UPN back on track with 'Buffy' and 'Enterprise'

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UPN's prospects in the upfront marketplace got a big boost last month when Viacom paid top dollar to pry the popular "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series away from rival network the WB. * The move proved that UPN is committed to investing in strong programming and building a distinctive identity as competition tightens for viewers. Media buyers noticed, which could bode well for UPN's upfront ad negotiations.

"It's very important these days for networks to develop a brand and offer shows viewers will look for ... `Buffy' fits in well with UPN's other programs that tend to draw younger audiences," says Andrew Donchin, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Aegis Group's Carat USA, New York.

But adding "Buffy," which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and enters its sixth season this fall, also raises the question of exactly what brand identity UPN wants to build. UPN has worked hard to build a following among young men, but nailing the female-targeted "Buffy" takes the network in a different direction, says Marc Goldstein, president of national broadcast programming for New York-based MindShare, a division of WPP Group.


"It's helpful for a network like UPN to target a specific audience, but since `Buffy' has such a big following among females, this suggests UPN wants to be more things to more viewers, and less about just targeting young men," says Mr. Goldstein.

Another question on media buyers' minds is who will ultimately run UPN. Currently UPN is in Viacom's stable, but News Corp. is in talks to form a partnership with Viacom to co-own and co-manage the network.

Viacom and News Corp. would likely work out "an accommodation" to sell advertising without any conflicts of interest if they agreed to co-own and co-manage UPN, speculates Bob Igiel, president of the broadcast division of WPP Group's the Media Edge, New York. "UPN seems to have a good, strong future, but it remains to be seen what kind of deals they offer [advertisers] this year," Mr. Igiel says. "Theoretically, this year it will be more of a buyer's market, given various economic trends."

UPN agreed to pay News Corp.'s Twentieth Century Fox Television $2.2 million for each "Buffy" episode-more than twice the $1 million per episode the WB was paying. The WB reportedly refused to pay more than $1.8 million per episode, and claimed it would merely break even at that price.


The hefty price UPN paid to snare "Buffy" suggests the series won't rake in profits, but the deal should also benefit News Corp. by driving viewers to the nine UPN affiliate stations it will soon own in key markets including New York and Los Angeles. That deal, proposed last fall, is expected to close this summer pending Federal Communications Commission approval.

UPN is losing its popular "Star Trek: Voyager," which launched along with the United Paramount Network seven seasons ago. As "Voyager" finishes its run, UPN is in negotiations with Paramount Pictures to carry the next "Star Trek" series, "Star Trek: Enterprise." With "Buffy," the ongoing popularity of "WWF SmackDown!" plus the likelihood of a new "Star Trek" series, media buyers say UPN is looking solid.

"UPN and its audience is a work in progress, and it fell behind WB's hype over the last few years," Mr. Donchin says. "But getting `Buffy' shows that UPN is here to stay. [UPN] is attracting a young, urban audience, and with more of the right programming, they should continue to do so, regardless of who ends up owning or running the network."

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