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So Much for the Honeymoon

It’s been three weeks since the wedding of The WB and UPN, and the hard work of making the marriage work has begun in earnest. Nervous brass from both sides are in survival mode, knowing cuts will be made—soon. Stations are preparing for an uncertain future, and programming talk has finally gotten beyond the “Everybody Hates Reba” jokes.

Nobody is commenting yet on who’s going where, but it’s only a matter of time before there’s an executive-suite shuffle.

Meanwhile, scads of soon-to-be-former affiliates of both networks are still in the dark about whether they will be welcomed into the CW tent or left struggling to survive, much less thrive, as independents. News Corp. is preparing a battle plan for its UPN affiliates that will be left high and dry in major markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington. News Corp. President/CEO Peter Chernin and other top executives are meeting this week in New York.

Meanwhile, syndicators are being invited to pitch potential series they might have to submit as part of the plan to offer an ad hoc network slate to newly orphaned stations for next fall (see story, page 30).

It might be three months before The CW unveils its 2006-07 prime time schedule, but the jockeying for slots on that grid is already in full swing. Beyond the obvious lineup of WB and UPN shows—Smallville, Gilmore Girls, America’s Next Top Model and Everybody Hates Chris—buzz abounds about what else might be found on the new network come next fall.

7th Heaven, for example, widely thought to be in its final season after a successful 10-year run, might get a reprieve. Feelers have been put out to the cast and crew to see if costs can be brought down for an 11th season; at its current rate, the show looks to be a $16 million loss leader this season.

With shows like The WB’s One Tree Hill and Everwood and UPN’s critics’ darling Veronica Mars on the bubble, studio chiefs and agents are bracing for steep licensing costs on any that aren’t locks if they want them to make it to the fall.

But the only way this marriage will work is if Warner Bros. and CBS Corp. can agree on which viewers are priority No. 1. Given the titles that have been bandied about, there appears to be consent that women 18-34 are the primary target audience.

CBS needs to recognize that The WB still has brand equity for those viewers. Lost amid all the talk of $1.1 billion in combined losses and the likelihood that one network would have inevitably gone out of business was the fact that, for a couple of years, The WB actually made money.

Things went deeply south when it attempted to become a much broader-based network. (Remember last fall’s Just Legal with Don Johnson?) It began neglecting the target audience it had worked so hard to establish.

But before that disastrous strategy, The WB proved there is room for a fifth broadcast network if it has a clear brand identity.

Back when the Time Warner and CBS camps were batting around names for their new network, CBS executives dismissed the proposed CWB because it was too similar to The WB. But is that such a bad thing? Vetoing the name CWB seems a decision steeped in a corporate ego that would deep-six a brand that still had commerce.

After all, if the CW follows the blueprint that worked for The WB before it got off message, in the not-too-distant future, we might be talking about the Big Five.