Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB & UPN

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    This could go equally in the Media Biz section or here, but it’s a book, so…here.

    Finished this book recently; I actually stumbled across it in Amazon’s “if you read this, you’ll also like this” display. The book was written shortly after UPN and the WB had a child and named it the CW, so it’s nearly a decade behind the CW’s current successes, but the real meat of it is a lot of insider stories from the gestation, formation and operation of the two “fifth networks” that exchanged fire at each other through the late ’90s.

    The book is written by a former WB exec and a Daily Variety writer (who is probably the source of most of the UPN side of the story), so they know of what they speak. There’s really more “inside baseball” from the WB side of the story – inside board meetings, private conversations, etc. – and less information on the UPN end of things.

    Why did I read this? I wanted to find out what the hell happened to UPN’s 1998-99 season, which seemed like it was shaping up nicely, and which I was in the thick of as the promo manager at the Green Bay UPN station at the time. I’ve actually met some of the “characters” in this book – former UPN president Dean Valentine, and UPN entertainment chief Tom Nunan – and I wanted to know more about them. Especially as Valentine offered me a job at the network in L.A. when he realized I was the guy who’d turned our station into a better sci-fi channel than the Sci-Fi Channel was at the time. (I turned down the offer; I am not Randy Newman, I do not love L.A., and I was getting engaged at the time. Really makes you wonder what the alt-timeline Earl went on to do with his life, doesn’t it?)

    As it turns out, Valentine was already running into resistance to his attempts to trade in UPN’s success with urban, African-American audiences for something more…”midwestern” …which he completely missed with shows that assumed middle America would be interested in following sitcoms about NYC traffic cops. And yet there were shows that should have been slam dunks, like Legacy (show about a restoration-era family and their horse breeding farm). Seven Days, the time travel show, stuck around; Mercy Point (a.k.a. “ER in spaaaaaace!”) was mercifully pointed toward the exit. He was already grasping at straws. So…offering a job to a promo manager an outside-the-top-50-markets affiliate seemed…well, kind of unorthodox.

    It was disheartening to find out how many of the successes were almost accidental things that met with significant opposition at their respective networks, namely Buffy and Smallville. The story of the Smallville pitch session is like a Hollywood fairy tale; the story of the WB execs in-fighting among themselves to get the show on the schedule isn’t.

    There is a lot of stuff I hadn’t heard about the minority partners in each network: Chris-Craft Television (UPN’s silent partner, who had been burned badly by its stake in a little thing called PTEN, now remembered solely for birthing Babylon 5), and Tribune (which had a stake in the WB). Chris-Craft caused serious problems for UPN throughout its existence; its sole selling point as a partner was the sheer number of mid-to-major-market stations that would instantly become UPN affiliates when the network signed on in 1995.

    Neither network was smart in anticipating the rise of the internet. There were plans at the WB to do something similar to what the CW now does with its shows – free streaming for a certain period of time – but certain top level execs at the WB went out of their way to hobble their own internet arm to keep it from happening. This was before Youtube; they simply didn’t see the era of people watching shows on their computers looming ahead.

    Both networks were stacked with former execs and employees of Fox, and the downfall of both networks was these people refusing to see past the Fox playbook that had worked so well in the late ’80s and early ’90s (which was, at the time, only 5-7 years in the past; we of course now have the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, and so do the authors).

    I remember from my position “in the trenches” being immensely frustrated with how UPN was doing things, from scheduling to promo spots. I, too, had worked at a Fox station, so I knew that network’s playbook too, so it’s baffling to think that both UPN and the WB were stuck between reinventing the wheel, and doing what had been done before.

    There’s a little bit of stuff about the respective Star Trek series on UPN in the book as well, but not an overwhelming amount; Rick Berman’s reluctance to start a new series on the heels of Voyager gets a mention. I think maybe Rick was right, but UPN was going to do a new Trek, either with or without him; maybe they were also right in thinking his time was up.

    Do I now have more context for the industry ups and downs that had a huge impact on my career in the ’90s? Yes I do. And in some cases, it’s more frustrating for knowing how capricious some of the network-level decisions were, whose fallout I had to deal with. 😆 😕

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