WB needs to get past awkward stage

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Like some of the teens who star in its soapy dramas, the WB network has been going through an awkward stage, and executives are trying to pull the decade-old channel out of its funk with a broadened focus and A-list show producers.

Executives at the network built on the backs of angst-ridden teen shows such as "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity" say it's time to expand beyond those core viewers and aim at some slightly older ones.

"We're not solely a teen destination," says David Janollari, the WB's entertainment president, who was hired last June to replace WB CEO Jordan Levin. "People 25 to 35 need to realize we're there for them, too."

Viewership has declined at the network-down to 3.6 million from 4.1 million the prior season. The last upfront ad-sales figures declined from $710 million to $675 million, though the number has grown considerably since 2000, when the network pulled in $425 million.

"It really helps to have a network that's clearly defined in its position," says Shari Anne Brill, Carat USA's director-programming. "The WB has veered off course a bit. They need to get the buzz back."

The network's stronghold has always been female teens, and ratings among those viewers have slipped as well this season. The network is down 5% season-to-date in women 18 to 34 and 8% in females 12 to 34. Much-hyped drama "The Mountain" has been canceled, and critical darling "Jack & Bobby" continues to struggle.

"Gilmore Girls" and "One Tree Hill," on the other hand, have shown impressive numbers against Fox's ratings juggernaut "American Idol," and 8 million people watched a recent "7th Heaven" episode, ranking No. 1 for the night in females 12-to-34.

Certain WB shows are dubbed "dual entry" by media buyers for their ability to attract both teens and their parents, include "Gilmore Girls," "7th Heaven" and "One Tree Hill,"

comedy a struggle

But the network, like others, has struggled in comedy and has been an also-ran in the hot reality genre.

Development, a key issue at the network, played a significant role in the hiring of Mr. Janollari, a former producer whose company developed HBO's "Six Feet Under," among other hits. In his first WB development season, he has made deals with producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, David E. Kelley, Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson and Bill Lawrence.

A few who have more of a teen-friendly background, McG and Ashton Kutcher, also will create shows for the WB. The former, through his Wonderland Sound & Vision, will produce "Supernatural," which is described as "X-Files" meets "Route 66." The latter, best known for MTV's "Punk'd," will produce a reality makeover/competition show called "Beauty and the Geek," in which Mensa-level guys will be paired with non-brainy girls.

Still, some heavyweight advertisers consider the WB a valuable place to buy time. MasterCard International recently made a branded-entertainment deal with the network's "One Tree Hill," in which the marketer will appear several times in content.

Kmart linked with the network for a series of back-to-school ads last fall featuring young stars of such shows as "7th Heaven," "Reba" and "Summerland." The shows featured the retailer's clothing. Verizon Wireless has an ongoing relationship with the Superman drama "Smallville," as does Procter & Gamble Co. with the Amanda Bynes sitcom "What I Like About You."

The teen niche has worked well, and focusing more on 18 to 34 will open the WB up to more intense competition from other networks, believes Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director of global research integration at Initiative.

"It's inevitable, though, that they had to branch out in order to grow," Ms. Koerner says. "If they were trying to do 12 to 49, that would be biting off too much. But 12-34 is smart."

Though the WB is known as a place that cultivated young talent behind the cameras, executives said they want a mix of established and emerging show runners. Producers like Mr. Kelley, who created Fox's successful dramedy "Ally McBeal," will develop with a young-adult audience in mind, WB executives said. Mr. Kelley's project for the WB is described as "Felicity" goes to medical school.

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