The War for The Fifth Network: UPN vs. WB - Part 1
Written by Chris Bucca Taylor
As a 90s child I watched a lot of Saturday Morning Cartoons. After 50 years of continuous cartoons on Saturday morning the final block aired on The CW September 27th, 2014. I found myself obsessed with Kid's WB as a child and then The WB Network, as it was officially called, as a tennager. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously changed networks from WB to UPN, United Paramount Network, I switched sides and became a fan of UPN, even devoting my time to watching the Twilight Zone's third series, starring Forest Whitaker. The truth is I've always wanted to know what happened, afterall in my head, seeing and watching the quality of shows come out of the WB Network and the lack of quality material coming out of UPN, I thought it odd the President of UPN ultimately took over the newly combined network, now The CW or The ColumbiaBroadcastingSystemsWarnerBrothers Network as I officially call it. Here is the story of what happened, pulled from the pages of Sussane Daniels and Cynthia Littleton's book Season Finale: the Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN.
‘The frog has finally croaked’ was the first headline on every media reporters mind on January 24, 2006 when the two stations who both labeled themselves as “The Fifth Network” announced they were to merge. The Warner Brothers Network and the United Paramount Network finally came to an agreement at the end of tumultuous 11 year battle for fifth place and gave up. A stalemate was drawn. UPN started out the gate with incredible numbers for an upstart network, while The WB took its time to create a brand identity. Both networks took a different approach to becoming The Fifth Network, but neither was able to truly hold the title until the other one failed.
In the early 90s network television was thriving. Even with the ominous presence of cable and the internet, network television was at a high point. Rupert Murdoch had just swept through and created ‘The Fourth Network’, FOX. Murdoch and his team had just finished finding affiliates in all the major markets in the country to make Fox a major player in network television. Fox then proved its creative prowess with shows like The Simpsons and Married… with Children that pushed the envelope and gave FOX a brand identity. They also catered to demographics that the other three networks were ignoring, largely the Urban and Teen markets. For these markets Fox aired shows such as In Living Color, Martin, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210. These demographics gave Fox an edge over the competitor and in the future would be copied by the next two networks.
Murdoch’s team at Fox knew something no one else in the business knew, how to create a network. And there was no one more important on that team than Jamie Kellner. Kellner had a creative spirit and after leaving Fox he wanted to do what he knew best, create another network. Over in Burbank Bob Daly, CEO of Warner Brothers knew that things were changing in television. He knew that the government would overturn ‘fin-syn’, a law that did not allow network’s to own the shows on their network. Once this was overturned with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 the big four networks would start creating their own content, and the Bob Daly believed the WB would have no one to sell their original content to. Daly and Kellner knew a ‘Warner Brothers Network’ was something they needed in order to survive in the TV business. So with Daly’s go ahead Kellner got the team who created Fox back together again in hopes of creating the fifth network.
What they did not know is that over in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, a group of executives were also working on the fifth network. When Kerry McCluggage got word of Kellner’s fifth network plans he decided it was time for Paramount to be a player in network television market. They had the same fear about the overturning of fin-syn and knew they needed a network to survive. McCluggage also had a trump card under his belt, Star Trek. The Paramount property was doing really well on first run syndicationwith a resurrected series, The Next Generation and a spin-off Deep Space Nine, both pulling great numbers, especially for syndication. Paramount wanted to unleash a new network with Star Trek: Voyager as their tent-pole and anchor for their new network.
Voyager would be more than a tent-pole and anchor in the following years to come; it would be their selling point. McCluggage and Kellner were both flying around the country trying to nab up as many affiliates as they could. The fight for affiliates was really the breaking point for both networks. With both fighting for the strongest affiliate in the major markets, it would be almost impossible for each network to strongly compete with the Big Four. Regardless Paramount broke a deal with Chris-Craft Industries, Inc. who owned stations in the major markets such as KCOP 13 in LA and WWOR-TV 9 in NYC. Paramount cut Chris-Craft a 50 percent stake in the network that would go on to be called the United Paramount Network or UPN. The ‘U’ stood for United Television, a subsidiary of Chris-Craft while the ‘P’ obviously represented Paramount. Kellner would strike a deal with Tribune Broadcasting who owned stations in major markets such as WPIX 11 in NYC and KTLA 5 in LA. Unlike Chris-Craft, Dennis FitzSimons, head of Tribune Broadcasting, would not own a piece of The WB. Kellner on the other hand owned 11% of the WB network, which made him work even harder to make sure it was a success.
CEO of UPN, Lucie Salhany originally marketed the station as the network for men. But the years proved tough for UPN. Star Trek: Voyager was their only real ‘hit’ and even then, Voyager was not performing as well as it could have on a major network. Salhany would continually rebrand the station to try and find a niche market they could capitalize on. UPN found some success with Moesha, an urban comedy with upcoming pop sensation Brandy.Moesha lead the way for more urban comedies, which made UPN a hybrid of African American comedy and hour long sci-fi.
After Salhany’s departure from the network in 1997 the new CEO Dean Valentine tried even harder to re-brand the network every year. He tried to appeal to working class Middle America with the Aaron Spelling produced The Love Boat: The Next Wave. After the show sank he then rebranded the network back to a man’s man network. Every show Valentine tried out burned and crashed and only made the network even more in debt. His saving grace came out of Connecticut. The McMahons were looking for a network to air the World Wrestling Federation two hours a week for 52 weeks a year. Valentine struck a deal. Without the WWF, UPN would have had to cut out a night of broadcasting and Valentine would be axed almost immediately.
Salhany on the other hand was creating a brand in The WB. Within the first five years of The WB, their shows became part of pop-culture. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 7th Heaven, Felicity, and Dawson’s Creek help create “The WB genre”. The WB also had two of the strongest heads of marketing a network could have. Bob Bibb and Lewis Goldstein helped create “The WB Brand”. When creating a mascot for the network they chose not to use Bugs Bunny because they were afraid the character was too childish and no one would take the network seriously. So they searched through the vaults of Warner Brothers animation to find a suitable replacement. They chose Michigan J. Frog. The frog established a network brand that UPN did not have. People would even refer to The WB as “The Frog” in the years to come.
Both networks were built on the same premise. The two studios believed that they needed a network in order to stay in the sale of TV shows. There has always been talks of Warner Bros. and Paramount buying one of the big three networks. All three, ABC, CBS and NBC were not owned by any major companies. That was true until The Walt Disney Studios decided to buyout ABC with a reported $19 billion deal in 1995. Before UPN was a network, Sumner Redstone and his media conglomerate Viacom bought Paramount Studios in 1994. There was a constant fear in the air at both networks that their parent companies would not take them seriously and go after the acquisition of a ‘real’ network. UPN would have it toughest years ahead of it when Viacom would announce plans to merge with CBS Corporation which was completed in 2000. It now brought together Viacom with its former parent company and a whole host of problems for Valentine and the rest of UPN.
The fight between the two networks got especially bloody when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was up for renewal after its fifth season. 20th Century Fox produced Buffy and sold it to The WB to air on Tuesday nights. Fox would lose an estimated $300,000-500,000 an episode with the show on The WB. While the show had great ratings by The WB standards, the advertising time sold was still not enough to make up for the elaborate visual effects and raising contracts for the stars. Fox demanded more money from The WB. Throughout the negotiations Fox would ask The WB for $2 million an episode when they were originally only paying $1 million. Kellner did not think this was fair. He believed Buffy to be a show that was perfect for syndication. Although Buffy had an overall arc every season, many of the episodes typically had a ‘monster-of-the-week’ theme that would syndicate very well. Kellner knew that Fox would not only cash in on Buffy’s syndication rights, but they would also pull in a huge profit, putting Buffy far in the black. When Valentine got word of the fighting words between Fox and Kellner, he put in a bid for the sixth and seventh seasons of Buffy. UPN convinced Viacom that Buffy was what was needed in order for the network to survive and they agreed. UPN struck a deal with 20th Century Fox for $2.33 million an episode. The deal would come as a huge blow to The WB who helped create Buffy from scratch. The deal would leave Buffy and its spinoff Angel on two different channels.
Both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell would change hands and move over to UPN. The network would also change its programming to be more "genre" and added a third series of The Twilight Zone from 2002 to 2003 with modern day actors like Jason Bateman, Jason Alexander, and Method Man. One episode in particular appropriately entitled, "It's Still a Good Life" of The Twilight Zone (2002-03) was a sequel to an episode of the original The Twilight Zone (1959-64) entitled "It's a Good Life," both starring Cloris Leachman and Bill Mumy. In the back half of The War for the Fifth Network, I'll tell you who the real architect was in merging The Warner Bros and United Paramount Network and it's safe to say revenge is a fickle mistress.
Daniels, Susanne, and Cynthia Littleton. Season Finale: the Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.