UPN in all-out `Dilbert' blitz

TV: Struggling network hopes king of the cubicle can bring viewers back.

January 11, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA -- All questions and answers at the troubled United Paramount Network these days seem to begin or end with "Dilbert," the new animated series about life in a corporate cubicle from cartoonist Scott Adams that will debut Jan. 25.

The biggest question: Can "Dilbert" save UPN?

Dean Valentine, the CEO and president of UPN, started his network's midseason presentation to television critics here by putting on a black stove-pipe hat and saying, "Fourscore and 15 days ago, UPN brought forth upon this nation a new sitcom, conceived in silliness and dedicated to the proposition that a television show about the Lincoln White House was created funny.

"We were wrong. And you guys were right. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in our fall performance."

That's the first public acknowledgment from UPN that "Desmond Pfeiffer," an incredibly stupid sitcom about an African-American valet to President Abraham Lincoln, was a disaster for the struggling network. The series drew protests, advertiser boycotts and, despite all the notoriety, few viewers. It was canceled after three weeks.

But UPN's problems run so much deeper than "Desmond Pfeiffer." Overall, ratings are abysmal.

From November 1997 to November 1998, 39 percent fewer house- holds tuned to UPN during prime time. The WB, meanwhile -- the network many considered UPN's equal only a year ago -- is up 13 percent.

In teens and young adults, UPN is down an astonishing average of 50 percent from last season, while WB has grown an average of about 20 percent.

Valentine continued his remarks by saying, "If there is any lesson I've learned from this past year it's that as an emerging network, we have a responsibility to be more innovative and interesting than the other guys.

"Certainly, our Monday night schedule didn't fit that criteria, and we got our butts kicked. The audience told us in no uncertain terms that they weren't interested in the kinds of shows they could get just as easily on other networks.

"We have to try harder, and we think we've succeeded with Dilbert. ..."

Give UPN credit, it is trying to do "Dilbert" right. It started with a great property. It is estimated that "Dilbert" is read by 150 million people a day worldwide in 1,900 newspapers in 57 countries. On the Internet, The Dilbert Zone (www.dilbert.com), receives 4 million visits a month. There are best-selling books, soft-cover comic books and "Dilbert" advertising campaigns for office supply stores.

And UPN has not scrimped on talent. Along with Adams, who serves as creator and executive producer, UPN brought in Larry Charles, an Emmy Award-winning producer from "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld."

For voices, there is Daniel Stern ("The Wonder Years") as Dilbert, Chris Elliott ("Something About Mary") as Dogbert, Kathy Griffin ("Suddenly Susan") as Alice and Larry Miller ("The Nutty Professor") as the pointy-haired boss.

UPN's day on the press tour here was "Dilbert" from morning to night with UPN pages dressed as Dilbert in short-sleeve white shirts, ties that curl upward and white socks. The day ended with a "Dilbert" party that included a "Dilbert Zone" game show with Miller, a stand-up comedian, as host and television critics as participants. In the grand tradition of television industry overkill, there were even Dilbert ice sculptures at the party.

Yet, the pilot itself -- the actual product as opposed to all the hype surrounding it -- is not very exciting.

Adams and Charles did a decent job of translating the comic to the TV screen, which is no easy task.

As Adams explained, "The hardest part of my whole life is taking complicated things and fitting them into three sentences [for the strip]. That's like the thing I do. And now I've got to take a simple thing and, you know, working with Larry and the writing staff, make it into 50 or 60 pages [for the TV script]. So, it's kind of like thinking inside out. It's just the hardest thing in the world for me."

He did it well enough in the pilot that fans of the strip should be OK with the TV show. But the pilot is neither very funny nor exciting. You just look at the screen and think, "Uh-huh, that's Dilbert."

Though the pilot screened here is only a work in progress and, so, should not be used as the basis for a final judgment, "Dilbert" does not look to be appointment television. And what UPN desperately needs is a new series that viewers will go out of their way to see.

If "Dilbert" bombs, will it mean the end of UPN?

"UPN will be here way past the time that these conferences are here and you have to come to Pasadena to have them," Valentine said, moving from apologetic to combative.

"So, rumors of any imminent demise -- to quote Mark Twain -- would be greatly exaggerated."

Black History

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