Weblets now neck and neck
The WB and UPN on the rise and drawing both sexes
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/5/2000 7:00:00 PM
The WB and UPN went in opposite directions during the 1999-2000 season, but so far this fall, it's a different story as both 6-year-old networks appear to be on the rise.
A combination of new and veteran shows has the two weblets pulling positive ratings one month into the season. UPN, which has gone after young men, and The WB, which has had a heavy concentration of young women, now seem to be attracing the opposite sex.
Last fall, UPN rode the strong arm of Vince McMahon and his WWF Smackdown! to triple-digit ratings increases, rising out of the ratings cellar and making a strong case as a viable network. At the same time, The WB's white-hot momentum came to a halt as the network suffered distribution and ratings woes. It got so bad last season that network executives came close to canceling drama Felicity, the very show that had been The WB's trump card with advertisers months before.
"UPN obviously is just building on what they did last year at this time. Wrestling really set them up and got some interest in their other programming. They have really tapped into who they believe is their core audience, and that's paying off for them," says TN Media Vice President Stacey Lynn Koerner. "The WB is looking significantly better, mostly because they shored up a lot of their distribution issues and their returning series are doing just fine. We're still waiting to see how their new shows will do."
Almost one year ago, WB executives opted to give up their cable carriage on WGN-Superstation, dropping millions of potential viewers from the cable side and dropping coverage from 92% to 80%. On the plus side, the loss of WGN was aimed at pushing viewers to WB broadcast outlets to strengthen the network's long-term platform. But The WB's national ratings plummeted.
"It certainly let the air out," says WB CEO Jamie Kellner. "We were used to growing. We had grown every year, and no matter how hard we worked last year, we couldn't create growth."
But how quickly things can change. The network is fixing its distribution woes and is back up to about 87% coverage in the U.S. Ratings are up nearly across the board. Monday through Thursday, The WB's core one-hour dramas including 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek -are rebounding from last season. In particular, 7th Heaven has averaged 7.2 million viewers and is up 31% in adults 18-34 and 12% in adults 18-49. Buffy has averaged 5.7 million viewers and has jumped 37% in adults 18-34 and 15% in adults 18-49. Dawson's Creek is bringing in 5.1 million viewers and has risen 41% to a 3.7 rating/12 share in adults 18-34. Even Felicity, which received a half-season order last spring, is up 17% in adults 18-34 in its new Wednesday slot.
"Our distribution is getting stronger, and the schedule is very stable," says Kellner. "We had some shows on the schedule last year that were really hard to judge because of the change in distribution. This year, we are pleased with the bets we made because Roswell is certainly emerging as an important show for us and Felicity's numbers are wonderful. I think stability and a maturing distribution system make a big difference."
All is not perfect at The WB, though. The network's new Sunda-night lineup of comedies, including freshman series Hype, Nikki and Grosse Pointe, is struggling. The three new shows have been paired with returning comedies The Jamie Foxx Show, The Steve Harvey Show and For Your Love, but the combination hasn't turned too many heads yet.
At UPN, the network is out to prove that it's not all about wrestling. Caught in the middle of a tangled ownership web, it is doing just that, showing improvement across all five of its nights from last year.
UPN's Monday-night African-American-themed comedies, including new series Girlfriends and The Hughleys (formerly on ABC), are up 29% in adults 18-34 and 33% in women 18-34. The network moved its movie franchise from Fridays to Tuesdays and has grown the night by 86% in women 18-34 and 44% in adults 18-49.
In its final season, Star Trek: Voyager is carrying Wednesday night, bringing 17% growth in adults 18-34 and 18% in adults 18-49. WWF Smackdown! continues to dominate on Thursdays, up another 30% in the key adults 18-49 demo. New Friday action series Level 9 and Freedom brought the network its best original-programming ratings ever for the night with their premieres on Oct. 27.
"We chose a target [young men] that we thought was underserved, and it proved to be the right choice," says UPN President Dean Valentine. "We had the programming to back up the choice; particularly WWF Smackdown! played a key role in that. Basically, the water level is rising at the network overall and that tends to happen with networks over time as viewers get more accustomed to tuning in to you."
Valentine says the network's chances of sticking around past the current season "can't be hurt" by the strong start.
To a degree, The WB and UPN have quit picking on each other. For The WB, last year's troubles were compounded by UPN's gains. Repeatedly, the two networks were compared: UPN's newly acquired muscle vs. WB's lack thereof.
"That's the way life goes," says Kellner. "Whenever something bad happens, it's always a couple of things that happen in a row. It builds character, and this network became a lot stronger because of last year."
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