Breaking a taboo

Were ulterior motives behind UPN's acquisition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That was the overriding question in Hollywood last week when the veteran WB series from 20th Century Fox Television defected to UPN.

With 20th Century Fox parent News Corp. and Viacom currently in negotiations over possible dual ownership or even News Corp.'s ownership of UPN, the studio's moving Buffy to UPN has WB executives crying foul and the rest of the industry wondering whether the TV business would ever be the same.

The $102 million deal takes Buffy
to UPN for the next two seasons and also leaves spin-off Angel without a clear home for the 2001-02 season. And while television series have switched networks before, usually as a series was fading, the Buffy deal was the first time a series switched networks solely, it seemed, for a better deal. It's more complicated than that. Because Fox produces Buffy and it's heading to UPN where it's presumed Fox will have a stake, the implication is that studios with network links will begin taking shows that are successful on one network and placing them on their owned network once they ripen into hits.

That was the message Susanne Daniels, The WB's entertainment co-president, delivered last week. "I believe that there is an agenda here that is not about money for moving the show."

Jordan Levin, WB's entertainment co-president, added, "News Corp. has made no secret of their desire to acquire an equity stake in UPN, and we don't believe it was a coincidence that the call that we received from them was literally hours after the FCC ruling on dual-network ownership came down.

"This is a wakeup call, not only for us to be protective of the shows that we have on the network with non-affiliated studios, but for everybody in the industry. We all are coming to an understanding that the business is being done a certain way, that bigger companies are motivated by self-interest, and that's not a surprise."

20th Century Fox execs were telling a different story last week, claiming it was simply a matter of Viacom being willing to pay more for the series and guaranteeing stronger marketing and promotion. Viacom agreed to pay $2.3 million per episode for Buffy and also promised to carry Angel for the next two seasons if The WB opts not to carry it.

The WB, whose Chairman Jamie Kellner had stated that the network would lose money on the series if forced to pay more than $1.6 million per episode, wound up offering $1.8 million and also offered a number of cable opportunities for both Angel and Buffy. The WB currently has exclusive rights to Angel for the coming season and will probably wait until the middle of May to decide whether to keep it.

Although News Corp. doesn't currently have an ownership stake in UPN, the media giant recently acquired the powerful Chris-Craft station group, whose Los Angeles and New York outlets are UPN affiliates.

"This deal would have been made if News Corp. didn't own a single UPN station," said Sandy Grushow, FoxEntertainment Television Group Chairman, who oversees the Fox network and 20th Century Fox TV studio.

UPN President Dean Valentine said, "The truth is, one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. I think it's sort of a sad and graceless commentary on the loss of a show. We began the conversation about Buffy
with News Corp. before any of the larger conversations started between the two companies. Had News Corp. owned not a single UPN station, Buffy would still be right here. Ultimately, we were more passionate about the show both financially and creatively."

20th Century Fox Co-Presidents Dana Walden and Gary Newman said that they made numerous efforts to give The WB a chance to renew the series and none of their offers came close to what UPN was willing to commit.

"I equally interpret this as a wakeup call," said Walden. "A wakeup call to networks to not undervalue their franchise players. To look at an asset like Buffy solely in terms of its advertising revenue is really diminishing the true value of the show to The WB. I think there is a lesson to be learned about the value of a successful series that has delivered season in and season out."

The WB is left with a gaping hole in its fall schedule, which will be unveiled to advertisers on May 15. Both Levin and Daniels lament that they helped make Buffy into a hit series with millions of dollars in promotion and producer Joss Whedon into a multimillionaire (Whedon has reportedly received more than $50 million in two development deals with 20th Century Fox since Buffy's debut in 1997), but that wasn't good for anything at renewal time.

"This was a show that meant a great deal to all of us at The WB," said Levin. "For Susanne and me, it was a show that we fought hard for. It was a show that we bought when nobody else around town wanted it."

Buffy's ratings on The WB have not been overwhelming this season. The Tuesday night anchor series has averaged 4.5 million viewers, but it ranks fifth among the network's core 12-34 year-old viewers (2.7/8), and it's tied for fourth among 18-49 viewers with Dawson's Creek and Felicity, according to Nielsen Media Research. Angel is averaging a 1.9/5 in adults 18-49 this season.

"It's ultimately about the bottom line, and we made a business decision," said Daniels. "The WB will be turning a profit next season, and we didn't want to cross the line financially and start taking on tremendous losses. We may have taken some small losses to continue working with people that we respect, but, at the end of the day, you don't see NBC losing money on Friends."

Does The WB have any ground to stand on as far as 20th Century Fox executives are concerned? "We have repeatedly acknowledged that, on a creative level, The WB for a number of years has been a terrific partner," said Newman. "It's why we bent over backwards to try to find a way to make this happen. " Whedon added, "Completely discounting what the show did for the network in terms of giving it respectability and critical acclaim was just a little unconscionable. If Jamie would have even bothered to look like he was going to negotiate, this deal would have happened a long time ago at a much lower price."

Now it's a question of how The WB and 20th Century Fox will deal with each other going forward. Both sides say they want to continue doing business together. Their actions, though, will also likely affect how AOL Time Warner and News Corp. interact and, on an even larger scale, how all networks and studios do business in the future.

The first sign of things to come will be The WB's decision on Angel. The network is expected to cancel second-year drama Roswell, but that has to do more with low ratings than with bad blood. A 20th Century Fox sitcom pilot starring Reba McEntire is in the running at The WB and, Daniels said, "will be given strong consideration" for the fall schedule.

"I believe it will cause people to be very nervous on both the studio and network side, and I think it will cause a ripple effect that will cause networks to want to negotiate, in advance, perpetual license fees and/or longer license agreements," said one top TV executive. "On the flip side for the studios, it has given them sort of a surge of power to be able to legitimately move a show from one network to another, which, up until this point, had been absolutely taboo."

In the coming weeks, 20th Century Fox and ABC will have to make a deal for Dharma & Greg, or that sitcom may switch networks come September. And The WB will face a similar situation with Dawson's Creek and producer Columbia TriStar.