From “USA Today”:
Core teen viewership tuning out WB
By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Like high school crushes, some fickle teen WB fans are, like, so over the network.
WB, red-hot last season on the strength of Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Felicity, is in a funk. With an average audience of 3.8 million viewers since fall, the net is down 17% from last season. And in the February sweeps period, WB was down an alarming 24%.
Network executives say the slide was expected, and they blame it on two factors: cable superstation WGN’s decision to drop WB last October, costing the network 11% of its national reach, and WB’s expansion to a sixth night on Fridays, which forced it to add more shows.
But they didn’t expect this rate of decline. The slide accelerated when viewers who had watched WB programs on WGN failed to switch to their local affiliates as expected. “I think we underestimated the effect of viewers’ disruption,” network CEO Jamie Kellner says.
Analysts say WB’s woes go deeper:
# Creative troubles on two of its signature series, Dawson’s and Felicity, which lost a third of their audience last month compared with February 1999. Writers broke up the romantic couplings that were a large part of both shows’ appeal. Felicity also was damaged last fall by its move to Sundays and, not incidentally, by star Keri Russell’s haircut.
# A chronic collapse of mainstream sitcoms that would balance a schedule heavily dependent on teen-oriented dramas.
# A perceived sameness of coming-of-age dramas, chock full of now-familiar themes, that tend to fare poorly in reruns. That’s a particular problem for WB, which airs fewer specials and thus more repeats than any other broadcast network.
In contrast, UPN – WB’s direct rival that was left for dead last season – has made huge strides in appealing to teen boys and young men with wrestling, and now is ahead of WB in total viewership. Yet advertisers still value WB’s audience more highly.
“On the programming side, we’ve had a mixed season,” Kellner says, with the problems on Dawson’s and Felicity partly offset by the successful launches of the Buffy spinoff Angel and Popular. And the Kids’ WB lineup is now No. 1, thanks to Pok�mon.
Still, Safe Harbor, Mission Hill, Brutally Normal, Zoe and Jack & Jill are either struggling or gone, and the promising teen-alien drama Roswell has proved a major disappointment. Along with Felicity, Roswell will be moved to a new night next month in a midseason reshuffling that’s rare for the network.
WB executives vow to make comedy a major priority next season; they plan more “fun” dramas and fewer “angst-ridden” shows. They’ve ordered pilots from several top producers, including John Wells (ER) and Bruce Helford (The Drew Carey Show), and are developing new shows around a legal clinic, rock bands and dysfunctional families.
Early hit Dawson’s ushered in a wave of dramas aimed at teen girls in 1998. Although a narrow and notoriously fickle group – teens tend to watch far less television than older viewers – they’re also among the fastest-growing, thanks to the so-called baby-boom echo.
Yet “as teen shows proliferate, there are only so many they will consistently watch,” says TN Media analyst Steve Sternberg. “It’s no longer the case that anything they put on will succeed.”
Like its rivals, says 20th Century Fox Television president Gary Newman, “they’re going through the natural cycles networks find themselves in as they’re maturing.”