WNUV's jump to the WB bandwagon brings in hotter shows and a bunch of money, byproducts of the intergalactic war with UPN

A LINEUP WITH A LEG UP

January 17, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

When WNUV, Channel 54, switches its network affiliation tomorrow, it won't just force people to look elsewhere for their weekly dose of Captain Janeway and the crew of Voyager.

The switch, along with a handful of others in markets scattered throughout the country, could prove a turning point in the struggle between two relative newcomers to the network wars.

Tomorrow, WNUV, Channel 54, switches its network affiliation from UPN (United Paramount Network) to the WB (Warner Brothers). Which means, instead of the shows "Star Trek: Voyager," "Moesha" and "Clueless," the station will be airing the exploits of a gal who kills vampires ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), a minister and his family of five ("Seventh Heaven"), Tom Arnold ("The Tom Show"), a pair of identical twins ("Sister, Sister"), a guy who talks to puppets ("Unhappily Ever After") and a pair of mismatched brothers ("The Wayans Brothers").

UPN, which found itself about to vanish from Baltimore's airwaves when the WB deal was announced in July, will instead be seen on Channel 24. UPN signed on with Beverly Hills-based United Television Inc., which bought Channel 24 from a subsidiary of the Home Shopping Network for $80 million.

The sale was announced in November, but the transfer of ownership wasn't approved by the Federal Communications Commission until Thursday.

Jeff Weiss, station manager of the newly christened WUTB, said yesterday that UPN programs would begin appearing on Channel 24 as soon as possible, perhaps as early as next week.

WB's incursion into Baltimore is mainly driven by money -- it is paying Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns WNUV and four other stations also switching networks, $84 million over the next 10 years. But it's a move also driven by momentum, by the industry perception that WB has it, while UPN doesn't.

"The WB is very exciting; I think viewers will immediately embrace the programming, because it's all fresh," says WNUV Station Manager Steven Soldinger.

Adds Sinclair CEO-designate Barry Baker: "You have the same kind of feeling at the WB that you had at Fox in the early days. I think the programming is much more broad-based than the UPN programming. I think the WB has a strong sense of their identity, while I think UPN is still struggling to figure out what they are."

Of course, both Soldinger and Baker are trying to sell the public on a new product. But both the numbers and the industry buzz say WB is onto something. While it's not going to be threatening the big-four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) anytime soon, WB has become the favorite in what has come to be called the battle of the netlets.

Nielsen ratings

For the week of Jan. 5-11, Nielsen ratings show WB programs were seen in about 196,000 more homes than their UPN counterparts. That may not seem like much -- the difference is only two-tenths of a ratings point -- but it marks the fifth time in the past seven weeks WB has come out on top (it tied in a sixth). It's also the only network out of six to show ratings growth over the past year. UPN still leads in the season-to-date ratings, but only by one-tenth of a ratings point (about 980,000 households).

Even more impressive: Those numbers don't include such major markets as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, all of which were part of the Sinclair deal.

But enthusiasm for WB isn't based strictly on the numbers. A poll of station executives in the Jan. 12 issue of Broadcasting & Cable magazine showed that 48 percent believe only one of the net-lets will survive and expand (45 percent believe both will). Of those who believe in survival of the fittest, 60 percent are betting on WB, compared with 32.5 percent for UPN.

In last year's survey, WB finished just a couple percentage points ahead; two years ago, UPN was well out in front.

WB's 'perceived momentum'

Proof that WB is racing forward while UPN seems stuck in neutral was apparent earlier this month, when both networks invited the press to meet with executives and preview programs.

WB had several new shows, including "Dawson's Creek," from screenwriter Kevin Williamson ("Scream" and "Scream 2"); "Three," from MTV Productions, about a trio of ex-lawbreakers now working secretly for the good guys; and "Invasion America," an animated show produced by Steven Spielberg.

UPN used the occasion to announce it was bringing back "The Love Boat," as well as a re-tooled "Ed Sullivan Show," with computer wizardry enabling the late showman to introduce modern acts (much like the Mercedes commercial that's been airing the past several months).

"WB certainly has the perceived momentum," says Steve McClellan, New York bureau chief for Broadcasting & Cable. "So far, [its] strategy seems to be working."

Jamie Kellner, who has been its CEO since WB began broadcasting Jan. 11, 1995 -- five days before UPN debuted -- attributes the network's success to its initial programming strategy, one it has maintained.

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