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
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.
Q: The third?
A: From a viewer point of view, it was World Wrestling Federation. We came to believe that we needed a sports franchise to get those eyeballs much like Fox and CBS did with NFL football and NBC with basketball. How do we get a bunch of guys? There was this little show on USA cable, WWF, and every time I looked at the ratings, they were higher and higher. They turned it into a comedy male soap opera. If you were a 15- to 20-year-old male, that was your main form of entertainment. I felt we could distribute this more widely than USA did, and it could do great as a promotion platform for other shows and also get us a good rating. All those things have turned out to be the case.
Q: Why have male viewers been so undervalued by TV networks?
A: It was advertiser-driven. It is much easier to attract women to broadcast television. They tend to watch in greater numbers than guys do, and they show up (in the ratings) more rapidly than men do. You can get a much bigger number if you target (your programming) to women. The net result of that is, over time, guys found less and less reason to watch. Also, action shows are much more difficult to produce and are more expensive to produce.
Q: What do you make of your battle with The WB?
A: We are going our own ways. I always thought it was a ridiculous competition. I once said that it was like watching two midgets fighting. It is an unattractive fistfight. Their strategy is narrow-casting to teen-age girls, and it cannot work financially or program-wise and is doomed to failure. They are seeing the effects of that now.
A: It's too narrow a base. A broadcast network has to put together a coalition of audiences to function economically. Teen-age girls are enormously fickle in their programming attachments, so there is a problem there. UPN has to be a brand and has to be meaningful to a group of people, but within that context, we try to have as many people as we can find something they want to see. For example, 25 percent of the audience of WWF is female. "Star Trek" and "Seven Days" have 35 to 40 percent female viewers.
Q: UPN has an ethnically diverse lineup. What's that about?
A: We don't want to be an all-punk network. Some executives perceive that it is very attractive to have nice, clean, young, blond Aryans on their programs. We take a different view. America has changed radically over the last 10 years, aside from the fact that 12 percent is African American. There is a huge influx of Hispanics and Asians and Russians who have emigrated. Somehow over time, a successful broadcast network will reflect that diversity, and it is good business. When you look at our schedule, you don't look out at the (all white) beer-hall scene in "Cabaret." We are trying to speak to a much broader constituency.
Q: At what point do you see profitability?
A: Clearly, we are still losing money. We are not alone in that. But I think within the next three or four years we will be a profitable business. This is the first year we are looking down the tunnel toward profitability.
Q: What is the state of UPN given the pending merger of Viacom, which owns UPN, and CBS?
A: UPN has made a very convincing argument to a lot of people, including its owners, that it is an important asset, and I can't imagine any scenario where UPN would disappear.
Q: When a producer is developing a show, and he sees the turmoil surrounding the future of UPN, does that chill the process of bringing shows?
A: Oddly enough, no. I was kind of worried that it would. Having been on the production side of the business at Disney, as a producer you want to sell stuff, and it is better to sell to UPN than to not sell. Increasingly, studios are producing for themselves. Fox is producing for Fox; Disney is producing for Disney; Warner Bros. is producing for The WB. That leaves a lot of producers around, and people are coming in to see us.
Q: You program five nights a week. Will you be adding an additional night?
A: Yes, sometime during the next six to 12 months we will be adding an additional night.
Q: Which night?
A: It depends on what type of programming we want to do. Saturday is a tremendous opportunity. Nobody is doing anything on that night. I wouldn't mind taking a whack at Saturdays. Everybody says you can't do it there. My feeling is, when everybody tells you it is not the place to be, that is where you should be looking. That is my instinct.
Q: You ran a studio, Disney's TV division, and now a network. What is the biggest difference between those two positions?
A: The amount of groveling is the same. Running a network has many more moving parts. A studio is a concentrated activity. You want to sell TV shows to networks. That's what you do.
Running a network has much more. There is a promotion department, an affiliate department, programming, media and all have to work together to have any chance of success. A lot of your time is spent herding sheep. Running a network, you are a shepherd. Running a studio, you are a sergeant going up the hill.
Q: Are you surprised at the success of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"
A: No. I was at Disney when the creator came to them. We always believed that there was room on television for a show that brought back that kind of intensity that "Twenty One" and "$64,000 Question" did.
Q: Are you developing game shows for UPN?
A: We are doing one, "House Arrest," a group of people who are brought together and whoever wins gets to keep the house. But it is in development.
Q: Why have game shows come back?
A: The traditional forms of drama and comedy have been around too long. They feel stale to people, who can't suspend disbelief in watching them. They have seen every move. They have seen the lighting and they know all the actors.
Q: There was a period when The WB expected that UPN would go out of business. Did that offend you?
A: It didn't offend me. I thought it was a bad way of being in business, and I thought it would come back and bite them. I am a competitive guy, and I hate losing. I was baffled by how a network that had a 3 rating and was losing $120 million a year was going around crowing about all this vast success. What they were doing didn't offend me. I thought it was insane and unprofessional and we don't engage in that. I would have a hard time facing myself in the mirror every morning if I behaved the way they behaved.
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