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 / Updated  / Source: The Associated Press

UPN and its weblet rival, the WB, have competed on generally equal footing among viewers since both started broadcasting in 1995. But the WB has what UPN has always lacked: an identity. With the help of Will Smith, Eve and two dimwitted guys with mullet haircuts, UPN will try to change that this fall. It may be the network’s last chance.

WHAT HAS MADE the WB the more successful startup of the two is a unified program lineup more consistent with a cable network than a broadcaster. Not every WB show is designed specifically for teenage girls, but that target group won’t find anything repellent.

UPN’s three most successful franchises couldn’t seem more dissimilar: “Enterprise” for the “Star Trek” fanatics, WWE wrestling’s “Smackdown!” and a Monday lineup of comedies with largely black casts.

“If you watch (New York’s) Channel 11, you know you’re watching a WB show,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst with Horizon Media. “If you watch Channel 9, you’re not really sure if you’re watching UPN or the local station.”

UPN’s new president, Dawn Ostroff, is trying to create an image for the network while enhancing, not abandoning, its few strengths.

“I would like people to have a distinct opinion of what UPN is, where our identity is clearly defined — a network targeted to 18-to-34-year-olds that is bold, adventurous and fun,” she said.

SEEKING CONTINUITY

She sees more common ground within UPN’s lineup than would be readily apparent. Wrestling’s audience is one-third black, for example, so it’s not necessarily true that no one watching UPN on Thursday will also watch on Monday.

UPN’s new Tuesday night lineup this fall, made necessary by the end of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” represents a fascinating sociological experiment in audience flow.

It begins with “One on One,” a successful comedy in UPN’s Monday schedule from last year. Three comedies follow, each with fewer black cast members and more whites, ending at 9:30 p.m. with “The Mullets,” which features two “blue-collar, wrestling-loving” guys.

The blend isn’t completely new. Ostroff said Fox’s schedule a decade ago, where “In Living Color” co-existed successfully with “Married ... with Children,” was an inspiration.

One of the new Tuesday shows is “All of Us,” created by Smith and inspired loosely on his life blending families after a divorce. Unfortunately for UPN, he’s not starring in it.

Hip-hop artist Eve is featured in a Monday night comedy as a woman trying to juggle romance and career.

AN ALARMING DECLINE

Almost as important as establishing new shows is stopping an alarming decline in what were considered dependable franchises. UPN’s audience size dropped by 18 percent during the just-concluded season, with wrestling and “Enterprise” largely to blame.

Ostroff said she still has faith in wrestling, which has seen some ratings improvement this summer.

As for “Enterprise,” which she termed a disappointment last year, expect many changes. Scott Bakula’s character, Capt. Archer, will be made stronger, while the Vulcan played by Jolene Blalock “will explore her sexual side,” Ostroff said.

“She’ll let loose a little bit,” she said.

If UPN is ever going to make it, now would seem the time. CBS’ management, including Leslie Moonves, arguably the industry’s leading executive, has been in charge for a year now.

Moonves hired Ostroff last year from Lifetime, which she helped build into a cable giant. Another veteran executive, Kim Fleary, who was in charge of comedies at ABC is doing the same for UPN.

There’s a sense the adults are in charge now, and UPN’s presentation of its fall schedule to advertisers this spring was its most impressive in memory. The performance of “America’s Top Model” this summer also provided reason for optimism.

Still, with The Wall Street Journal estimating the network has lost more than $1 billion since it started, questions about its viability never go away.

“I know there’s been rumors that if they don’t turn this around, (Viacom President) Mel Karmazin is going to pull the plug,” Adgate said. “They have to rebound. They have to show some kind of identity with viewers — soon.”

AIMING FOR A YOUNGER AUDIENCE

The difficulty in going after an 18-to-34-year-old age group is that so many other networks are trying the same thing, including some of UPN’s corporate cousins at Viacom, like MTV and Spike.

Ostroff said on any given evening, only one-third of Americans aged 18 to 34 are watching TV.

“It feels to me like it’s an age group where there is a lot of growth potential,” she said. “They’ll come to television when there is something they want to watch. They aren’t necessarily the generation that will plant themselves in front of the television every night.”

Ostroff left the security of Lifetime for this?

She said she likes being an underdog. Indeed, if she can turn around UPN, she’ll turn some heads.

“It’s hard to make a network successful, but if it is a success, it will be a very important asset to Viacom,” she said.© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.