UPN: The 'little' CBS?

Change is coming, but the only thing new so far at UPN is that CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves is now running both networks.

Moonves officially took control of UPN with the start of the new year, but many of the same questions asked in 2001 are still being asked in 2002. Will the network be turned into a repurposing outlet for CBS? How will Viacom and News Corp. get along, now that News Corp. owns the majority of top-market UPN affiliates with its acquisition of the Chris-Craft stations? And who is going to run the network on a day-to-day basis?

Moonves isn't saying anything yet, but he has been meeting often with top UPN executives, and division heads at both networks have been combing over UPN's vitals ever since Viacom President Mel Karmazin announced in early December that he was combining the two networks.

If CBS were to try to use UPN as a repurposing outlet the way ABC now has ABC Family and NBC had been using Pax TV, there appear to be a few almost-impossible hurdles to cross. First, CBS affiliates would have to allow their programming to air on a rival network while UPN affiliates, which are enjoying one of the network's best seasons ever, would have to subject themselves to repeats instead of original programs.

"If you are riding a good horse, you don't jump off and get on another horse that you are not sure about," says William Moll, president of Clear Channel TV, owner of nine UPN affiliates. "So I would be very surprised if there were big changes coming at UPN. What I think [CBS] will do is ride this out, try to tweak it and make it better, but nothing drastic."

Oddly, the network's long-term future may sit in News Corp.'s hands. With ownership of UPN affiliates in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, News Corp. executives are going to have their say in the network's future, especially because a number of News Corp.'s UPN affiliation deals are also up for renewal in two years.

Example: Last Friday, insiders say, UPN was planning to air a quick promotional blurb for CBS's People's Choice Awards
on Jan. 5 at the end of its Friday-night movie, mainly because Scott Bakula, a star of UPN's Enterprise, was nominated by fans. But several News Corp.-owned UPN affiliates, including WWOR-TV New York, were planning to mute the promo.

On another front, insiders say that Viacom attorneys and embattled UPN President Dean Valentine, who is suing the network for $22 million over a contract dispute, are trying to work out some sort of settlement. Valentine's contract is up in September, but he's expected to leave as soon as a settlement is reached. That could be as soon as this week, insiders say. Valentine had no comment. Names of a number of current and former Hollywood studio executives have been thrown around as possible Valentine successors.