HOLLYWOOD — For UPN, these are the best of times. Which doesn't mean they're good times.
The network is still losing money hand over fist, but considerably less money than it was losing a year ago. But the question of whether six broadcast networks can survive in today's television marketplace remains open — and if one of them fails, at the moment UPN is by far the most likely candidate.
To be fair, only three of the six broadcast networks — CBS, NBC and the WB — made any money last year. But while there's no doubt in anyone's mind that both ABC and Fox will survive, there's plenty of doubt about the future of UPN. Not that the man guiding the network will publicly admit to any doubts about its future.
"UPN is in better financial shape than ever in its eight-year history," said CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves, under whose purview CBS's sister network falls. He pointed to the fact that advertising revenue was up 25 percent from 2001 to 2002. "Even though we had some rating problems, due to the success of advertising and sales, we've had a fine year."
Yes, they've had some ratings problems — ratings are down significantly over last season. Particularly for its two "signature" series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Enterprise." And "better financial shape" doesn't mean good financial shape, because UPN is still losing tens of millions of dollars a year.
"Obviously, UPN lost a great deal of money last year," Moonves said. "The losses have been cut over 50 percent in this year." He declined to be more specific. "I'm just saying that the losses have been decreased substantially, and we're on our way to be profitable.
That, however, actually has less to do with the fact that ad revenues are up than it does with the fact that costs declined because they're being shared with CBS.
"The integration of UPN and CBS has been a success in every way, shape and form. The departments have melded together great. We've reduced overhead because of that," Moonves said. "I think we're far more efficient, both financially and creatively, and I think we're ready to put our first step forward as we head for the new development season."
Development of new shows is what it's all about. And it remains something UPN has never done well — the network has never launched a break-out hit, and its most successful shows — "Buffy," "WWE Smackdown!" and "Enterprise" either moved from another network or were variations on a theme from another network. But Moonves is trying to re-create the pattern that led to his turning once-struggling CBS into an industry leader.
"At CBS, the first thing I had to do to bring that network back a number of years ago was to get a few 'A' players to come in and want to do shows there," he said. And they're doing the same thing at UPN.
"We sought out creative people who would understand and could deliver programming that would fit the brand that we're developing for UPN — unique programming that resonates with our young, contemporary and multiethnic audience," said UPN Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff. Among those with whom the network is developing shows are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, Eve, Danny DeVito, Mel Gibson, Carsey-Werner-Mandebach (the sitcom producing team whose credits include "Cosby," "Roseanne," "Home Improvement" and "That '70s Show"), Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Wes Craven, Joel Silver, John Millius and "many, many more."
Smith and his wife are developing "a comedy for us that's based on their true-life story about their relationship with Will's ex-wife and how they're raising his son from their first marriage together," Ostroff said. "And they're very, very excited and invested because it's so close to their heart."
"This isn't a vanity production," Moonves said. "Will Smith is in every meeting. He's helping to write the script."
Gibson's project is "basically a 'Sting'-type show" about "really elaborate, different scams every week." Millius is working on a military show titled "Delta." Eve is developing a sitcom for herself that is set in the fashion world. "I think our development is the strongest in the history of UPN," Moonves said. Not that that's saying much.
None of those projects will be on the air before the fall. And there's no guarantee any of them will ever make it on the air. In the immediate future, UPN is pinning its hopes on the new sitcom "Abby," which premiered earlier this month, and the forthcoming drama "Platinum," a prime-time soap set in the gloss and gritty world of hip-hop music — one of the few dramas in network history with a predominantly African-American cast.
UPN is focusing on attracting viewers ages 18-34 and they're "very proud" of the minority audience that watches the network's programming. But among the network's struggles is the fact that it has very little audience flow from one night to the next — "the fact that UPN has had five different audiences on five different nights." Viewers who watch the black sitcoms on Mondays don't watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on Tuesdays, who don't watch "Enterprise" on Wednesdays, who don't watch WWE wrestling on Thursdays, who don't watch the UPN movie on Fridays.
"What we're trying to do slowly with a show like 'Platinum' is to sort of bridge, perhaps, Monday and Tuesday nights," Moonves said.
UPN's leaders do admit they're still struggling to "put our stamp" on the network.
"We've said it's an evolution, not a revolution," Ostroff said.
"As I discovered with CBS, it took a little while longer than I would've liked," Moonves said. "But we are certainly getting there."
That, however, remains to be seen.