The shape of network television is about to change significantly.
CBS and Warner Bros. Television today announced plans to scrap their struggling UPN and WB networks by September, making way for a new fifth network dubbed the CW. (CBS-Warner, get it?)
(Whatever will Rebecca Romijin Stamos do if her new series, Pepper Dennis, is sidelined?)
According to the press release circulated today, Tribune broadcasting and CBS-owned UPN affiliates have agreed to carry the network for 10 years. (which means, whatever they cook up, we will see in the Tampa Bay area on WTOG-Ch. 44. It also means local WB affiliate WTTA-Ch. 38, which was rumored to be losing its 10 p.m. newscast anyway, is now in serious doo-doo come October).
The network expects to hew to the WB's schedule: six nights of prime time programming (two hours each weeknight and three on Sunday), two hours Sunday afternoon, a two-hour midafternoon block and a five-hour kids animation block on Saturday mornings.
QUESTIONS...THERE ARE MANY
1) Which shows will survive?
The powers behind this didn't release a schedule, but they anticipate picking from the best shows on both UPN and the WB. But can female-skewing shows such as Smallville and Gilmore Girls coexist on the same network as WWE Smackdown and Everybody Hates Chris? Expect a wider-aiming network that goes beyond the tight niches established by UPN and the WB -- scrappy, edgy and different, kinda like Fox was 15 years ago.
Shows notably missing from the CW press release: J.Lo's nighttime soap for UPN, South Beach; many of UPN's black-focused comedies such as Half and Half and All of Us (don't worry Everybody Hates Chris was mentioned); the WB dramas Everwood and Charmed; and, thankfully, Life with Fran.
2) How did they keep this secret?
Near as I can tell, not a whiff of news escaped on this project, despite the fact that the nation's TV critics just spent two weeks in Los Angeles at the TV Critics Association's summer press tour poking and prodding network execs about their schedules. Hats off to CBS TV head Les Moonves, who has set the industry on its ear again by coming up with new twists on traditional, old school television products.
3) Why a new TV network now?
Just as iPods and digital video recorders threaten to dismantle the entire profitmaking structure of network television, the two smallest networks have teamed up to make what they can of the new landscape. Critics always figured one of the networks would go away eventually -- not enough ad money or viewers to sustain both indefinitely -- but no one saw both gone simultaneously to make way for a new venture.
Moonves must be cackling up a storm: when Viacom split into two parts, CBS (TV, radio, book publishing) and Viacom (cable TV, Internet. Paramount Pictures), many assumed Moonves was going to be the caretaker of of dying old media, while Viacom bloomed on the wings of podcasts, blogs, web sites, movies and more. He has instead moved to grow his end of the business doing something he mastered while saving CBS: reinventing old media so it feels like new.
I tend to believe the same market forces propping up the rest of network TV will help this venture as well: in a fragmented TV universe, the biggest small crowd still bring in lots of ad money. But can the independently-owned TV stations which depended on the WB and UPN for its massive brand identity survive without a network?
That's a question even Superman may not be able to answer. At least, not until Sept. 1.