NATPE Conventioneers Speculate on Future of UPN, WB Stations

Jan 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The announcement by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Television that they are dumping UPN and The WB for new joint venture The CW left attendees at the first full day of the National Association of Television Program Executives annual convention wondering which stations will become part of the new network and which will become independent.

Bill Lamb, president and general manager of Independence Television Co. in Louisville, Ky., which owns both the Fox and the UPN stations in the market, called his UPN affiliate representative as soon as he heard the news Tuesday morning, but said his rep had no additional information, as the only word he had gotten on the deal had come from news reports on CNN.

“Everyone is speculating,” Mr. Lamb said. “No one knows anything. Somebody in every market is going to be a winner, and somebody is going to be a loser.”

That speculation means station executives are going to have to hedge their bets on buying content, said Chris Mossman, VP of sales and marketing for Gray Television’s UPN affiliate WCTV-TV in Tallahassee, Fla. If his station becomes the CW station in his market, he will need to buy less syndicated fare than he does now, since The CW will run 13 hours in prime time as opposed to UPN’s 11 hours. But if another station in his market goes with The CW, he will have to fill 11 hours of former UPN prime time with other programming starting in the fall.

“The people I’m meeting today and tomorrow and Thursday didn’t know this was coming up, so obviously there will be a lot of contingencies,” Mr. Mossman said from the floor of the convention.

Not all stations that lose network affiliation are necessarily losers, said Matthew Gray, station manager for UPN affiliate WBQC-TV in Cincinnati.

If his station becomes independent, “That just means that some of the programs out there that we have an optional second run on, we may be more inclined to move that to prime Monday to Fridays,” he said.

One of the rumors hitting the floor Tuesday was that syndicators with off-network programming available for fall 2007 might move up their schedules and make content available this fall, with Debmar-Mercury’s “The Dead Zone” being touted as a prime candidate.

That was news to executives with Debmar-Mercury, especially to the company’s Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, who said that “Dead Zone” was still being sold for 2007.

In terms of syndication, the deal is “ironically really minor,” Mr. Marcus said, noting that the big programming winners are likely to be weekly hours, movie packages and syndication strips that can perform in prime time, and that “some markets could do better” when stations transition to independent status in terms of increasing ad revenues.

“There is one less network to buy,” he said, “but locally there is more inventory.”

As word spread of the announcement, which was made in New York, copies of the CBS Corp./Warner Bros. joint press statement began floating around the convention, with some attendees noting that there was no mention of the Fox-owned UPN stations in the release, raising questions about what those stations might run in the fall and leading others to wonder whether Fox might be interested in developing a sixth network. Fox and Twentieth Television executives at NATPE would not comment on The CW.

The release also raised speculation about which UPN and The WB shows might make it onto The CW’s lineup. The mention of “Everybody Hates Chris” in the release does not necessarily mean the network wants the comedy for its inaugural season, said David Stapf, president of CBS Paramount Network Television.

“I didn’t read it as an official pickup,” Mr. Stapf said at the CBS Corp. booth. “I read it as positioning the network with tent poles that are actually tent poles.”

Despite having one less buyer to sell to in the network marketplace, creating The CW has upsides for studios, he said.

“You can argue there’s one less network,” Mr. Stapf said, “but the flip side of that is maybe you have a stronger network with a strong distribution system.”

For now, one of the winners may be the NATPE convention itself, with President and CEO Rick Feldman noting that any development that creates more interest in first-run programming “is a good thing.”

“I love that it happened today,” Mr. Feldman added.