CW Network: “A good idea, ten years too late.”

After hearing news of the merger of the WB and UPN yesterday, I rang up Dean Valentine, who’d been president of the UPN when it started out. dean_valentine.jpg

He was speeding back to L.A. from Las Vegas at over 100 mph, but even the wind noise couldn’t drown out the truth. This merger is a good idea, about ten years too late, he observed. Valentine estimated that the two networks had probably lost around $2 billion in the last decade. So essentially, the deal is a tourniquet that stops that bleeding.

Valentine also reminded me of an interesting irony: There never was suppossed to be two new TV networks: All those years ago, Chris Craft, a TV stations group had approached Warner Bros. about starting a network. When the talks went nowhere, Chris Craft turned to Paramount, and the next thing you know, the UPN was born.

Ironically enough, this gave Warner Bros. Television‘s then-president Leslie Moonves – an idea: Hey! We should start a new network!

Soon after, Tribune Co.‘s TV stations would help launch The WB network.

Of course, no one could see that disaster was looming. Valentine’s predecessor, Lucy Salhany, made a calculated bet that black programming could save UPN. But while it gave the network an audience, it also excluded it from a broader one. Madison Avenue wasn’t interested in selling only to black viewers, which it perceived as having less discretionary income than “whiter” channels. Les Moonves.jpg

The WB would make the same tactical mistake, believing that teens would be its savior. But 14 year old boys don’t buy Lexus GS300’s, or shop for mortgages, or buy lots of big ticket items that people with jobs and bigger concerns than prom do.

The merger of WB and UPN is like two horse-and-buggie companies merging at the dawn of the automotive business: Whatever it will save will only be in the near term.

Cable is kicking broadcast’s butt creatively and demographically, and that sucking noise you hear is TV advertising headed to the web, as Google increasingly devastes newspaper classifieds and TV spots alike.

And so here we are: Eleven years later, Les Moonves is reuniting the two doomed networks that he helped bring into existence in the first place.

The start-up network is dead, long live the start up network!