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If You Can't Beat 'Em…: The WB, UPN Merge

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Lorelai Gilmore, meet Chris Rock. Superman, this is your new neighbor, Smackdown!  The Big Four’s two baby-sibling networks, UPN and The WB, today announced plans to combine into a single supersib, The CW, to launch in September. (The WB is owned by TIME’s parent company, Time Warner; UPN, by CBS Corp.)

The new "fifth network," to be called The CW, will air 30 hours of programming a week, including daytime and afternoon blocks; the primetime lineup, like The WB and UPN’s now, will be two hours most nights. Its shows will be carried on a combination of existing WB and UPN affiliates. UPN’s Dawn Ostroff will be the programming head of the beast.

Wall Street, of course, loves mergers that eliminate redundancies (i.e., jobs). And content-wise, UPN and The WB make pretty good sense as a merged network. The two netlets, founded in the mid-90s, have become increasingly like one another over the years anyway.

After beginning with programming heavily aimed at African Americans, both followed the Fox network strategy of throwing over much of their minority programs to cater to white kids. By the late ’90s, the two had become Mars-Venus rivals, UPN courting young males with programming like wrestling, The WB going for the girls with primetime soaps. But lately, with UPN discovering the wiles of Tyra Banks and The WB toughening up with Smallville and Supernatural, both small networks settled into an androgynous mean. At the same time, their audiences plateaued below those of the Big Four. In retrospect, it may have been just a matter of time before one of them got its chocolate into the other’s peanut butter.

Still, the deal does go against the larger trend in media of atomizing the audience among more, not fewer, outlets. And it raises a number of questions, both creative and bottom-line:

* Whom does this move threaten the most? It’s arguable, of course, that in the short term this has little effect on the overall ratings–the deal is simply combining two audiences that already exists. But if The CW does prove to be stronger than the sum of its parts, that may not be good news for Fox, which is the broadcast network demographically closest to The CW’s young target.

* Where is the growth opportunity? Certainly the surviving shows on the new schedule will benefit by not having to compete with a second youth-oriented network. But while the corporate masters can order their staffs to shack up, they can’t simply command surplus UPN viewers, say, to start watching Everwood, as opposed to switching to Fox, NBC or cable. It remains to be seen whether the audiences will merge along with the networks. And the merger trades two recognized, albeit small, brand names for a new one that will have to get established from scratch. Expect the CBS-Time Warner marketing machines to brand those two initials on your forehead by fall.

* How young will the new network be? If The CW wants to be a major network, it may eventually want to pursue the Fox model of gradually going after a bigger swath of ages (Fox tends more toward thirtysomethings) while still staying in the demographic sweet spot of the advertiser-friendly 18 to 49s. Then again, CBS already owns a network for older folks—it’s called CBS; you may have heard of it—so expanding without cannibalizing will be a delicate trick.

* What shows stay and go? There’s little reason to worry about hits like Gilmore Girls and Everybody Hates Chris, which not only have a following but serve similar audiences. Beauty and the Geek plus America’s Next Top Model is a match made in reality heaven. But combining two primetime schedules into one will require some trimming. Networks drop shows at the end of every year, of course. But you have to wonder what the odds are for some of the shows on the periphery of the new networks’ young-viewer strategy—UPN’s African American comedy block, for instance, or The WB’s family sitcoms. (The new network says shows like Girlfriends and Reba will be "available" for the new schedule, though it makes no promises.) New network schedules are drawn up in the spring, so there will be a lot of decisions to make, and quick.

For all these questions, one thing is clear: The CW is an even dumber name for a network than The WB was, an achievement I had not thought possible. Come September, viewers tuning in The CW to find Country Western (or, maybe, the Conventional Wisdom) are going to be disappointed.