Did Cable Topple UPN and The WB?

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Did MTV videos kill the broadcast stars?

That’s how some cable insiders are looking at last week’s announcement of the WB-UPN merger, wondering whether ad-supported cable had a little to do with the demise of the networks.

“Cable is the land of brand and targeted networks and remarkable consumer loyalty,” said Tim Brooks, head of research for Lifetime. “So when UPN and The WB tried to differentiate themselves from the Big 4 by targeting a youthful market, they ran right into the buzz saw of MTV and other youthful networks.”

Either way-whether or not cable contributed to the netlets’ decision to merge-the cable sector may have numerous opportunities to capitalize on the broadcasters’ merger, insiders said.

Sean Cunningham, president and CEO of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, said cable must have been a factor and expects the power of the sector to only continue growing following the merger.

“The physics only goes one way in terms of audiences,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If you look at the last 15 quarters, there’s only one pattern among younger demographics, among African American demographics-audiences are trending away from broadcast and to cable.”

Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer for Turner Broadcasting System, faulted UPN and The WB for their own fates.

“I don’t think cable was particularly a problem,” he said. “For its first eight years UPN was unable to develop a single show that had any impact-the network had no brand, no image, and had no target audience and had management changes. The WB was successful despite MTV, but part of their problem was replacing shows that were aging.” That said, Mr. Wakshlag argued that having one less broadcaster is sure to benefit the cable space, because it eases the intense competition for viewers.

“Even when UPN had a very weak night, it was still better than nothing,” he said. “No one can convince me that this new network will deliver a bigger number on average than the sum of the two.”

In addition, shows that don’t make The CW’s schedule, either from the development pipelines or from the current established network lineup, might find homes on cable.

“Obviously cable is not going to take the dregs, but there could be something in between the dregs and what The CW takes that might work,” Lifetime’s Mr. Brooks said.

Also, though Viacom executives have stated The CW will remain committed to diverse programming, some are skeptical that one youth-targeted network will have quite the same dedication to African American programming as did UPN-which might create opportunities for niche cable networks.

“If The CW means a shrinking of the number of African American sitcoms on air, that’s good for us in the short term because we won’t have that competition during the week,” said Jeffrey Meier, programming consultant for TV One. “But in the long term we wonder where the African American sitcom market will be.”

Cynthia Perkins-Roberts, VP of diversity sales and marketing for CAB predicted that the folding of UPN is “a win for cable.”

“Any way you look at it, the merger is a win for cable since cable is consistently focused on African American viewers,” she said. “Not only TV One, BET and Black Family Channel, but an increasing number of mainstream channels, as well.”

A potential downside for cable is that having one less broadcaster means potentially fewer successful shows that might find an off-network afterlife on cable. ABC Family, for instance, has picked up four former dramas from The WB over the years.

The WB: November 2005 Prime-Time Sweeps Ratings

UPN: November 2005 Prime-Time Sweeps Ratings