By Cory Barker, Kerensa Cadenas, Noel Kirkpatrick, and Eric Thurm
Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton
Prologue – Chapter 3
Eric: The thing I’ve found most interesting about the book thus far is that I have a pretty hard time knowing how to interpret a lot of the information. So much of it is a framing of the wars between the WB and UPN, but the book is being written by a WB exec. Do you guys think she comes across as objective, or is there some shady stuff with Michigan J. Frog we’re not getting?
Noel: I don’t know that it’s shady, but I do think we’re getting two different books, as it were. All the WB stuff is memoir-ish from Susanne Daniels, while the UPN stuff is not only a bit more distanced (and likely from Cynthia Littleton, a writer for Variety). It certainly skews pro-WB, with a rather less-than-positive view of UPN.
Cory: And even more so, the book features a weird, almost dueling-voices format. It goes for a long while describing circumstances and developments from a more detached, third person position and then switches into Daniels’s personal anecdotes. Both of those portions of the book are good and informative, but the book struggles to bring them together a little bit. But Eric, you’re probably correct.
The book skews more towards the WB, which, to be fair, was the better network and the one that people will forever remember more fondly. And from all accounts, UPN was a mess. I think Daniels tries to discuss that side of things but the nature of her position with the WB and the book’s voice means that it’s inherently going to be one-sided to some degree.
Eric: Yeah. At the very least, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the people behind Buffy rather than, say, Voyager. Or most of early UPN programming.
Kerensa: I agree with Eric. Also, anytime they mentioned essentially building a network around a Star Trek series I couldn’t help but laugh a bit
I think it makes it does little hard to follow, though. And it’s much more business oriented than I expected. So far at least.
Noel: Are you finding the business aspects off-putting, Kerensa? I was surprised by that aspect as well (I was never expecting a nuanced discussion of fin-syn to be in this book), but I really am welcoming it. But then I’m familiar with fin-syn, and I’m not sure how many non-academic, non-industry types are.
Kerensa: I am a little bit—I guess I expected maybe more of a historical (?) aspect—but I think it is interesting especially because I’m not super-familiar with those kind of terms.
Eric: I was sort of familiar with some of it, but I definitely appreciated the explanations. They’re well done enough that your eyes don’t want to glaze over while reading them, which is pretty impressive.
Noel: If it’s any consolation, the more nitty-gritty industry stuff does fade away a bit in the middle of the book only to re-surface near the end.
Eric: I appreciate it! Really!
Cory: I really loved that discussion of fin-syn, as well as the more detailed explanation of how everything began. At times, it was tough to remember who was who or when they came into the fold, but I think she does a pretty splendid job of mixing straight history with that industrial jargon. That’s honestly maybe one of the best, most easily consumable descriptions of fin-syn that I’ve read.
Noel: It totally is.
Cory: And before we go any further, can I just say that I didn’t know she was Greg Daniels’s wife? They are probably the coolest couple in Hollywood.
Kerensa: They probably are. That’s insane.
Eric: I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it is pretty crazy. I’d pay to watch them fight Poehler and Arnett, tag-team style.
Cory: There’s gossip that Poehler and Arnett might be on the outs!
Eric: OH NO NO NO.
Kerensa: Love is dead if that’s true
Cory: Dammit, now I have to dig for this.
Eric: The universe is collapsing.
Kerensa: You need to provide links for this kind of news.
Eric: This is almost as bad as the Erykah Badu-Jay Electronica split.
Cory: I can’t find it. It was on Lainey sometime over the last few days. No confirmation, but a blind that discussed a well-beloved couple with kids and there were WAFFLES mentioned.
Kerensa: WHAT. OHGOD. I’m having several beers because of this potential news later
Cory: Sorry to derail the discussion of a good book with debased lies. Anyway.
I will say this, and I think Noel will agree with me: I still prefer this book’s style over an extended oral history. There are awkward transitions in and out voice or perception, but Daniels and Littleton combine fact and individual discussion quite well. I don’t feel like she’s holding anything back, even if she’s a little rosy-glasses about the WB’s origins.
Noel: I do agree with you, that’s no surprise. It does read much better than Warren Littlefield’s book. Honestly, this format is what I was expecting with Top of the Rock, not what we ended up with. Even if it sometimes comes across as self-congratulatory.
Eric: If anything, I think it might even be more interesting if it were closer to a straight-up narrative. The way that both networks were probably doomed from the start is actually a little sad for me.
Kerensa: I agree with Eric. It’s also just kinda strange to think about how recently this all happened.
Cory: Yeah. It’s of course unclear how much Daniels put into this, or how much Littleton did. It reads like a narrative until it doesn’t. It’s like Daniels is just there, reading along with us providing commentary when needed.
Eric: Well it certainly seems like these two groups of people both had the idea (for various reasons) to do another network at a time when it didn’t really make sense, and there definitely wasn’t room for two more networks. And even with a lot of awkwardness, that’s pretty compelling, to me at least.
Cory: Absolutely. Weirdly, I got a Social Network-esque vibe from these opening chapters. I immediately wanted to watch a Sorkin-produced film about this. Then I realized that Daniels would be a bumbling fool who was in love with Les Moonves in that movie. Daniels-Daniels-Moonves love triangle!
Eric: ”DAMMIT, LESLIE WHY ARE YOU PUNISHING ME BY HAVING GREG DO A SHOW ON OUR NETWORK!”
Kerensa: I would pay to snark at that, and complain about Sorkin’s portrayal of women. Obviously.
Eric: Joss Whedon can be Maggie.
Kerensa: Can we give out a book club MVP award? Because both Eric’s last comment and the Erykah Badu one made me laugh a bunch.
Eric: Aw, thanks. For the record, Jay Electronica cheating on Badu with a Rothschild is NOT A LAUGHING MATTER *sob*
Cory: Let me pose this to everyone: How familiar with the WB, UPN, and their rise and/or fall were you? We’re all relatively young.
Kerensa: I remember when the WB started-ish. I was 10—but I remember it mostly in terms of Dawson’s Creek, and we didn’t have the WB where I lived and I was so fucking pissed. But that was a bit later.
Eric: I might be a bit younger than everyone else, but by the time I was old enough to comprehend the different networks I think they were pretty set in reputation. I remember turning on 7th Heaven in like ’98 and being all “Ewww I’m a 6-year-old boy this looks icky” and then turning on UPN and being totally confused by all of their programming. Also The Parkers.
Kerensa: I agree—by the time I had access to either network they were both set in their network identities.
Cory: Noel, you’re the elder statesman. Thoughts? Other than you wish Daglas were here so you could take pot-shots at his age.
Noel: I honestly don’t remember the launch of either of these networks at all. I watched Voyager because I was just old enough to be getting into Star Trek (I watched the TNG finale when it aired), but I really couldn’t tell you about it. I don’t think I even watched the WB until Felicity started. I did watch that Christopher Lloyd show on UPN. It was awful (but cool, in that first run-syndication sort of way), but reflective of their tendencies at the time, as the book notes.
Eric: Yeah. There were a lot of shows that actually seemed really cool in a mid-’90s way (the Lloyd one being the best example).
Kerensa: I feel like Oh Sit! is giving me some old school UPN vibes.
Cory: Trust me, I’ve spent a few hours tonight trying to concoct a list of the best shows in WB and UPN history and it’s not pretty.
Eric: A lot of the old school UPN just seems horrific in an instantly dating and pandering way (HOMEBOYS IN OUTER SPACE, ANYONE?). I’m amazed it took me that long. You have no idea how much I had to restrain myself.
Cory: Yeah. We haven’t gotten to full development chatter yet, but you get the sense that both networks felt like “targeting youths” meant “hackneyed gimmicks.”
Kerensa: I haven’t got to that portion yet, but I will probably want to watch it. And when old white dudez are “targeting youths” isn’t that what it usually kinda turns into?
Eric: I think it’s telling that Daniels is sort of self-congratulatory about the youth and hipness of their development team. And I think most of them were like 35?
Kerensa: I feel like they were super young actually
Eric: That is pretty young, to be fair, but I’m not sure how much you can call yourself “totally hip” as an exec at that age.
Kerensa: Relatively speaking
Noel: They were younger than 35. Most were in their late 20s. Except Jamie Kellner, I think.
Kerensa: I made multiple notes. Like, Garth Ancier was 28 when he was president of Fox. And what have I done with my life? Not being the president of Fox apparently.
Eric: Ah, OK. My bad on that. Scrub it from the record! [Ed. note: No, sorry, it stayed. -NK]
Cory: Kellner was the older one, but she continuously mentions his youthful nature.
Kerensa: She does!
Cory: And oh, did anyone notice that she had to describe each person’s physical attributes?
Eric: YOUTHFUL EYES!
Kerensa: Bright lanky kid, “born eccentric with boyish charm.”
Cory: Interesting choice, that’s for sure.
Eric: Just wait til she starts describing the Dawson’s Creek kids.
Kerensa: I can’t wait!
Noel: Those descriptions were nuts. She loves describing that cast.
Cory: I guess I appreciate it as a public speaking instructor who had to spend the last week talking about sensory language and descriptive terms, but it was odd. Do you think she’ll describe Joshua Jackson’s puberty phase when he had to wear so much make-up on Creek because of acne? (Low blow. Sorry, Josh, I love you.)
Kerensa: That was mean.
Cory: In any event: What surprised you guys most about these opening portions?
Noel: For me, it was the honesty about both of these networks essentially cropping up because of fin-syn’s relaxation. The media industry nerd in me loves it. And all the deal-making with station owners. It’s a side of television is that is very invisible to people, and I like how important these aspects are to the industry side, and how much they matter to this narrative. Kerensa mentioned not having the WB, and now she knows why!
Kerensa: I know! I thought that!
Noel: I think it’s especially invisible to people our age since we’ve grown up with cable, and the notion of a broadcaster is, essentially, meaningless to a lot of people. As the network folks at the WB and UPN slowly come realize by the end of the book.
Cory: Spoiler! But those are good points, Noel. It’s compelling to read these introductory chapters knowing not only that both networks failed, but that they were sort of cognizant that they were going to fail from the beginning. How many times did Daniels mention that various people suggested merging from the jump? Or just cutting and running? Or buying a REAL NETWORK like NBC?
Eric: I was less surprised by the industry stuff (which Noel warned us of before I started) and more by some of the decisions they made. Kerensa mentioned UPN basically centering their entire strategy on Star Trek, which is just astounding.
Noel: But, at the time, made complete sense because The Next Generation was a smash in syndication.
Kerensa: Which for me was super surprising because I get the Star Trek thing—I just don’t get basing a network around it. And for me just learning all the background behind both networks was kinda surprising because I didn’t know much about it.
Cory: Yeah, TNG is probably one of the most successful money makers in TV history right, Noel? It’s gotta be up there.
Eric: I think it’s less just Star Trek for me, and more how they thought they’d build a network around it. It seems like everyone involved realized how expensive making a lot of shows like that would be, so how did they expect to have a brand centered on that kind of programming?
Noel: I’m not sure, Cory, but I imagine its success is likely responsible for people being willing to take bigger risk in first-run syndicated series afterwards—e.g., Hercules, Xena, Highlander. (Though Highlander was a massive international co-production, and started a bit before TNG ended.)
And, Eric, yeah, it was a bad strategy when you have no money to back it up with, though the book goes to length to make clear it was also an issue of their owners being really poorly organized.
Cory: Well, I think the financing and leadership situations were such a mess at UPN between Paramount, Chris-Craft and more that it appears to have been less of measured choice and more of “We’ve got Star Trek, that’s all that matters” choice. Although, I wonder exactly how much of that is 100 percent true. Like we said, we seem to get the WB-leaning spin from Daniels, where it seems like that network’s origins were certainly hectic and crazy, but they definitely weren’t the disaster that UPN was dealing with.
And yet, no matter the skewed perspective, it’s pretty clear after these first few chapters that UPN was a mismanaged dumpster fire from the jump. Lots of egos, lots of money backing those egos and perhaps most egregiously, lots of people in the “money-making business” not the “TV business.” (Though, that could be another figment of Daniels’s perspective.)
Eric: As an aside, does anyone else see James Marsden every time they read Chris-Craft?
Kerensa: I’m excited to get into how each network came into their individual identities especially via their programming, and I’d like to learn the history of the programming that brought us UPN Tweets!
Here’s the reading schedule for the rest of the book:
Sept. 7: Chapters 4-6
Sept. 14: Chapters 7-10
Sept. 21: Chapters 11-13