From The Dallas Morning News:
UPN flattens a formulaic WB with wrestling
Thursday, March 2, 2000
By ED BARK
Special from The Dallas Morning News
A funny thing happened on the way to the WB’s coronation as the hottest, coolest, trendiest, most buzz-alicious TV network in the universe.
UPN blew past it.
In what seemed unfathomable just six months ago, the much-derided “Utterly Pointless Network” now has more viewers on a weekly basis than WB. You could have gotten better odds last summer on the St. Louis Rams winning the Super Bowl. It’s been a weird year.
Through the first 21 weeks of the season, UPN’s prime-time programming is drawing an average of 3.93 million viewers, while WB has slipped to 3.86 million viewers. A year ago, WB had 4.6 million viewers and UPN 2.7 million.
WB also has fallen behind UPN in the battle for advertiser-craved 18- to 49-year-olds. Its audience is still younger than UPN’s, which WB keeps pointing out. But if its narrow focus persists, WB someday might be touting itself as No. 1 among 12- to 34-year-olds whose first names are either Tawny or Lance.
UPN’s detractors, of which yours truly is a charter member, will note that it has rebounded on the strength of one gnarly show — Thursday night’s two-hour “WWF Smackdown!” In the latest ratings week, the Vince McMahon-orchestrated grapple opera drew 8.4 million viewers to rank 77th among 116 prime-time shows.
That’s hardly a body slam or even a finger poke. But no WB show came close to the “Smackdown!” numbers. And UPN’s men in tights also drew more viewers than series such as CBS’ “Chicago Hope,” NBC’s “Profiler,” or Fox’s “Beverly Hills 90210.”
A few other things are happening, too. WB’s rigid reliance on teen and twentysomething shows is beginning to resemble an ugly zit outbreak on prom night. Despite massive magazine-cover exposure and overall rapt media attention, series such as “Dawson’s Creek,” “Felicity,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are losing viewers. In the Feb. 14-20 Nielsen ratings, all three critics’ darlings were out-drawn by UPN’s broad sitcom “The Parkers,” starring Countess Vaughn and Mo’Nique.
“Felicity” star Keri Russell’s heavily publicized hair transformations have done nothing to revive the second-year show, which sank to 100th place and had only 3.7 million viewers. Even UPN’s Jaleel White sitcom, “Grown Ups,” did better. And when’s the last time you’ve seen an article about that show?
“Dawson’s Creek,” in just its second full season, already seems about as “over” as Beanie Babies. Once the main topic of conversation in high school hallways, the show lately is generating about as much buzz as Cheryl Ladd’s next career move. You live by fickle young viewers, you die by fickle young viewers. And a lot of teens lately seem to be treating “Dawson’s Creek” as though it were “Matlock.”
“Creek,” which premiered in January 1998, was principally responsible for driving WB past UPN. Now it’s symptomatic of what’s wrong with the network — too many shows that seem like all of the network’s other shows. The January premieres of WB’s latest two coming-of-agers, “Brutally Normal” and the reworked “Zoe” (formerly “Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane”), were greeted with — yawn — awesome displays of indifference. Three of WB’s heavily promoted fall newcomers — “Roswell,” “Popular,” and “Jack and Jill” — haven’t made much of an impression either. In the latest ratings, all three drew fewer viewers than UPN’s “Malcolm & Eddie.”
UPN and WB, which both had their fifth birthdays in January, will continue to battle back and forth for fifth place among six networks. Wrestling is the difference-maker for UPN, but WB is equally responsible for its current last-place status.
Wrestling’s impact on UPN is prodigious, but nothing compared to ABC’s windfall profits from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Consider this: In Week 1 of this season, a “Millionaire”-less ABC drew an average of 12.2 million viewers to place third behind NBC (14.5 million) and CBS (14.2 million).
“Millionaire’s” return, for a 16-night run in November, propelled ABC to an upset win in that month’s ratings sweeps. Since January, when “Millionaire” became a thrice-weekly series, ABC has rocketed to the top of the prime-time ratings. The network now is averaging 13.9 million viewers a week, while NBC and CBS have fallen into a tie for second place with 12.8 million viewers.
One other show has jumped into prominence this season. The success of Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” which premiered in January, isn’t nearly enough to pull Fox out of fourth place. But it has turned on the lights at an otherwise beleaguered network whose new fall series all collapsed in a heap. Without “Malcolm,” Fox would have absolutely nothing to show for Entertainment President Doug Herzog’s first year in office. Now there’s renewed hope for the future.
Right now, WB wishes it could say as much.