UPN, Fox link taking shape

UPN is in a curious limbo now. News Corp. is prepared to take a financial stake in the Viacom-owned network, if not outright ownership. And at the same time, executives at UPN are making final programming preparations for the fall that will include the next Star Trek series, Enterprise, from co-owned Paramount Network TV.

"I think it's probably safe to say that Fox would probably like to take as much of UPN as it can get," said one top executive close to the discussions. "I think they would like to have all of their ducks in a row by the time they get to May." That's when the FCC, they believe, will likely approve News Corp.'s acquisition of Chris-Craft, the station group that owns eight UPN-affiliated stations, including WWOR-TV New York and KCOP-TV Los Angeles.

News Corp. head Peter Chernin and Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin have been discussing various ownership scenarios, including one that would have News Corp.'s Fox division taking over UPN altogether, according to well-placed sources. Several sources close to the discussions say any deal for UPN will involve the exchange of News Corp. and Viacom-owned local TV stations in major and medium-sized markets.

"We are in discussions with people at Fox, and we would like them to continue with us as affiliates at least and potentially more," Karmazin said, "but at least an affiliation for the next four or five years."

The struggling UPN has lost more than a billion dollars since its 1995 launch and stands to lose well over $100 million this year alone, insiders say. Projections for UPN to be profitable by 2001 have now been pushed back to the 2002-2003 season at the earliest.

"The deal has a potential for a lot of swapping of television stations that will create duopolies for both parties," said one studio executive. "I think that's what's [creating] an opportunity to put UPN on the table. If Karmazin can get Chernin to step [in] and pick up half of the losses, which I think is his number-one objective, that will improve the financial results of Viacom."

Said another executive: "If Fox buys a 50% interest, obviously it could be co-run [by] News Corp. and Viacom. But we saw what happened the last time there was partnership at UPN." (Paramount squeezed out Chris-Craft, its former partner, last year.)

One scenario-if UPN were run jointly by Fox and Viacom-is for Fox to supply programs for two nights and Viacom's Paramount to supply the other two nights.

UPN is coming off its first negative sweeps results in more than a year. UPN was hit hard by rival-reality series Temptation Island and Survivor during the February sweeps; the network lost a quarter of its 12- to 17-year-old viewers. It dropped 11% in households and 13% in total viewers for the month. But UPN did hold steady in adults 18-49 and 25-54. And season-to-date, they are up in both categories.

UPN President Dean Valentine is staying focused on programming. He says that he has "never been more excited" about the network's batch of midseason shows (which includes reality project Chains of Love) and that development for the fall is right on track.

Valentine shot down rumors that UPN's development is in a holding pattern because of the ownership uncertainty. He said the network will have ordered eight to 10 pilots by the end of the week-the same as last year.

The network has officially picked up four pilots, and sources say UPN and Paramount Network TV are in final discussions for the next Star Trek series, Enterprise. The network's current series, Star Trek: Voyager, is in its final season. Insiders say Voyager
producer Rick Berman will work on Enterprise.

UPN also has another deal with reality producers Endemol Entertainment, Rebuild Your Life, in which two families compete for a new home.