Two networks debut this week in Baltimore area

January 15, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

The greenest crew in the ever-expanding "Star Trek" universe embarks tomorrow on the most daunting mission yet: launching a new national television network.

"Star Trek: Voyager" carries the flag for the United Paramount Network (UPN), boldly leading four other new series and establishing UPN on 96 stations across the nation. Initially, UPN programming will run Monday and Tuesday evenings; a Saturday afternoon movie rounds out the lineup.

"Voyager," the fourth series in the fictional future created by Gene Roddenberry, premieres tomorrow on WNUV-Channel 54 in Baltimore and on WDCA-Channel 20 in Washington.

"They have a show with a built-in audience. All the Trekkies will be watching . . . [and] I think their lineup is as good as anything I've seen. These shows could go on ABC, CBS or Fox tomorrow," says Steve Marks, general manager of WNUV.

Mr. Marks predicts Baltimore will be one of UPN's strongest markets, in part because the battle of the new networks taking place nationally is barely happening here.

That battle pits UPN against fellow newcomer, Warner Bros. Network (WB). The only Baltimore affiliate for WB is tiny Towson State Television. The low-power, education-oriented outlet broadcasts on UHF Channel 61, but its signal can be received only within a three- to five-mile radius of the TSU campus. WB also can be seen locally on a few cable systems.

WB previewed three of its four series last week. Starting this week, its four sitcoms will air from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Both new networks are backed by major entertainment companies -- Viacom/Chris-Craft, parent of United Paramount, and Time Warner/Tribune Co., owner of Warner Bros. -- and both claim they are able to reach about 80 percent of the national viewing audience initially. Both plan to have seven nights of programming eventually, as well as children's programming and late-night fare.

Mr. Marks, who is also general manager of Baltimore Fox affiliate WBFF-TV (Channel 45), acknowledges that it will be difficult to establish a new national network.

"I think that the fifth network doesn't compete with the fourth, but with all the others now," he says, the way Fox Broadcasting took on all three of the big networks eight years ago.

Fox achieved slow but successful growth by zealously seeking young viewers with shows like "Married . . . With Children," "21 Jump Street" and "Beverly Hills, 90210." Similarly, both UPN and WB have targeted audiences in the 18-34 age range, with UPN taking even more specific demographic aim at male audiences.

The UPN lineup reflects "a pretty sound programming strategy," says Dave Robinson, senior vice president and media director of W. B. Doner & Co., a Baltimore advertising firm.

In addition to "Star Trek: Voyager," other UPN series include: "Marker," starring Richard Grieco, formerly of "21 Jump Street"; "The Watcher," a supernaturally tinged thriller; "Platypus Man," about the host of a gourmet cooking show; and "Pig Sty," about five young guys in a New York apartment.

Also, "The Saturday Afternoon Movie" premieres this week at noon with "Call to Glory," starring Craig T. Nelson and Cindy Pickett.

"There's a rule about programming for men: Put guys in uniforms with a lot of blinking lights," Mr. Robinson jokes. "Star Trek: Voyager" fits this strategy, he says.

" 'Star Trek" has proven itself over and over again," he notes -- even against the kind of skepticism that first greeted "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

"The Next Generation," which projected the original "Star Trek" into the future, ended its seven-season run last spring as the highest-rated syndicated series ever and moved on into the movies, with "Star Trek Generations." "Deep Space Nine," the 2-year-old spinoff from "The Next Generation," also has been successful.

In the Baltimore area, the new "Star Trek" has a further advantage because it will air in alliance with "Deep Space Nine," which is carried on both WNUV in Baltimore and WDCA in Washington. Tomorrow night's premiere episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" begins aboard the Deep Space Nine space station.

The Fox-UPN connection

The connection between WNUV, a strong Fox station, and WBFF, a UPN affiliate -- Mr. Marks is general manager at both -- is the result of a lease agreement signed by their parent companies in May that allows WBFF to program WNUV in exchange for a fee and the right to sell advertising.

The pairing of the two stations is "not unique," says Jennifer Weingroff, a UPN spokeswoman in Los Angeles. She notes that nationwide, 23 of the 96 UPN affiliates are "secondary affiliations," meaning they carry UPN programming along with shows from a primary affiliate. The majority of these are Fox stations.

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