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Can You Feel the Love?

Certainly a number of factors were at play in the decision to combine the flagging fortunes of UPN and The WB, and make lemonade from a couple of lemons. Timing was essential in the birth of The CW, as the new CBS Corp./Warner Bros. network has been dubbed. Both sides' pacts with affiliates were about to run out. Corporate parent Time Warner, with barbarian Carl Icahn at the gate, and the newly single CBS didn't need any more red ink from their respective network offspring.

Without a deal, “these two networks would have closed or would have continued to stumble along,” CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves tells B&C's John Higgins (see Money Talks, page 8). With Wall Street particularly unforgiving toward media companies of late, the former was a more likely scenario than the latter.

Still, none of this would have happened, claim the deal's architects, if the principals didn't have personal and professional bonds that go back some two decades.

Moonves calls Warner Bros. Entertainment chief Barry Meyer a “mentor” from the days when Moonves ran the network-TV department at Meyer's studio.

The deal was put in motion at a dinner party around Thanksgiving. “We started kicking it around there in front of our wives, who got mad because we were talking business,” says Moonves.

Dawn Ostroff, who ran programming at UPN and will do likewise atop The CW, has a relationship with Moonves that goes back to the 1980s, when he was an executive at 20th Century Fox and she was a secretary.

The point guy on the WB side, Warner Bros. TV chief Bruce Rosenblum, calls CBS Paramount TV head Nancy Tellem, herself a Warner alum and Rosenblum's UPN counterpart during almost three months of super-secret negotiations, “somebody who is like a sister” to him. “We talk in shorthand,” he says. “There's a long history of respect and trust.”

Decades-old friendships, personal and professional, not only helped keep this deal quiet but likely were a factor in a co-venture that both sides had discussed privately, on and off, for years. (Though such ties were not enough to protect WB entertainment chief David Janollari, who was a key Moonves lieutenant when both worked at Warner Bros., or Garth Ancier, the departing WB chairman.)

But chumminess is certainly no guarantee of success for The CW. Certain elements of the partnership appear structured to create power centers on each side that play to respective strengths. Most of the sales and marketing functions will come from the Time Warner side, while CBS will head up the programming team.

Both sides, however, need to make programming decisions based on quality, not on loyalty to one or the other's corporate family. Rosenblum says such partisanship will be avoided through co-productions, where risk and profit is shared whichever side initiates them.

Still in the honeymoon stage, both sides are firmly on-message, saying that key decisions on everything from the selection of shows to which stations are chosen as CW affiliates will be based on the best interests of the new network, not its corporate parents.

But all strong marriages, even corporate ones, demand sacrifice and selflessness, no matter how deep the love.

“We could never pull off a WB/UPN merger before, even though everybody knew it made business sense, because, frankly, egos got in the way,” says one Time Warner veteran involved in earlier talks. “Even with a deal in place, there are still plenty of big egos involved that will need to be checked at the door if this thing is going to work.”

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