TIME TV writer James Poniewozik tells how the move of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' from the WB to UPN changes the game for the two mini-networks
In the eternal war between the boys and the girls, chalk one up for the boys.
When TV's two fledgling broadcast networks, UPN and The WB, first went on the air in the mid-'90s, they followed a similar path, blazed by Fox in the '80s:
They started with a schedule heavy on African-American stars, built an instant following among minority audiences, then largely spurned them with new programming that went after young white viewers. But while the two networks arefierce competitors, they also operate almost opposite universes.
The WB built a lineup of dramas and comedy-dramas with young-female appeal ("Felicity," "Dawson's Creek," "7th Heaven"), while UPN settled into a niche heavy on action and testosterone ("WWF Smackdown!," "Shasta McNasty," the XFL). In short, UPN is The Boy Network and The WB is The Girl Network.
Last Friday, however, the boys captured the warrior queen of the girls. In a surprising deal, the network signed away "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," The WB's second-highest-rated show and probably its most prestigious - the show that consistently lands on critics' best lists and single-handedly established the network's image of offbeat and fantastical shows with a dose of girl power.
In its fifth season, the makers of "Buffy," and its producer, Fox Television, wanted a substantial jump in the approximately $1 million an episode the network had been paying. (As with many series, this meant operating at a loss for the expensive production, with the hope of making it up in syndication and richer later-season deals). Talks were at an impasse and bad feelings running high when UPN jumped in with a reported offer of about $2.3 million per episode, which creator Joss Whedon and Fox leapt at like a vampire at a Red Cross bloodmobile wreck.
The badly wounded WB (owned by TIME's parent company, AOL Time Warner) soon cried corporate foul at the deal. Earlier, Fox Television had made noises about taking the series to its sister network Fox, which would have been a clear example of self-serving synergy that would have made other networks unlikely ever to buy a show from Fox again. (Why do it if they'll yank the series once it becomes a hit?) But Fox's parent company is also closing a deal to buy several UPN affiliate stations, and the scuttlebutt is it may ultimately want a piece of UPN itself, all of which, The WB's brass claimed, made for dirty pool.
Certainly TV executives - like the audience as a whole - should worry about the results of such vertical integration (at Disney-owned ABC, for instance, it's now nearly impossible for a studio to get a show on the air if it's not owned by the parent company). But The WB's whining is a little disingenuous.
"Buffy" is a big hit by the standards of a little network. But it's a niche show nonetheless: It would never go to NBC, ABC or CBS, and if it did, those networks, which need a huge tune-in to keep a show afloat, would either kill or ruin it fast. That leaves Fox - still in the middle zone between the giants and the netlets - and UPN. By The WB's reasoning, then, it would be unethical for "Buffy" to go to any other network that would have it, leaving its makers at the Frog Network's mercy.
The fact is, for UPN, "Buffy" is a bargain at any price, even if the network is never able to recoup the hefty price tag off the show itself. It guarantees a big influx of a key demographic: namely, people who otherwise would never watch UPN. (All the more so if, as seems likely, UPN ultimately gets the popular spinoff "Angel" as well.)
It'll also pull in the critics. (We'll assume that still matters. Humor me.)
Even UPN's best shows, like the wicked Claymation satire "Gary and Mike," tend to get dismissed because of the company they're in. Suddenly the network of The Rock and "Chains of Love" has what is many weeks the best and most innovative drama on any non-cable network (and yes, I'm counting "The West Wing"): a hilarious allegorical story of independence, relationships and mortality, told through scary stories (just as "The Twilight Zone" did), that has gotten ever more touching and audacious in its fifth season. See this year's outlandish subplot, in which Whedon introduced Buffy's younger sister Dawn - we'd never seen her before but the cast acted like she'd been there all along - who turned out to be an ancient mystical "key" disguised by a spell that made her friends and family believe they'd known her for years.
What first seemed like a clumsy way of adding someone to the cast turned out to be both a great spoof on how aging TV shows meddle with their casts and a deft exploration of identity, as Dawn - like many 14-year-olds before her - dealt with her discovery of her inner nature. Or take the starkly realistic handling of the death of Buffy and Dawn's mother, which happened suddenly and unfolded with a moving but unsentimental realism unknown to most so-called adult TV dramas.
Still, the switch is an incongruous programming move, considering UPN's lineup in general, and one that raises questions about the future of the two networks and of teen niche TV generally. UPN has never had to deal with the burden of critical praise. And the few times the network has tried to home-grow series with at least aspirations toward quality (like Tom Fontana's talky cop show "The Beat") it hasn't known how to promote them or where to schedule them. Does this "Buffy"-napping mean UPN is going to try to morph into the network of quality? Don't hold your breath - until recently, it was still considering "The Tranny," a transsexual comedy with RuPaul - but it may now have to expand beyond boy magnets like "Smackdown!" if it wants to build on this coup and keep its new viewers.
It also puts in question the future of The WB, whose teen-girl-TV specialty is starting to look, like, *so* 1990s. "Felicity," for instance, is still a reliable, well-drawn charmer, but it never became the phenomenon many were predicting at its hugely hyped 1998 launch. "Dawson's Creek" still pulls audiences, but its aging, self-absorbed characters are getting more whinily irritating by the minute, and it's quickly approaching the "Beverly Hills 90210" everyone's-already-slept-with-everyone-else limit, as Kevin Williamson prepares to send the cast off to whatever suddenly invented fictional college they end up at next season. And the network's two real creative successes last season, "Gilmore Girls" and "Grosse Pointe," both had a more adult focus. (It also had a hit with "Popstars," the cynically synergistic reality show about the making of girl-band and AOL Time Warner recording artists Eden's Crush; but that franchise could prove a one-hit wonder when musical fads change.)
That's not to say The WB has to abandon its niche approach. MTV has miraculously done that for 20 years. But it's not an easy feat when your audience, like the cast on a high-school drama, turns over and graduates every few years - and sooner or later you hit a ceiling, as The WB already seems to have done. In the short run, it seems to be sticking with youth - one high-profile project for next year is "Smallville," about Superman's teen years - but losing "Buffy" and possibly "Angel" might eventually shake it out of its pattern, verging on self-parody, of one drama about angsty teens with superpowers after another. Whereas UPN, reaping the benefits of "Buffy," could find that there's life, and ratings, beyond the "Smackdown!" demographic. In which case, in the end, the girls might just win this one after all.