By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
With 10 years under its belt, The WB is healthy and looking to the future-a noteworthy achievement for a network that many doubted would ever get off the ground, much less survive beyond its initial season.
Seldom will one find WB programs listed among television’s most watched, but attracting a broad audience is hardly the idea. WB programmers maintain a laserlike focus on a desirable core of young adults and families, and among that target audience, The WB is doing just fine.
“As an alternative to the other networks, that is quite important,” said Garth Ancier, chairman of The WB.
The WB’s focus on younger demos has begun to attract the attention of media buyers and their clients. The network took in an estimated $675 million during last summer’s upfront ad sales sprint. After starting with a handful of core advertisers in its first season, The WB now does business with close to 200, said Bill Morningstar, executive VP of media sales. The expanding roster includes growth in some significant categories-such as automotive, financial services and insurance-not generally associated with such a young audience. Marketers, Mr. Morningstar said, are catching on.
“In this next generation that’s coming up, you’ve got 80 million babies of the baby boomers. If you can connect with those people early, you can have a customer for life,” he said.
Programs such as “7th Heaven,” now in its ninth season, strongly appeal to a relatively small but significant audience.
“It’s a nice, quiet little family show that people latched on to at a time when there was very little else like it to watch,” said creator Brenda Hampton. Ms. Hampton said the thought of spawning one of the longest-running family dramas in television history was hardly at the top of her mind when she first broached the concept a decade ago.
“I went in to pitch the show only so I could meet [co-executive producer] Aaron Spelling. I mean, I was a comedy writer,” said Ms. Hampton, who had previously worked on “Mad About You,” “Blossom” and “The John Larroquette Show.”
Ms. Hampton credited a nurturing environment at The WB for allowing a slow-starting show to develop into a signature series.
“The network believed in us and invested in us and kept us on,” she said. “They have let us cover a lot of social issues over the years, from the burning of black churches to the Holocaust to gangs and divorce.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator and executive producer of “Gilmore Girls,” said she appreciates what she called The WB’s “maverick attitude” and patience with creative works in progress.
“They have always had a reputation of letting people go and play and waiting to see what happens. I got a lot of creative freedom from The WB that I don’t think I could have gotten from another network,” she said.
Young Are Getting Old
Several of The WB’s more successful shows are growing a bit long in the tooth. “7th Heaven” is closing in on its 10th season. “Charmed” is in its seventh season, while “Gilmore Girls” is in its fifth.
The network has also scored with several newer shows. “Smallville” has been a modest hit since it debuted in 2001, and “Everwood,” which brought acclaimed actor Treat Williams back to series television in 2002, has attracted viewers in a broader age demographic than has much of The WB’s other fare. “One Tree Hill” first connected with audiences in 2003, as did “Steve Harvey’s Big Time,” a rare successful variety show.
Although those shows and some of the 2004 debuts, such as the drama “Summerland” from Mr. Spelling, continue to perform well for the network, entertainment chief David Janollari said he recognizes the need for new blood. He said he expects to launch a number of new shows over the next couple of seasons.
Mr. Janollari is working with an impressive cadre of creators, including David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who created “Will & Grace” and “Good Morning, Miami”; Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Spin City”); Bill Martin and Mike Schiff (“Grounded for Life”); and Bruce Helford (“Wanda at Large,” “The Drew Carey Show”).
“We have some of the great innovators of television working in development for us right now, and I’m pretty excited to read what they have come up with and to put some of these shows into production,” Mr. Janollari said.
The WB faces other challenges, and financial viability ranks at the very top. Upfront sales, although strong, were down slightly from 2003, and the environment for the coming year remains unclear.
“The network business is tough right now,” Mr. Morningstar said. “Becoming a profitable network is probably our biggest challenge.”
The WB is close to break-even, said Dennis FitzSimons, president and CEO of Tribune Co., which owns 23 percent of the network. He said he remains a staunch supporter of an asset that provides both strategic shelf space for Warner Bros. product and a solid programming base for Tribune’s television stations, most of which are WB affiliates.
“We see it continuing to have a bright future, especially as the less mature part of the distribution system becomes stronger and there is greater awareness in the smaller markets,” he said.
A couple of recent additions to The WB lineup are gaining traction, albeit slowly. “Blue Collar TV,” a sketch comedy featuring comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, drew an average of 3.5 million weekly viewers through year’s end. Christine Lahti, who stars in the first-season show “Jack & Bobby,” garnered The WB’s sole Golden Globe nomination, while the series was ranked No. 11 on a list of top shows in a recent TelevisionWeek poll of the nation’s TV critics.
If nothing else, Mr. Ancier said, people are talking and that’s a good start. “We are working to create the next generation of buzz-worthy shows,” he said.