UPN: Where the Girls Are?

It's not surprising. Two years after Dawn Ostroff left womanly Lifetime for UPN, the network once known for brawny WWE wrestling and nerdy Trekkies finds itself watched by young, hip, urban females.

Helped by supermodel Tyra Banks and hip-hop artist Eve, UPN's prime time is tying or beating arch-rival The WB in its key women 18-34 demo on Mondays and Tuesdays. Banks'America's Next Top Model is the biggest hit UPN has seen since WWE's Smackdown.

"We are trying to create audience flow, and we've had a very successful season so far with women," says President of Entertainment Ostroff. "We play to our strengths, and we are trying to build the network night by night."

With Monday and Tuesday up and running, UPN's next challenge is Wednesday. That night has long been the home of one or another Star Trek spinoff. But, with Enterprise down 27% year-to-year among young adults, after an equally bad 2002-03 season, it may be time to change the network's identity altogether. That idea doesn't seem to frighten Ostroff.

"We like to take chances," she says. "It's one of the things that attracts talent to networks. Even Top Model was unique."

Development reflects UPN's new-found focus on young women. Friends' Lisa Kudrow is executive-producing one pilot, and movie star Kate Hudson is backing another. Actresses Shannon Elizabeth and Jenny McCarthy have been cast in a spinoff of One on One and sitcom The Bad Girls' Guide, respectively.

UPN continues to focus on attracting urban audiences, as well, by casting popular African-American actors Taye Diggs, Michael Michel, and Vanessa Williams.

"We are trying to get a lot of talent in front of or behind the camera," Ostroff says. That's something that worked well for UPN last year with Eve
and All of Us, the latter executive-produced by Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Coming to UPN are reality shows featuring hip-hop diva Missy Elliot and The Player, which will have a multicultural cast but is influenced by the youthful hip-hop culture.

At Lifetime, Ostroff took the women's network to the top of cable's heap before jumping to UPN two years ago. She long ago impressed CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, now her boss, when they worked together at Twentieth Century Fox Television in the early 1980s.

The 44-year-old executive is small and soft-spoken, but she has operated in overdrive throughout her 28-year career (she started working at a Miami radio station at 16). Ostroff is so type-A she was watching pilots in bed last April, having just given birth to her second child. A few weeks later, she was on the podium in New York, presenting UPN's fall schedule to Madison Avenue.

Advertisers say Ostroff has given UPN direction for the first time ever.

"For several years, they couldn't decide what direction they wanted to go in," says Steve Sternberg, executive vice president of audience analysis for Magna Global. "They didn't know if they wanted men, women, or ethnic audiences. It seems now that they have a clearer direction."

Both Moonves and Viacom President Mel Karmazin have mentioned expanding UPN to another night, but Ostroff doesn't expect that to happen soon. "There could be original programming on Friday nights," she says, "but we won't know until we're in the room and we see how our development comes out."

That she's talking about expanding UPN is itself amazing. Just a year or so ago, there were doubts in some quarters the network would even survive.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.