UPN earns cachet among 'edgy' set

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Is Viacom's other broadcast network, UPN, finally on the brink of gaining some respect?

Long a haven for "Star Trek"-loving dweebs and "WWE Smackdown"-obsessed fanatics, it's fair to say that UPN's long been, well, buzz-challenged. Even UPN's Dawn Ostroff, its president-entertainment, admitted at a recent press event that the station had suffered from a "multiple-personality disorder."

But that seems to have cleared up. Now the network's squarely targeting "edgy, trend-setting females" aged 18-34, according to agency buyers. And key shows are winning more attention from audience-driving celebrity tabloid weeklies such as American Media's Star.

Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat, agrees. "UPN is absolutely in turnaround. A big part of that is down to Dawn Ostroff and [Viacom Chief Operating Officer/Co-President] Leslie Moonves. That's given them access to really good talent in front of and behind the camera."

The huge growth in the second season of "America's Next Top Model," which airs its third this fall, has helped change perceptions. The first season of "Top Model" attracted an average of 3.7 million viewers, a figure that grew to 6.3 million in its next season. In the sought-after 18-49 demographic, the show grew from an average 1.9 rating and 5 share to a 3.0 rating and a 7 share.

`Amish in the City'

This summer's "Amish in the City," which the network bills as a journey of self-discovery, has also helped establish the new UPN. "Amish in the City" boosted UPN's year-over-year performance, ranking among the top 25 shows from its first week through Aug. 3 among adults aged 18-49.

The reality series portrays youngsters from the Amish community enjoying their "rumspringa" or "coming of age"-a period when Amish teens are free to sample non-Amish lifestyles-in Los Angeles. In "Simple Life" style, the Amish are thrown together with a group of city slickers. While the critics initially complained that the show would be exploitative of innocent country folk, it's the modern-day youngsters who come off looking foolish.

`a new audience'

Model/producer Tyra Banks and rappers Eve and Missy Elliott all appear in their own shows this year. Eve stars in an eponymous series about struggles with career and romance difficulties-Queen Latifah has also appeared as a guest. "The Road to Stardom with Missy Elliott," a reality contest that features a search for next great hip-hop star, will air when "Top Model" ends its run.

This new direction is giving TV commentators and advertisers pause for thought.

Hyun Kim, lifestyle editor at Spin Ventures' Vibe, says: "UPN, more than any other network, has been embraced by a new audience." He says UPN has long been doing the kind of shows that other networks wouldn't touch, such as those targeted at black or "urban" audiences. When asked to define UPN hipness right now on a scale of one to 10, he puts it at eight. (Note to readers: UPN is also airing the second annual Vibe awards Nov. 15.)

"After the success of `Top Model,' we stuck a flag in the ground and told people it isn't what it was three years ago," says JoAnn Ross, president of ad sales for UPN and sibling CBS. Indeed, Ostroff is entering her second development season with the network-she joined from Lifetime.

UPN, which began life in January 1995 under the joint ownership of Paramount Studios and Chris-Craft Industries, became Viacom's property in 2000. Shortly thereafter, it came under the umbrella of Moonves. He has hinted that the network might even soon be profitable and add another night. (UPN is currently on air five nights a week.) In any event, as the network its 10th anniversary in 2005, it appears, at last, to be getting its groove on.

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