Thoughts on WB ratings, the new season, “teen” TV

From the “San Francisco Examiner”:

By a hair, WB gets clipped

Tim Goodman
EXAMINER TV CRITIC Tuesday, January 18, 2000

PASADENA — There’s no truth to the rumor that when “Felicity” cut her hair, The WB’s fortunes went into the toilet.

But, oddly, it was one of many factors that saw the network have its first ratings decrease since it started five years ago.

The WB, a model of how to successfully launch and then brand a network, took its first stumble after being golden for many years — particularly the past two seasons when it debuted a pack of “buzz” shows and watched many of its young stars gain big-screen film success.

Few networks spin numbers more impressively than The WB, which has had a variety of big-growth spurts to tout along the way. But, as it celebrates its fifth anniversary, The WB is down across the board, including a 15-percent drop in adults ages 18-34, a key demographic for advertisers.

Worse, perhaps, is the fact that UPN, its chief rival since they both began the same year, has bounced back with impressive gains and is in a virtual tie with The WB — which frequently had predicted the demise of UPN in the past couple of years.

Neither network talks about rivalry anymore, mostly because they are looking for different audiences. UPN wants the boys. The WB already has the girls. But while getting its act together and targeting males has helped turn around UPN, these days find The WB looking to expand its target audience.

For the first time in 13 years, Jamie Kellner, the man who helped to successfully launch Fox and then started The WB, delivered a state-of-the-network speech at a time when ratings were not in his favor. “Am I happy now?” he asked. “It’s been a difficult year for us.”

The WB suffered from several concurrent trends. First, it failed to create a buzz show when the rest of the broadcast networks were fielding hits left and right in this abnormally good year for television. Although “Roswell,” and to some extent “Angel,” got critical response, and more importantly, ratings, the network’s only other show that reaped those rewards was “Popular,” though none of them is a bona fide hit or the kind of magazine fodder that “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dawson’s Creek” or “Felicity” was in years past.

Then, the network proved incapable of launching a comedy. An animated series, “Mission Hill,” had high hopes to capitalize on the success of animation, but turned out to be one of the genre’s recent big busts.

Perhaps most damaging — though it’s hard to measure — is the backlash against the Planet Teen trend, in which beautiful young things and their myriad woes dominated television. Once The WB proved that Madison Avenue would fork over ungodly sums of money for a network that pales, in total viewers, to The Big Four, the race was on to clone The WB’s successful teen franchise.

Much of what appeared was ludicrously bad. Even one of its own offerings, “Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane,” tanked with the network’s core viewers. “The cast was playing too young. Nobody bought it,” said Susanne Daniels, entertainment president for The WB.

Teen failures abounded across the dial, particularly at Fox and one notorious crash-and-burn at ABC, for which “Dawson’s Creek” creator Kevin Williamson birthed a major bomb in “Wasteland,” a show that aptly summed up the teen climate.

As teens lost their steam, older-skewing shows such as “Once and Again,” “Judging Amy” and “Family Law” reaped ratings, prompting TV Guide, among others, to predict that teens were out. At The WB, which had almost nothing but teens in crises, Daniels saw the problem and pledged that the network would begin to focus “less on young relationship angst.”

That, of course, is what drew people to the network in the first place. When the rest of the networks couldn’t mount a good drama, the most mature and insightful words began coming out of young people’s mouths on The WB. But once the network’s sitcoms failed and the navel-gazing dramas took off, an imbalance was created. “Do we have a little too much drama?” Kellner asked, rhetorically. “We know we do.

“We’re looking for ways to attract a slightly larger audience,” Daniels said. This is a major concession to, well, broadcasting, from a network that believes deeply in the niche. But ratings losses are ratings losses and a new direction is emerging.

Along with a healthy development slate of new comedies, that strategy includes some form of reality programming, a platform the network has eschewed in the past. Also, The WB may not be so girly in the near future.

“I don’t want to cede teenage boys to anybody,” Daniels said. “UPN or any network.” (The WB has a hard time getting males to watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” even though it’s an action show. Daniels conceded that lots of people, not just young males, maybe can’t get past the show’s title.)

These may seem like minor problems, but for niche networks such as The WB, the slightest loss of steam or a cooling of the hipness can have major implications on the bottom line.

More problems started for the network when “Dawson’s Creek” and “Felicity” lost their creative ways at the beginning of the year. All of a sudden, the fact that star Keri Russell cut her long, crazy-curly hair (a distinctive part of her character) hurt the latter show.

“Nobody is cutting their hair again!” Daniels said, only half-jokingly. “No more haircuts. The e-mail alone was so overwhelmingly negative about that haircut.”

It definitely affected the show, she said. “We cut off our distinctiveness,” Kellner said.

When the critics laughed at the level of worry over one haircut (after all, every other network is worried about getting steamrolled by game shows, race issues, aging star series, etc.), Kellner yelled out in mock pain:

“Hey! Our ratings are down, for Christ’s sake. Leave us alone.”

Help may be on the way for next fall, thanks to an intriguing development slate, but as of this moment The WB’s midseason shows are not generating much talk and the network is going to try to relaunch three half-hour comedies that are in no danger of turning from frogs to princes overnight.

But whatever it puts on, you can bet the hair will be perfect.