By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
When the networks un-veiled their upcoming fall schedules for advertisers and the media last spring, Madison Avenue took closer notice of UPN than ever before, buying $350 million in upfront inventory.
While that figure is still far behind The WB’s $675 million in upfront sales, it does signal that such new series as “Veronica Mars” and “Kevin Hill,” as well as returning reality hit “America’s Next Top Model,” have ushered in a new age for UPN and represent a programming slate that’s more distinctive and noteworthy.
“My perception is they’ve had a significant turnaround,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “Everything introduced this season may not work, but UPN is laying the foundation for critical growth and establishing themselves over the five nights they program.”
Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment for UPN, was clearly buoyed by the network’s enhanced profile. “We were very lucky this season, because ‘Kevin Hill’ and ‘Veronica Mars’ brought a lot of attention to the network,” she said. “People looked at those shows and compared them to [ABC’s] ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost’ and said, ‘You know, those are the four best new shows of the season.'”
UPN’s midseason shows reflect the urban appeal built up over its first decade, with an eye toward younger women. New shows will include “The Bad Girl’s Guide” with Jenny McCarthy; a spinoff of its current series “One on One” called “Cuts”; and a reality show that seeks to find the next big hip-hop success, “The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott.”
Already performing well is “Girlfriends,” which is third for the net behind “America’s Next Top Model” and “WWE SmackDown!” among adults 18 to 49.
“They’ve now got a good flow from Mondays to Tuesdays with ‘All of Us’ and ‘Eve,’ two comedies playing to a similar audience, opening that night,” Mr. Carroll said.
“Veronica Mars” has boosted young female viewing on Tuesday nights. “Kevin Hill,” which stars Taye Diggs, an actor with feature film credentials (“How Stella Got Her Groove Back”), has improved the network’s Wednesday night performance. And “World Wrestling Entertainment” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” perform well for the network on Thursdays and Fridays, respectively.
Rob Thomas, who executive produces “Veronica Mars,” said UPN has become a haven for creative talent. “I went in to the network for a general meeting with Maggie Murphy [senior VP for drama development],” he said. “Any writer or producer will tell you that a general meeting is a lot of bullshit-you never sell there.”
“But they were surprisingly very honest and specific,” he said. “They said they wanted to start skewing young and female. I told them I had written a drama pilot on spec a few years ago about a female teenage private eye. They said send it over. It got to them on a Friday and on Monday they bought it. Talk about being serious-that never happens in television.”
Mr. Thomas said UPN’s approach has been supportive, even as the show was still finding its legs after the first few episodes. He said he was thankful he wasn’t forced to try to find a quick fix.
“There was no talk of adding any other characters in an attempt to lure another audience, which often happens-no desperate moves,” he said. “They said, ‘You are doing the show we want. Don’t change it. It’s our job to bring people to the show.’ I firmly believe that if we were doing this show for any other network it wouldn’t be on right now.”
Alex Ben Block contributed to this report.