming and we turned it into a five-night-a-week network, each night of which offers a compelling night of television for a lot of people. We have come a long way, and I am proud of where we are.”
Many observers are convinced that the eighth season (in fall 2002) is make-or-break for UPN and its management. Mr. Valentine’s contract is said to be up in fall 2002, and Chief Operating Officer Adam Ware’s contract is thought to run through February 2002. The netlet that had cultivated the image of a home for rowdy young men and the lightning-rod antics of “WWF Smackdown!” is about to welcome “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Roswell,” two shows that earned affection from critics and fervent viewers in their runs on The WB.
The $102 million, two-season “Buffy” deal can be read as a signal of Viacom’s faith that UPN can finally move to the next level-“You can’t overestimate the significance [of the deal],” Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin told analysts in April-but pessimists insist that the next level will be record losses of $200 million or more, thanks also to “Buffy,” which will cost $2.3 million per episode this season and $2.35 million next season.
If there is a next season, says a persistent chorus in the Hollywood corridors where Mr. Nunan’s exit came as a surprise only because he is the first to go. That same chorus is mystified by notoriously demanding parent company Viacom’s disinclination to yank on-or force Kerry McCluggage, chairman of the Paramount Television Group, to yank on-the reins at UPN, since the network remains a money pit in a company with patience only for moneymakers.
A source familiar with the thinking at Viacom said there’s been no display of impatience with UPN. In the months leading up to the merger of Viacom and CBS, there had been speculation that Les Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS Television, might assume oversight of UPN. But, said sources, such chatter seems to have died down long ago inside CBS.
But if “they blow this shot, then it’s over,” said one Big 4 network program executive, referring to Mr. Valentine’s UPN management team. “It will be harder to see the economic value in their existence.”
News Corp., which has a multibillion-dollar stake in UPN by way of acquiring the Chris-Craft Industries stations-whose affiliation agreements were quietly extended through the term of the “Buffy” deal-and which has had discussions about an equity position in UPN, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nunan is expected to land on his feet-“he’s incredibly proficient at politicking,” notes one person familiar with Mr. Nunan’s networking. As for who might succeed him at UPN, the short list of candidates taking shape at talent agencies and competing networks is led by Helene Michaels, who was forced out as president of Columbia TriStar Television’s network division last fall.
Other names that surface in the speculation include David Nevins, Fox Entertainment’s executive vice president of programming; Dan McDermott, president of DreamWorks Television; and Stephen McPherson, executive vice president of Touchstone Television.
“At least Viacom has proven that it will spend big bucks for A-tier product like `Buffy,’ so it could enhance UPN’s attractiveness as a place for A- or B-list executives to come work,” said one Hollywood agency packager. “They are working off a position of being able to get an audience on Tuesday nights and building on the strength of `WWF Smackdown,’ which conversely makes UPN a more attractive place for creatives to pitch series product.”
Still, some sources say Mr. Valentine or Viacom brass could still look in-house for candidates, including Kelly Edwards and Patrick Moran, UPN’s senior vice presidents of comedy and drama development, respectively. There is also talk that Mr. Valentine, former head of programming for Walt Disney Television, could assume Mr. Nunan’s programming chores as part of an effort by Viacom to streamline
senior-level payroll.
Contributing: Michael Freeman