The uncertainty of UPN

News Corp.'s acquisition of 10 Chris-Craft stations means Fox's syndication division, Twentieth Television, is now sitting in the catbird seat in the nation's top two markets, and it means producers, actors and agents are more nervous than ever about the future of UPN.

"I'm praying it doesn't fold," said one top Hollywood producer with a series on UPN next season. "I'm getting no reassurances, and I'm getting no reassurances because no one knows what's going to happen. Despite what anybody in town says, none of us know what's going on."

The corporate symbol for UPN, the 5-year-old network that is coming off a strong year with WWF Smackdown and a popular Monday night of comedies, should be a question mark. Will UPN even make it through this season? Will News Corp. and Viacom work together on UPN? Or will the Chris-Craft stations in the top markets, New York and Los Angeles, be turned into FOX II outlets?

UPN President Dean Valentine, who says he's "hardened" from being in these situations for several years, spent much of the week trying to calm producers, affiliates and actors.

"Until this whole thing is settled, I think people are going to be somewhat nervous," says Valentine. "I think most people accept what we've been saying, that the odds are very, very strong that we are going to continue to be here and functioning this season. There is no guarantee to any of this, but we have weathered so many storms that I'm optimistic that we will weather this one too."

Valentine says he and other UPN executives were still receiving pitches for potential 2001-2002 series last week, and a number of producers working on series for this fall at UPN said they were going "full throttle" on getting shows ready. This season is the finale for Star Trek: Voyager, and WWF Smackdown is in the final season of a two-year deal. But, pending the outcome of an appeal from USA Networks, UPN owner Viacom will likely retain the broadcast rights to WWF Smackdown through 2003-2004.

No matter what happens at UPN, a number of FOX programmers seemed excited about having a bigger canvas to play with. "Whether its FOX II or whether it remains UPN, I think it's going to represent a lot more programming opportunities for us either way," said one top FOX programmer. "It's a lot of real estate and a lot of opportunity."

Twentieth Television, the producers of first-run series like Divorce Court and the distributors of Fox's top off-network syndication efforts like Ally McBeal, has suddenly moved into a new realm among syndicators. With the 10 Chris-Craft markets added to the already-large FOX owned-and-operated stations group, Twentieth Television now has two stations to place its wares in some of the nation's top markets, including the two biggest: New York and Los Angeles.

"Fox is in the driver's seat; they have more clout now, there's no doubt about it," says one rival syndication executive. "The ante or compensation you're going to have to pay to put your show on in New York or Los Angeles could be astronomical," said another syndication executive.

But if UPN were to disappear entirely, and the affiliates now carrying the network signal have to turn to syndicated programming, it could be good news for the syndication community.

"It could open up more desirable time periods in many key markets, and it could be a boon for the Pearsons and MGMs of the world," says Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz Television. "It could mean that their key weekly product could end up in prime time, compared to where it is now."