Theres still a UPN—for now

UPN will apparently remain on the air for the duration of the 2000-01 season, chiefly because it's "politically correct" for it to do so.

Even so, top executives at the five-year- old network might not be willing to wait around. Some are preparing to leave UPN in the coming months because of the instability, according to industry sources.

With both News Corp. and Viacom executives currently trying to win favor in Washington, sources within both media conglomerates said last week that UPN appears to be alive for at least one more season. After that, its future seems a 50-50 bet at best.

UPN's focus on African-American-themed shows and its general "voice of diversity" may be the only things keeping the network alive right now, according to sources. And whether it will be owned outright by Viacom or by both News Corp. and Viacom remains to be seen. Talks between the top executives are said to be taking place, with some sort of resolution likely within the next four to six weeks.

"I think News Corp.'s most important goal right now is to make sure the deal for Chris-Craft gets closed," said an owner of a major station group. "There are going to be a lot of voices unhappy with the thought of UPN going away, including the UPN affiliates, the FCC and so on. So I think [News Corp. executives] are walking a real funny tightrope right now, wanting to do what they want to do and being open to talking to Sumner [Redstone] and Mel [Karmazin]. They are going to be very politically correct in an effort to get their deal done."

Federal regulators are currently mulling Viacom's argument for retaining both UPN and CBS, and News Corp. is battling to raise the station-ownership cap and get approval for its recently announced $5.4 billion acquisition of Chris-Craft Industries. Top sources within the companies acknowledged that closing down UPN would "not look too good" in Washington.

Among other factors affecting UPN's long-term future, according to sources, is station ownership at both Viacom and News Corp. If UPN is to be owned by both News Corp. and Viacom, industry insiders expect a lot of swapping of local stations in an effort to establish major-market duopolies.

News Corp.'s newly inherited Chris-Craft stations that are UPN affiliates, including WWOR-TV New York and KCOP-TV Los Angeles, are under contract to carry the network's prime time fare through mid-January. News Corp. reportedly plans to keep the eight former Chris-Craft stations carrying the UPN signal through at least the end of the 2000-01 TV season. That's a change from earlier speculation that News Corp. would go in its own direction with them.

As for the exodus of executives, sources said a pair of top programming execs left last week and others may soon follow. Senior Vice President of Development Mira Suro and Senior Vice President of Current Programming Michael Forman have left and will soon be replaced, UPN said.

Entertainment President Tom Nunan, who has been at the network for three years, is said to be on the bubble. His contract is up this fall, according to sources, and it is unclear whether he will remain at the network.

"If this is not resolved soon, it will start to have an impact on a number of different areas at UPN," says one top TV executive. "Because if things get resolved within the next 30 to 60 days, you can resolve it with no damage to the network. If it lingers on, there is potential damage that could be done to the asset. It could be damaged in terms of the next season's development slate, there could be personnel issues, people leaving, etc. And advertisers, who have been pretty patient with the situation so far, could lose faith, and who knows what happens at the upfront."