Kellner spins WB strategy

WB chief Jamie Kellner told skeptical TV writers at the annual TV press tour on Sunday viewers would go for the changes on the network, including the loss of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. And he said they would have to - for the continued health of the network.

Kellner, head of the Turner Broadcasting System (which includes the WB among its channels), explained that the loss of Buffy "stimulated things in our company" and encouraged the network to "be bold in developing new shows." With the necessity to fill a Buffy-created content void, he and his team, "rolled up our sleeves and put together our best development season ever. It's a new look and I'm kind of excited about it."

This `funny business' has resulted in five new sitcoms, including Reba, starring country crooner Reba McEntire and Men, Women & Dogs, starring MTV personality Bill Bellamy. Going this route, instead of shelling out the big bucks UPN did for Buffy was smart continued Kellner, considering the current advertising upfront slump, where "it's not a good year to spend a lot on programs. I'm delighted that we don't have a high cost base to our programs."

For awhile now, the WB has projected that it would be in the black by the end of May 2002. With the current economic climate, it's not a guarantee the network will meet that goal, but Kellner said the WB "was nip and tuck with profitablity." By doing well ratings-wise this season, combined with its no-Buffy cost-saving strategies, the WB can off-set any losses incurred from the upfronts, says Kellner.

In contrast, perhaps, UPN is said to have only pulled in enough money at its upfront session to just about cover the cost of Buffy for the season, an indication that it won't be nearer to its own similar profit goals.

To boost the ratings and meet profit targets, Kellner wants several of the WB's shows to be dual-platformed on one of Turner's cable networks (i.e. TBS or TNT). With concurrent broadcast/cable runs within one week "you can cume rating numbers for advertisers," he explained. Plus, "you can use multiple networks to develop large audiences," he said.
Of the upcoming rookies, Superman drama Smallville appears like the money bet to get a dual run. The WB's production partner, Warner Bros. produces it, so there'd be less red tape in plopping it onto a sister cable network of both the two companies. Yet Kellner would only say "sure" to the possibility, but not to the actual realization of this happening. It is assumed that Charmed will run concurrently on WB and TNT as soon as next season.

Also, Jordan Levin, the WB's entertainment president, admitted that ABC's scrapping of its Friday night comedy line-up, "gave us an opportunity to develop for Friday night," where many of the sitcoms will be clustered. Viewers will latch on to this revamped WB because "people's appetite for comedy is growing," Levin said, speaking to the successful debuts of several comedies in past seasons, including Fox's Grounded For Life and NBC's Three Sisters.
America Online, a WB parent, will be doing "a major push" of the new fall shows, says Kellner, but declined to be specific on what those Internet plans entail.

On other WB fronts, Kellner revealed he wants to expand the network's show offerings into late-night and afternoon, dayparts that the WB's target young audience tends to frequent. This might make syndicators a little nervous, since they supply a huge chunk of their programming to these afternoon and late-night time periods on WB affiliates. These stations currently run a mix of talk strips, court shows, dating strips and off-net series in these slots.

"Syndicators aren't going after young adults," said Kellner, which encourages the WB to come in and do the job. For the most part, syndicators typically go for the adult 18-49 crowd. The WB's target demo is adults 18-34. At this point, Kellner hasn't thought about what specific shows he'd like to create for WB affiliates in afternoon or late-night.

TV critics wanted details on the much-publicized riff between Buffy executive producer Joss Whedon. The strained relations are still there, acknowedged Kellner, but Whedon was a scheduled guest for The WB's party for TCA members Sunday. Still, however, it looks unlikely that there will be any Buffy cross-over shows with Angel, Buffy's companion show which will remain on the WB. To stop another Buffy blow-out in the future, Kellner says he "hopes to create new business models to prevent shows from jumping from one network to a studio-sponsored network." He says viewers get a better array of shows when networks can work with different program suppliers.
- Susanne Ault