10 Years of UPN: Boldly Going in New Directions

Jan 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

It was a fitful first decade for UPN, but producers and other industry observers say the network, which celebrated its 10th anniversary Jan. 16, has sharpened its focus and forged a recognizable identity that will serve it well for years to come.

UPN’s ratings among African Americans and in urban areas have always been respectable. Now the network has begun to lure important new demographics, including the sought-after women 18 to 34. Its schedule, once a hodgepodge of shows attracting young men (the “Star Trek” franchise series, “WWE SmackDown!”) and urban comedies appealing to very young women, especially African Americans (“Moesha,” “The Parkers,” “Girlfriends”), has taken a new direction, led by advertiser-friendly upstart hits “Kevin Hill” and “Veronica Mars,” which skew toward young women.

Growth has been strong enough for Leslie Moonves, Viacom’s co-president and co-chief operating officer, whose domain includes UPN, to declare at a press conference during the Television Critics Association press tour last summer that the network could be in profit by sometime this year. Mr. Moonves’ involvement with UPN since late 2001 is cited by some as the reason for the upswing.

“The one thing we feel all our shows have in common is quality,” said Dawn Ostroff, UPN president of entertainment. “I think that whether you look at ‘America’s Next Top Model’ or whether you look at ‘Veronica Mars’ or you look at ‘Kevin Hill’ or you look at the comedies, I mean, they’re all quality shows and that’s what’s most important to us.”

“It’s a network that’s beginning to come together,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “For a long time they were identified with ‘Star Trek.’ That was their most recognizable property. They are now showing a better balance of programming.”

Changes in the broadcast climate over the past two decades made the creation of UPN possible. In the 1980s, ad hoc networks and such companies as Metromedia and MGM Television showed that first-run series such as “Too Close for Comfort” (after its ABC run) and “Fame” could compete against the existing networks and pay cable.

The demise of the financial interest rules in 1993 opened the door for networks to own an unlimited amount of their own programming. With suppliers seeking new distribution pipelines, some sought to create new networks, as Fox had done in 1987.

Warner Bros. and Tribune Entertainment were the next to jump, announcing plans for a fifth broadcasting network in late 1993.

United Television/Chris-Craft Industries-the station group-and Paramount Television announced UPN the next year. To launch their effort, they enlisted Lucie Salhany, who as the former chair of Fox had been the first woman to head a broadcast network.

“Jamie Kellner had been working on The WB for a year and a half,” Ms. Salhany said. “I didn’t start [at UPN] until October 1994, and we were going [on the air] in January. I had no offices, no staff and no real programming, except we knew we would have ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ and Paramount had some other shows. We were going to start out going for young men 18 to 34 because that’s the kind of programming we had.”

There were other corporate issues. Viacom bought Paramount after the launch was announced, and Paramount was to supply programming. But Ms. Salhany reported to United Television President Evan Thompson and Herbert Siegel, chairman of Chris-Craft. It would be several years before Viacom bought out Chris-Craft and took control.

Growing Pains

The new UPN had an auspicious debut, winning its first night on the airwaves with the premiere of “Voyager.” After that first night the growing pains began.

“We finally started to find ourselves with such shows as ‘Nowhere Man’ with Bruce Greenwood [which debuted in August 1995] and in 1996 with ‘Malcolm & Eddie,’ which starred Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Eddie Griffin,” Ms. Salhany said. “When we put ‘Malcolm’ on, immediately it was said we were going for an African American audience. Nonsense. We were going for good shows. If we attracted an urban audience, it was because that’s where our affiliates were.”

“People didn’t know exactly what UPN was about then,” said Sara V. Finney, who co-created one of the first hits for the network, “Moesha,” a series starring singing sensation Brandy. The show began as a dropped CBS pilot and was resurrected by Ms. Salhany in 1996.

“They tried different things,” said Ms. Finney, who went on to also run “The Parkers” for UPN. “For us-the writers and producers-it was a good place, a supportive environment.”

But in terms of identity, UPN was not yet there. The network seemed to be constantly reinventing itself. The logo changed. Programmers bought “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 2001 after it was dropped by The WB in a deal worth $102 million over two years. The move may have helped ratings but didn’t aid the network’s effort to establish a unique focus.

Many observers believe the turnaround started in late 2001, when parent company Viacom handed Mr. Moonves the reins. In early 2002, Mr. Moonves, who also runs Viacom-owned CBS, brought in Ms. Ostroff to head UPN.

“Giving Moonves control and attaching UPN to CBS really began reinvigorating things,” Mr. Carroll said. “Moonves is not only a great executive with great instincts, it gave UPN more of a cachet to attract name talent. I don’t think you would have Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith producing ‘All of Us’ for UPN were it not for the CBS connection.”

It goes further. One of UPN’s shows with the most buzz going into the 2004-05 season was “Veronica Mars,” which is executive produced by its creator Rob Thomas along with Joel Silver, the feature film producer known for the “Matrix,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” films.

“UPN wants to be in business with Joel,” said Mr. Thomas. “I think they want to make him their Jerry Bruckheimer [the feature producer now associated with the ‘CSI’ franchise for CBS].”

“I think you can say that with the new shows, UPN is breaking out,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of research for TVTracker.com, the small-screen analysts. “They’re trying to build their advertising niche. They’re expanding their definition by becoming more female-oriented, and with shows such as ‘America’s Next Top Model’ you have what you might call a hit, or at least a show that gets them real attention. I think they are heading to an ongoing challenge with Fox and The WB.”

Ms. Ostroff said her focus remains on maintaining and improving the level of content. “I think we want to do things that are really good quality and be able to attract the kind of talent that we’ve been able to attract-the Taye Diggs [‘Kevin Hill’] and Kristen Bells [‘Veronica Mars’],” she said.

“The material is what really brought them to the network.”

Alex Ben Block contributed to this report.