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Fourth Estate: Counterpunch

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It has become a ritual. on tuesday nights, in suburban homes from Delaware to Des Moines, in city apartments from Seattle to New York, eager viewers cluster around the TV campfire to watch Dawson's Creek. In a just a few weeks, WB's high school drama has become a magnet for teens, a red-hot advertising market.
Today, one out of every three teens is watching Dawson's Creek. In fact, it's become network TV's No. 1 show among girls. Coupled with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tuesday night is Must-See TV for teenagers on WB. More importantly, this injection of megaviewers has done something miraculous for the 2-year-old network.
"Everyone needs to find a niche, to find brand recognition," says Steve Grubbs, BBDO executive vice president. "WB has found its niche in the teen market. And in the eyes of advertisers, that's what we look for."
In short, if newcomers WB and UPN want to compete with the Big Four, they need to present viewers--and advertisers--with a distinct identity. UPN's twist is "populist programming for the middle class," says president Dean Valentine, while WB is happily courting teenyboppers--and its formula is working.
In January, according to USA Today, WB eclipsed UPN for the first time. Since then, it's shattered its own ratings record. Overall, WB's ratings, though a fraction of the other nets, have risen 19 percent this season, while ABC lost 9 percent, Fox 10 percent and NBC 3 percent. Moreover, WB enjoys the largest increase in advertising compared to the other networks.
For media buyers, it's a no-brainer. Why spend $600,000 for a Seinfeld spot when WB is charging $130,000? Of course, those who bought early on in the upfront market got a sweeter deal. Ads were then going for a mere $35,000. Naturally, Dawson's Creek and Buffy will raise the prices come the May upfront buys.
"WB is the best buy of any network for advertisers who want to reach the largest mass of teens," says Jamie Kellner, WB's enthusiastic chief executive officer. "We are delivering the highest concentration of teens at selling prices that are better than any network."
"Dawson's Creek has been overdelivering each week," marvels Paul Schulman of the Paul Schulman Co. "It's been getting 7 and 8 shares. This show will be for WB what Beverly Hills 90210 was for Fox. It's put them on the map."
Both WB and UPN were inspired by a master maverick: Fox Broadcasting. In its infancy, Fox, despite doomsayers and doubters who smugly claimed a new network could never survive, discovered an effective strategy: counterprogramming.
Since the other networks were in a complacent mode, airing warm and fuzzy family shows such as Cosby, Fox took the low road--Married With Children. Broadcasting familial dysfunction week after outrageous week, Married made every family feel normal compared to the Bundys, a raucous Chicago clan credited with bringing crass humor into TV living rooms.
The upshot? Audiences went wild and the anti-Cosby movement was on a roll. Married's success was shortly followed by The Simpsons, which neatly cemented Fox's bond with young viewers. To ensure relations, the network debuted 21 Jump Street and the headline-grabbing, image-making hit, Beverly Hills 90210.
The strategy was brilliant: Fox first established its foothold with teens, then broadened its reach. Of course, many of the kudos belong to two visionary programming executives at Fox: Jamie Kellner and Garth Ancier.
Care to guess which dynamic duo is leading WB to the winner's circle?
Kellner and Ancier, now entertainment president at WB. At Fox, they rallied the affiliates, wooed the press and capitalized on their inroads in the marketplace. Now, say admirers, they are launching the same tried-and-true plan at WB.
"They have their promotion machine in gear," says Grubbs. "They promote their shows to the industry, and they're aggressively lining up affiliates. Their success perpetuates itself." Believe it. Five stations from UPN recently defected to the WB ranks, which strengthens its overall reach.
"We're generally on a less competitive station in each market. We learned that if you just put on what everyone else has, you're going to lose," says Ancier. The tactic paid off. No longer a second-class network, WB has snagged Invasion America, an animated prime-time show produced by Steven Spielberg, as a midseason show. WB also has development deals with major Hollywood studios.
Plus, if advertisers want to nab the elusive teen market that goes to the movies on Friday nights--and need we remind anyone of Titanic's box-office bonanza with the under-18 crowd--WB is the obvious choice.
In retrospect, the strategy seems so simple. The formula of counterprogramming seems so obvious. But comparing UPN to WB is like looking at the TV version of Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities. Call it A Tale of Two Networks.
Like WB, UPN launched in 1996. Unlike WB, it had a major lure for audiences--the Star Trek franchises. Both networks share the counterprogramming philosophy. Their twist? Minority programming. WB and UPN hoped to capture the underserved African American market, so 17 minority-style shows debuted in the networks' infancy.
UPN offered Moesha and Good Behavior, while WB weighed in with Sister and The Wayans Bros. The strategy meshed with the zeitgeist--but it did not translate into industry clout or big ad spending. Both upstarts are still searching for the grail--a broader audience.
Valentine says he's putting all his eggs in the family-show basket. "We're looking at The Brady Bunch as the kind of show we want to emulate." He points to the new Love Boat, his answer to the urban yuppie shows he claims the other networks regularly champion.
"UPN is in a transitional state," says Helen Tocheff, senior vice president with Zenith Media. "No buzz. They need more breadth in their schedule." And a boost in their bottom line. Entertainment Weekly reports UPN lost $175 million last year. Valentine's solution is to go "after your average UPS driver."
UPN is investing big bucks in the belief that Americans are tired of the hip, sexy, city-characters-with-problems
scenario. WB is busy wedding itself to its youthful fans. It's even willing to bank its future on them. "Get the teens early," says Ancier, "and we'll have loyal viewers for many years."
--Jill Brooke is a CNN correspondent.