Sunday, April 02, 2006

Could The WB And UPN Merger Endanger The Black Sitcom?

Because both the UPN and Warner Bros. networks are having finacial problems with profitability, they are merging into a single new CW network this fall. But an important question is what effect this will have on the programming.

UPN for example has formed a core audience around urban oriented sitcoms with Blacks casts. And while these programs are very popular in U.S. Black households where programs such as GIRLFRIENDS is a top 10 favorite program, among overall households there is very weak crossover market appeal, and these programs rate near the bottom of all network programming near the 100 level or even lower.

Even an outrageously funny episode of the critically acclaimed, EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, posted only a mere 4.4 million viewers last week, and ranked in at a mere number 93 among all network TV offerings.

Unlike some Sitcoms of previous years such as COSBY, GOOD TIMES, FAMILY MATTERS with the very popular Urkiel character, that had a huge crossover appeal, most of the UPN Black sitcoms have failed to generate very much crossover appeal. And this is a deep shame, because some very good programs, writers and actors may soon get the ax due to low ratings while UPN and WB attempt to resrrect some sort of decent ratings out of the best of the two networks as well as pinning some hopes on some new programs meant to capture a bigger audience.

And while muliracial casts in popular network dramas such as ER, the CSI and LAW AND ORDER franchise, THE UNIT, and other shows have worked out well, the market that UPN hoped to reach never really seemed to gather much of a following, forcing a reliance on programming that sought a loyal audience among Black viewers which is definately there, but without enough of the crossover appeal among all viewers to generate enough advertising revenue to be success to keep UPN afloat financially.

Even the quality space drama, STAR TREK ENTERPRISE, died a slow death of low rating only held together by largely an audience of hard core Trekies. Even the critically acclaimed teen crime drama, VERONICA MARS, has been a huge ratings disappointment. Up until recently, it only aired just four new episodes in the last 3 months. This is a very poor way to build any audience loyalty.

And very good offerings on the WB network such as GILMORE GIRLS, SMALLVILLE, or even the Supernatural offering, CHARMED, have failed to attract much more than a small and loyal following.

Unlike the FOX network which managed to go from critically panned sensationalistic programming such as programs about awesomely bad drivers, alien autopsies, or other outrageous programming was eventually able to build an audience with vastly improved offerings such as AMERICAN IDOL attracting viewers to take a good second look at new programs such as HOUSE, BONES, 24 or PRISON BREAK, that all are examples of excellent writing and acting both that the smaller WB and UPN networks just have not been able to build. The UPN and WB numbers remain locked in a ratings slump not much better than some fringe appeal or special interest cable station ratings.

The fact of the matter is that no matter how good many UPN or WB offerings are, they simply have so far proven unable to hold much of an audience. The Latin cast programs on ABC, GEORGE LOPEZ and FREDDIE draw reasonable enough ratings. But unlike FOX which narrowly lost the top network ratings to CBS by a scant 100,000 viewers, and which went from their outrageous fringe programming to building a loyal audience for some very excellent dramas, nothing UPN or the WB network have done seems to work holding onto strong ratings for an entire season. EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS even started out with huge ratings for UPN, but slowly settled into a lowly position among all the Thursday night programs, and is still every bit as good as the NBC comedy, WILL AND GRACE, and other programs it competes with. And this pushed UPN towards seeking audience loyalty with an appeal to Black viewers with a number of decently written and acted Black sitcoms. Some programs like GIRLFRIENDS was at first critically panned as a low rent SEX IN THE CITY ripoff, but soon found it's own identity and audience. But beyond a strong Black audience viewership, many of these programs just never attracted the audience needed to prove very profitable for UPN.

Few of the UPN or WB programs are truly bad. Most are respectable all the way to very good programming. I have a great deal of respect for most of the programs offered on UPN and WB as acceptably good to great TV. But sheer economics may force some serios changes in programming this fall that fans of the current UPN and WB networks will not like. It is almost like the 1950's merger of Hudson and Nash into the American Motors Corporation. And this corporation was a durable corporation for a number of years until some bad financial decisions such as the Pacer brought down the finances of this company.

For some reason there seems to be an endless amount of room for fringe cable networks to make it financially. But for the UPN and the WB networks, they may only be playing for a little more time like the AMC company did and not able to find enough of a market to hang onto for enough audience loyalty to stick around forever as a viable entity as the CW network.


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