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The WB at 10: Start-Up Network Became a Player

Jan 17, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek



When Jamie Kellner, who served as president of Fox Broadcasting at the launch of that network in 1986, decided the time was right to start another broadcast service, his first call was to Barry Meyer, then executive VP at Warner Bros. Mr. Meyer set up a lunch that included then Warner Bros. Chairman Robert Daly.

The Warner Bros. executives saw a new network as a necessary distribution avenue for the studio’s prolific television product. Recent repeal of the so-called fin-syn rules gave broadcast networks the right to own programming, and there was concern that the ability of ABC, CBS and NBC to produce their own shows could hurt the studios. Warner Bros. gave Mr. Kellner the thumbs up to pursue his idea.

Mr. Kellner assembled a management team that drew heavily on his Fox relationships, recruiting former marketing and promotions gurus Lewis Goldstein and Bob Bibb and arranging a lunch meeting with ex-Fox programming chief Garth Ancier at the 1994 National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Miami.

“My initial reaction was, oh, we’re going to do this again?” Mr. Ancier said. “Launching Fox was a huge challenge and such a seminal period for all of us, but I was very excited about the possibility of doing it again.”

Spawning a fourth network in the late 1980s had been difficult enough, but the idea of a fifth-or a sixth, since Paramount was also in the process of putting together what would become UPN-was considered ridiculous by some. Fox had locked up affiliation agreements with dozens of stations and there weren’t many viable independents left. There was also considerably more cable competition.

“I don’t see how it really works, because I don’t think they can roll out enough markets to make the coverage they need. Once you get beyond the top 25 markets, where are the potential affiliates?” Michael Finkelstein, then-CEO of Renaissance Communications Group, said at the time.



The Tribune Connection

In November 1993, more than a year before the network’s launch, Warner Bros. secured a breakthrough distribution deal with Tribune Broadcasting, whose major-market stations gave the fledgling network an immediate leg up. Tribune later anted up $12 million and took a 12.5 percent equity interest in The WB.

“Warner Bros. was our largest supplier of syndicated programming at the time. They had the resources and, we felt, the management stability to bring this venture together, so it was a partnership that made a lot of sense to us,” said Dennis FitzSimons, Tribune chairman and CEO.

The Tribune transaction allowed The WB to launch with WGN-TV in Chicago as an affiliate. WGN at the time was a cable TV superstation, meaning it was rebroadcast in markets all over the United States. That helped The WB reach some smaller markets in which it would not otherwise have been seen.

Mr. Kellner subsequently locked up affiliation agreements with stations owned by Gannett, Gaylord, Meredith and several other groups that would guarantee coverage in slightly over one-half of television households.

To gain distribution in “white areas,” markets in which the network had no broadcast affiliate, WB executives devised a plan known as “the WeB,” a collection of local cable-only outlets. Technological advances pioneered by Warner Bros. parent Time Warner enabled the network to deliver programming and simultaneous local commercials on cable stations in each market.

The distribution through WGN was phased out in favor of what became The WB 100+, a system of TV station and cable interconnections that created unique channels to carry The WB in most of the smaller markets in the United States.

“Cable provided a lot of incremental distribution, about 9 million households, at a very low price and was run by a staff about the size of a normal television station. It’s a real success story,” Mr. Kellner said.



Programming Philosophy

Programming on the new network would target younger viewers, a somewhat novel idea at the time. Advertising buyers were getting antsy about aging demographics at the Big 3 broadcast networks. Moreover, Mr. Ancier said, The WB could not expect to thrive by offering up the same kinds of shows viewers could see elsewhere.

“We knew we could not be ‘Fox 2.’ We had to be different, carve out a different niche,'” he said. Younger viewers, he figured, would be more accepting of the new concept.

The WB would also ease its way onto viewers’ screens, starting with a single night of programming. “That way we could learn [from] our mistakes in the least costly way,” Mr. Ancier said.

WB executives met with several program suppliers, including Witt-Thomas Productions, Carsey-Werner and Columbia TriStar Television. The initial lineup, it was decided, would consist of four half-hour sitcoms.

The beginning wasn’t pretty. The WB launched Jan. 11, 1995. Its opening night lineup of “The Wayans Bros.,” “Unhappily Ever After” and an hour-long premiere of “Muscle” drew lukewarm audience response. (The debut of the fourth show, “The Parent ‘Hood,” was postponed until the following week.) The Tribune stations performed well, averaging a 4 Nielsen rating (percentage of television households) and a 6 share (percentage of sets in use), about the same as affiliates had averaged the previous week. Outside the major markets, the numbers were less than impressive.

Reaching less than 75 percent of television households, The WB scored a 1.9 rating/3 share, lower than the figure the network had promised advertisers. One TV critic wrote that The WB had “croaked onto the scene,” a reference to the network’s animated mascot Michigan J. Frog. Another observed, “We have seen the future and it looks an awful lot like the past.”

The Fox connection was apparent in the first batch of programs. “The Wayans Bros.” featured Shawn and Marlon Wayans, both of whom had appeared on the Fox hit “In Living Color.” “Unhappily Ever After” producer Ron Leavitt had also produced “Married … With Children.” Robert Townsend, co-executive producer of “The Parent ‘Hood,” had starred in the short-lived variety show “Townsend Television” on Fox the previous season.

“There were times when our programming was not going all that well. That made it tough competitively, but we felt it was the right move, and we kept going until we got it right,” Mr. FitzSimons said.



Dramatic Turnaround

The WB’s first attempt at a dramatic series proved to be one of its earliest success stories. Now in its ninth season, “7th Heaven” stands on the threshold of television history. If renewed for a 10th year, which seems likely, the show would surpass “The Waltons” as the longest-running family drama. The program has consistently gained audience throughout its run, in spite of being all but ignored by Hollywood’s spin machine.

“Somebody said that Hollywood loves television like raccoons love shiny things,” said creator Brenda Hampton. “We’re not flashy; it’s a hard show to promote. It’s just a nice, quiet family program that people latched on to at a time when there was very little else like it to watch.”

While “7th Heaven” is The WB’s longest-running program, it was not an instant hit. That distinction goes to the prime-time teen soap opera “Dawson’s Creek,” a show that debuted Jan. 20, 1998, and helped put The WB on the map with the young female viewers it sought to attract. The show ended the 1997-98 season as the network’s top-rated series, beating UPN’s franchise “Star Trek: Voyager” for the year.

The 1997 season also saw the premier of another seminal series, based on a campy horror-comedy film about a teenage girl destined to save the world from the undead.

“[Creator] Joss Whedon came in here telling us how he was going to take this 5-year-old movie called ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and turn it into 22 episodes of a television show,” Mr. Ancier recalled. “He knocked our socks off.”

Set in the picturesque f
ictional town of Sunnydale, Calif., “Buffy” ran for four seasons on The WB before moving to UPN, its final resting place.

That a show like “Buffy” would ever make it on the air is testament to The WB’s propensity to take risks, a philosophy Entertainment President David Janollari described as a willingness to attract creative people and stay out of their way.

“We can help support a vision, shepherd a vision, but at the end of the day, you are buying into a creator and writers and actors who are executing that show on a day-in and day-out basis. Nothing is more detrimental to a show than too much interference,” he said.

The WB snared another A-list creative force when J.J. Abrams developed “Felicity” with the network for the 1998 season. With curly-haired Keri Russell, in the title role, the show immediately clicked with young viewers, especially those in college.

In spite of its occasional quirkiness, The WB has worked to establish itself as a family destination. It latched onto “Gilmore Girls,” the first program developed through the Family Friendly Programming Forum’s script development fund. But “Gilmore,” now in its fifth season, almost didn’t make it beyond its first year: originally it was scheduled on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. opposite NBC’s “Friends.” The show later moved to Tuesdays, where it replaced “Buffy.”

“We survived that first year, and we built a little bit of an audience,” said creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. “We were really fortunate in a way in that time slot, because there were not heavy expectations.”



Paying the Freight

Even with strong partners, The WB might never have gotten far off the ground were it not for a unique financing concept, a sort of reverse compensation arrangement, wherein affiliates paid the network a fee based on the ratings success of the programs. It was a tough sell, Mr. Kellner said, “but it has been absolutely critical to the success of the network. The economics of the network business requires that stations underwrite some of the cost of expensive programming,” he said.

Advertiser support has grown steadily over the years. The WB’s close ties to the Family Friendly Programming Forum, backed by the Association of National Advertisers, has attracted additional sponsors, as has its firm focus on young adults and teens.

“In today’s environment, where the consumer is more elusive than ever before and has more control over what they see and when they see it and in what format, The WB has provided a good platform for attracting a niche audience that is highly sought after by advertisers,” said Bill Koenigsberg, president and CEO of Horizon Media, a major buyer of television advertising.

The WB generated about $60 million in its first upfront selling season, according to industry estimates. By 1998 it was doing five times as much. This past season’s upfront sales reached an estimated $675 million.

“We started out with about eight advertisers. Now we do business with close to 200,” said Bill Morningstar, executive VP of media sales.

With longevity frequently comes change. The WB begins its second decade with some new leadership. President and Chief Operating Officer Jed Petrick, who had been around from the start, resigned last year. Mr. Kellner retired, and Mr. Ancier, who left The WB in 2001 to work at NBC, returned as chairman.

Mr. Kellner’s hand-picked successor, former WB Entertainment President Jordan Levin, stepped up to replace him as the network’s CEO. The move did not last long, however. Mr. Levin left last summer rather than take a reduced role under Mr. Ancier. His exit was followed closely by that of John Litvack, who was in charge of current programming and scheduling.

Mr. Ancier swiftly brought in Mr. Janollari, who had been an independent producer, to take over programming duties. Mr. Morningstar, who has been with the network since its launch, said the new leadership bodes well for The WB’s future.

“I don’t think you can put a limit on where we’re headed,” he said. “We have a very solid programming foundation, quality programming that fits our brand. We are pretty excited about the future.”