The Biz: UPN overcomes its identity crisis

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All the broadcast networks had to battle the languid economy in the 2001 upfront. But UPN had at least one other major hurdle: uncertainty about its future. Enter advertiser wariness.

"Last year, clients questioned whether it would even be in existence this year," says Joe Abruzzese, CBS president-sales, who also oversees UPN.

Now nearing its eighth birthday, UPN has had an often-tortured existence. Its identity has changed repeatedly from a sci-fi channel to a hub for programs targeting African-Americans to one that tries to do both. And it has never received much acclaim for any permutation.

Critical disdain can be shaken off. But financial issues are harder to ignore. And UPN is a perennial money-bleeder. So much so that in 2000 Viacom bought out partner Chris-Craft's 50% share for a mere $5 million, a steal for a broadcast network, except it came with a mound of debt.

Early this year, Viacom began moving aggressively to shore up UPN and ensure that come upfront time, questions of long-term viability would be allayed. CBS's turnaround artist Les Moonves was given oversight of the network. In February, he brought in a well-respected programming chief, Dawn Ostroff, who helped vault Lifetime to the top of the cable ratings. Since then, the network developed a softer logo and reaffirmed a target of 18-to-34-year-olds.

Ostroff crafted a 2002-03 schedule that sought to make the programs on individual nights complement each other, and propel viewers to the next one (UPN programs two hours of prime time Monday through Friday). Three new shows dot the schedule. Comedy "Half and Half" joins the block of four half-hour comedies on Monday that target African-Americans, who make up 81% of the night's viewers. ("All of the shows provide water-cooler buzz on Tuesday morning, and we find that's helpful for our clients," says Sharman Davis, media director at New York urban-marketing agency Prime Access.)

Tuesday will again be led by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and followed by the new "Haunted," about a detective in touch with the dead. Wednesday is sci-fi night with the return of Star Trek spin-off "Enterprise" followed by a revival of the "The Twilight Zone" hosted by Forest Whitaker. Thursday offers wrestling's "WWE Smackdown" and Friday a movie.

UPN executives believe the line-up will provide a night-to-night springboard. On Tuesday, "Buffy" captures about a 22% African-American audience and "Haunted" offers a prominent African-American character. Even WWE on Thursday has a 33% African-American audience. "We feel in all of our shows that there are things of interest for the African-American viewers to come into Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," Ostroff says.

easing advertiser concern

Beyond that, execs hope shows like "Buffy" and "Enterprise" will help build the ratings in the general 18-34 demo. The hope is the shows can help launch "Haunted" and "Twilight Zone." Overall, UPN posted a season-long rating of 1.9 (about 1.2 million viewers) in the 18-34 demo last year, placing it above AOL Time Warner's WB for fifth among the broadcasters.

Besides the new lineup, Moonves' presence alone should ease advertiser concern. Also instilling confidence is UPN operations such as ad sales now coming under the CBS group. "Viacom's affirmation of their long-term faith in UPN sent the appropriate signal to the marketing community," says John Rash, senior VP, Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis.

It would have been difficult in the $8.1 billion 2002 upfront for any of the six nets to struggle, but UPN posted large percentage gains in revenue intake with a 50% jump, from $160 million to $240 million. In pricing, UPN posted 15% gains in cost-per-thousand viewers, or CPMs.

The network may be on a trek to profitability. Abruzzese says the goal is to do so in the next year and a half.

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