Young Networks are Gender-Based

This is from the San Jose Mercury News. This is a slightly different take of the previous article about UPN vs. WB.

Young Networks are Gender-Based
Weblet programmers content with unisex niches

January 24, 2000
by Charlie McCollum,
Mercury News Television Writer

FOR THE WB network, the future may come down to the length of Felicity’s hair. For UPN, it may be how much testosterone one network can take before it overdoses.
The two networks (usually called weblets because they don’t offer programming every night or after 10 p.m.) both made their debuts in January 1995 without a particularly clear idea of how to differentiate themselves from the established broadcast networks. The WB (Channel 20) found its footing first with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “7th Heaven” in the 1996-97 season, establishing its position as the place for advertisers to reach a young, largely female audience. UPN (Channel 44) struggled until this season when it found its defining show — for better or for worse — with “WWF Smackdown!” which sent its ratings with young male audiences soaring.

The UPN success in the fall was enough to actually pull it into a tie with the WB, which saw its overall ratings drop sharply after it severed its relationship with Chicago’s WGN, a national cable giant that broadcast the network in more than 62 million households nationwide. The WB made the move because WGN duplicated programming of its affiliates, but the decision was costly in the short run: 10 million households that WGN reached but WB stations do not.

Still, the WB and UPN are now delivering the very niche audiences greatly coveted by advertisers: women 18 to 39 for the former and men 18 to 39 for the latter.

At times during recent sessions with reporters, WB executives seem to be suggesting that the key to success was Felicity’s hair. For those coming late to Sunday night’s “Felicity,” the lead character — played by Keri Russell — cut her hair before the start of the new season, a decision that led to a flood of “overwhelmingly negative” e-mail, says Susanne Daniels, the WB’s president of entertainment.

“Nobody is cutting their hair again our network . . . ” Daniels says. “(But) do I think it affected the show on some level? Yeah, I do, however superficial that seems.” But “Felicity” is just one of the shows on WB that is not doing as well as expected, drawing weak ratings on Sunday night even by WB standards. “Dawson’s Creek,” once the network’s biggest success story, has dropped this season since the departure of creator Kevin Williamson, who wrote many of the scripts. The new “Angel” is doing fine behind “Buffy” on Tuesdays but “Roswell” — one of the best new shows of the season — is struggling behind “Dawson’s Creek” on Wednesdays and the satirical “Popular” hasn’t found an audience in a very tough Thursday night spot.

Network executives clearly fear that these angst-ridden teen dramas may be losing their hold on their core audience.

“I think we have widened our base a bit and I think that was sort of a conscious effort on our part,” says Daniels. Having been labeled as the teen drama network for its success with “Buffy” and “Dawson’s Creek,” she adds, “we sort of said to ourselves, “What do you think the next label is going to be? Let’s open it up and let’s look at a lot of different kinds of shows for this network . . .”

What the network is trying out in the coming months include an effort to establish a hit teen sitcom in the new “Brutally Normal” (which makes its debut tonight at 9) and a retooled “Zoe,” which is back in a 30-minute format on Mondays. It also has a new drama for March that is about a group of post-college young adults: “DC,” an intriguing show from Dick Wolf, creator of “Law & Order.” (There’s also one summer-time drama, “Young Americans,” that is more in the WB teen tradition.)

But in the long run, the network may be headed toward shows that it hopes will appeal to its core audience while still broadening its ratings. For example, the WB has won what Daniels describes as “the bruising sweepstakes” to sign Alexa Junge, executive producer and long-time writer with “Friends,” for a new comedy. And the network will get first crack at the next new series (probably not until 2001) from John Wells, producer of a string of successful adult dramas including “ER.” While the WB is going in the direction of making subtle shifts in its image, UPN is just building on its testosterone-driven success of the past season. “If it has high testosterone, we will air it,” says UPN president Dean Valentine, only half-joking.

In fact, says UPN’s president of entertainment Tom Nunan, the network is trying to create shows that “will cement our relationship with the young male demographic.” It seems to be picking up all the “reality-based” programming that Fox has said it will avoid including upcoming “Monster Trux 2000,” monster trucks with a plot line, and a new series called “I Dare You!” which features stuntmen doing their things with Evel Knievel providing color commentary.

And while it will air a new dramatic series from “Homicide” and “Oz” creator Tom Fontana — a potentially good show called “The Beat” which looks wildly out of place in the UPN universe — its other upcoming dramas sound as if they were created for a “Saturday Night Live” skit. One is called “Hip Hop Bounty Hunters,” the title of which pretty much tells you what the show is about, and another is called “I Spike.” The latter focuses on the lives of undercover women police officers whose cover happens to be as professional beach volleyball players.

To say UPN executives are unapologetic about where they are taking the networks would be putting it mildly.

“I think the shows themselves, if you watch them, are highly entertaining,” says Nunan. “And I think . . . this is what (young males) like.”