By Adam Sandler
Special to TelevisionWeek
Garth Ancier returned to The WB as chairman in 2003 and found the company he helped launch a decade earlier was no longer a promising start-up but had become a maturing network with some growing pains.
His arrival triggered a round of changes in the executive ranks of the network that surprised industry observers and led to the exits of CEO Jordan Levin, President and Chief Operating Officer Jed Petrick and Executive VP John Litvak.
In addition, WB Chairman Jamie Kellner soon retired as planned. Mr. Ancier named industry veteran David Janollari as The WB’s president of entertainment, overseeing all of the network’s prime-time programming.
“It’s different the second time here than it was at the beginning,” Mr. Ancier said. “Back then, I was just doing programming. Now for the first time I am running the shop. I’m also filling some very big shoes of Jamie’s. In the past, we’ve always worked as a team.”
As The WB prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Mr. Ancier and his team will be tested to see whether the network’s practice of relying heavily on signature scripted dramas, augmented with some reality programming and comedies, will continue to appeal to its niche demographic of 12- to 34-year-old viewers, particularly females.
“The industry is far more competitive and the challenges are greater,” Mr. Ancier said. “Consumers have a harder time distinguishing between cable and broadcast programming. And they have more choices bringing content into their homes, such as with DVDs. So viewers must be grabbed. To do that we need shows that are compelling and powerful enough to give them a reason to change channels [to] The WB.”
The ratings for WB staple “Gilmore Girls” and second-season show “One Tree Hill” are up over last year, and comedy series “Reba” and “Blue Collar TV” have gained some viewer traction. Mr. Ancier remains optimistic about “Jack & Bobby,” which has struck a responsive chord among critics despite its struggle to find an audience.
“We are adding characters and focusing on finding the series’ pitch,” he said. In December The WB also debuted “Big Man on Campus,” a reality show, to complement the network’s existing “High School Reunion.”
At the time of Mr. Ancier’s return, following the power consolidation in the wake of several high-level exits, industry observers wondered whether the changes signaled the advent of a different WB, with fewer dramas, more reality shows and a move to recruit viewers beyond its loyal female demographic. The network has tried to broaden its appeal.
But Mr. Ancier said nothing radical is in the works. He did say The WB “can no longer rely on old staples.”
“The goal is to repopulate the network with fresh shows,” he said. “We have some shows that, frankly, are long in the tooth. Some may go on a bit longer as we add characters or new aspects, but others will inev-itably hit the end of their natural cycle and be replaced.”
“I’m excited to see what the next 10 years of this WB thing will bring,” he said. “The goal will always be to create memorable programs. I always want to have the next show that people will be talking about.”
To stay competitive, Mr. Ancier said, The WB “will buy the scripts that are right for us; we will hire writers and we will shoot pilots. When you are in this competitive atmosphere, you need the industry’s best talent, and you need to treat them accordingly.”
Throughout his network career, Mr. Ancier has established himself as creative-friendly. He is one of only two executives in the history of the television industry to head three different network entertainment divisions: NBC, Fox and The WB.
Mr. Ancier, who started his network career as an executive at NBC, had worked twice with Mr. Kellner before joining him at The WB. The duo, along with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch, helped launch the Fox Network. Mr. Ancier then followed Mr. Kellner to The WB when it first launched, serving as president of entertainment. Mr. Ancier then left and served as head of entertainment at NBC. When Mr. Kellner became chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems, he brought in Mr. Ancier as the programming executive responsible for revitalizing CNN, TNT and TBS with new shows and marquee talent. When Mr. Kellner decided to retire, he chose Mr. Ancier as his successor at the head of the network.
“Garth has great instincts,” Mr. Kellner said. “He knows programming, and he surrounds himself with top people who understand where he is going. Plus, I’ve always liked him.”
So has Aaron Spelling, whose Spelling Television is co-producing the hit series “Summerland” for The WB, along with the show’s creator and star, Lori Loughlin.
“Garth is smart, enthusiastic and has a terrific understanding of what makes a show good,” Mr. Spelling said. “He also doesn’t interfere, or act smarter than you. If he makes a suggestion on a script or an actress, and you explain how that may change the overall feel of a story, he is not afraid to admit he didn’t think about that.
“Plus, he doesn’t summon us to his office. He comes here,” Mr. Spelling said with a smile.