UPN got off to a very slow start, but a new focus on young males has paid off for the weblet and for its high-profile president

By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

After struggling in the prime-time wilderness for five years, UPN has finally found itself increasing its ratings nearly 40 percent in the recent February sweeps and finally passing its longtime weblet rival, The WB. During the past 12 weeks, UPN has beaten The WB in the ratings 10 times, thanks largely to addition of the World Wrestling Federation on Thursday night. Ironically, it was only a few years ago that WB officials were predicting UPN's demise.

At the helm is Dean Valentine, the former head of Walt Disney Television who joined the weblet in 1997. Under Valentine, UPN has become the guys' network. It was Valentine's decision to bring WWF to UPN and to recalibrate the prime-time programming for male viewers. Among some of these male-skewing shows are "The Beat" and "Secret Agent Man," two recent arrivals.

While UPN is now on the rise, the future of the network remains in doubt due to the pending merger of Viacom and CBS. Federal law prohibits a major network from owning more than one TV station in any given market unless the FCC grants a waiver. If the waiver is not granted, UPN could be sold. Either way, Valentine has made his network a valuable asset even though it has lost more than $500 million since its birth and is expected to lose money again this year.

Question: What has been the key to UPN's turnaround?

Answer: Three keys. The first was that we did an analysis and found there was no programming for guys generally on network television. Years ago, there were shows that spoke to that audience, "Wild Wild West," "Starsky & Hutch," the original "Star Trek." If you were a guy, they were fun to watch. Now all the stuff that guys watch is on first-run syndication or at the movies or cable guy action stuff. There was a reason why males were abandoning network television no male programming. The networks made a decision that this is an audience not worth talking to. But after talking to advertisers, we felt there was huge economic opportunity and we went after it.

Q: What was the second?

A: We began bringing the right kind of people to the network, who can rival those at any other network. The whole organization turned over in a year and a half.

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