Thanks to SusieJ for this :)
Copyright 2001 Time Inc.
May 14, 2001
SECTION: FIRST/TELEVISION; Pg. 46
LENGTH: 512 words
HEADLINE: Buffy’s Studio Shows Its Fangs
BYLINE: Stephen Battaglio
Most television viewers won’t notice that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is moving from the WB Network to UPN next season. Only four million people watch the show each week. Inside the TV industry, however, the switch is topic A. It has seriously wounded the relationship between networks and the studios that supply their shows, and has raised questions about the operating tactics of media behemoths.
Buffy was the first real hit on the six-year-old WB (which, like FORTUNE, is owned by AOL Time Warner). Its appeal to young viewers, especially teen girls, helped shape the network’s hip image; advertisers shelled out as much as $ 100,000 for a 30-second commercial–a steep price for such a small audience. So why is the WB letting Sarah Michelle Gellar kick vampire butt elsewhere?
Simply put: money. In fact, what makes this move at all notable is that it’s the biggest example yet of a show’s jumping networks for purely financial reasons. The WB’s deal to air Buffy expires this season, the show’s fifth. At this point in a program’s life, the studio (in this case Twentieth Century Fox) negotiates a new deal with the expectation that the fee will cover the studio’s production costs. The network often loses money but gets a few more years of a program that can be used to launch new shows.
The two sides never even got close to a deal. The WB, which lost $ 50 million last year, stopped bidding at $ 1.8 million an episode. (At that amount, insiders say, the network would lose $ 200,000 per show.) Fox wanted $ 2.3 million–and got it from UPN. The network, which is desperate for a hit beyond WWF wrestling and Star Trek spinoffs, bought two seasons’ worth of Buffy for more than $ 100 million.
This would be the end of the story, except that Fox’s parent, News Corp., is set to buy some stations that carry UPN; in fact, it’s negotiating a deal to acquire part or all of the network. UPN President Dean Valentine says the Buffy talks predated News Corp.’s interest in the network, but that hasn’t soothed WB executives, who have accused News Corp. of favoring the corporate sibling.
Fox won this skirmish but in the process ticked off a big buyer of its shows. The industry will be watching closely to see how the two do business in the future. An early test comes this month when the WB must decide whether to nix Fox-supplied shows from its fall schedule, including Roswell, which has a small but loyal following, and Angel, a Buffy spinoff that stars her vampire ex-boyfriend. (If canceled, Angel moves to UPN too.) Sure, that’s just one network, but keep in mind that Fox is also negotiating with ABC right now over the fate of Dharma & Greg, a modest hit for the Disney-owned network.
Despite the WB’s resolve, it’s unlikely that license fees will come down soon. Laments one executive: “The most profitable way to run a network is to have a big hit for five years and then hope the stars get hit by a truck so that the show goes away.” If only killing a vampire slayer were that easy.