John Maatta was the very first employee of The WB back in 1993. So it’s only fitting that he was among the first executives to be named to The CW, the new broadcast network to be launched from the remnants of The WB and its one-time rival, UPN. And as The CW COO works to assemble a network of loyal affiliates, he faces challenges similar to those he handled in the same role at The WB.
This time, The CW’s rival upstart vying for stations is Fox’s MyNetworkTV. But Maatta is off to a good start in his new role. Thanks to strong relationships with WB stations, he says, “we won more often than not.” Less than three months before its Sept. 18 launch, The CW is cleared in more than 90% of the country.
The 20-year TV veteran began his professional life in the courtroom as a trial lawyer in his native San Francisco, but he burned out before long. “Trial work turns young men into old men,” he says. When a former law-school classmate called with a job lead at Lorimar Telepictures, Maatta—who had co-founded an entertainment-law journal, Comm/Ent, as a student—jumped at the chance.
FROM THE COURTROOM TO TV
At Lorimar, he worked as legal counsel for TV distribution and later for NIWS, a fledgling news-syndication service. The outfit would buy news segments from local stations, rewrite the scripts and distribute them to other stations, which then added voiceover from their own reporters.
Because NIWS was a startup, Maatta’s responsibilities inevitably went beyond legal affairs into making deals with stations and coordinating with reporters on which stories to sell, giving him an early taste of business operations.
The small business did well, but when Warner Bros. bought Lorimar, it shut NIWS down, and in 1991, Maatta went back to doing legal work for Lorimar distribution. But his capacity for juggling tasks caught the eye of Warner Bros. execs. When WB veteran Bruce Rosenblum and former Fox chief Jamie Kellner conceived The WB in 1993, they brought Maatta aboard.
“Everyone had to wear multiple hats,” says Rosenblum of the early days. “Along with the legal work, John was instrumental in distribution transactions that cemented our footprint.”
Among Maatta’s successes: signing up Sinclair Broadcast Group and negotiating with minority partner Tribune Broadcasting for carriage on its TV stations.
Along with Kellner, Rosenblum and a handful of key executives, including programming whiz Garth Ancier, Maatta steered The WB toward its 1995 launch. It was smooth sailing until UPN came along.
“It made distribution daunting because, in many markets, there were two networks but only one station,” Maatta says. Moreover, he says, The WB’s programming was a work in progress: “We had no programs. UPN had Star Trek, and that was a known commodity.”
Both networks achieved 10-year runs but limped along in ratings and revenues. With increased competition for young viewers from cable, the Internet and videogames, Maatta says, there just wasn’t room for both networks. “We were trying to reach the same audience,” he says. “The one network will be much stronger.”
And much of that strength, he says, will come from The CW’s corporate backing: “To have the resources of a broadcast network like CBS—for research and scheduling—is a major benefit. This is a huge opportunity.”
CW STARTING STRONG
Indeed, from its creation in January, The CW appears better off than its precursors. While it took years for The WB to find hits like Smallville and Gilmore Girls, The CW will launch with those shows and others, including UPN’s Veronica Mars, a natural companion to Gilmore.
Although he shares the disappointment of those who mourn the demise of The WB’s Everwood, Maatta is confident that its viewers and fans of other WB and UPN programs will tune into The CW.
Says Maatta, “We have loyal audiences that will come to the network.”