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
Cory: I see you with those exclamation points. It’s like they’re directed at my soul.
Kerensa: I liked it. I think we finally got a look at The WB’s mess—and Jamie Kellner… danggg.
Cory: These chapters are really about planting the seeds of (self-) destruction. There are highs here—Smallville, Smackdown, Gilmore Girls—but the focus is more on the complicated inner workings of both networks and how they started to slip (or I guess in UPN’s case, slip further).
Eric: I feel like Cory might have a better take on this, but I thought it was interesting how Daniels seems to sort of disdain the wrestling move but also recognizes how brilliant it was in a lot of ways. The ambivalence about that seems to extend to everything both networks were doing at the time. It was… good? But not good enough.
Noel: Yeah, that snobbishness isn’t surprising. It is wrestling, something not to be respected per standards of programming executives, especially for the mighty broadcast network. But, good grief, it makes so much money.
Cory: I think at the time, wrestling, though gaining popularity at an impressive rate, just wasn’t as normalized as it is now. It hit an apex there in the late 1990s, and with The Rock and to a lesser extent Stone Cold Steve Austin, it became just another part of the mainstream pop culture machine. It helps that “mainstream popular culture” is now basically a bunch of different niches, but if that move happened in 2012, no one would balk at it.
Kerensa: Agreed. I think it’s funny that UPN’s ideal identity for itself seemed to basically be Spike TV.
Eric: Not necessarily a bad idea.
Kerensa: No, but they could never get it together.
Cory: It seemed like Daniels was a bit more self-reflexive in these chapters, right? She admitted that she was flat-out wrong about Smallville as a concept and provided a solid mea culpa about UPN and Smackdown as well.
Noel: Well, I think it helps that she was on her way out, so she had less invested in The WB, overall, and less invested in that rivalry.
Eric: And certainly it doesn’t seem like anything at the time was a passion project of hers (Buffy) or particularly easy to hate (Desmond Pfeiffer).
Noel: Except for Birds of Prey! Taking all the thunder from her Lone Ranger pilot!
Cory: Yeah. Even though she’s detailing this later, it’s clear that she was burnt out. I think her burn-out comes across really well in the book, which results in less detailed chapters or at least a transmission of factoids that are pretty well-known, at least I think. Did you guys know that Smallville came out of Peter Roth wanting to do Batman? That’s a known thing right?
Kerensa: I did not know that.
Noel: I knew they wanted to do Batman, but I didn’t know it was Roth’s idea. Warner Bros.’s Bat-embargo knew no boundaries.
Cory: Yeah, the Roth thing is less important.
Eric: I didn’t know. I’m very glad they didn’t though.
Cory: In some ways, that show probably would have been better, but in other ways, I don’t think so. The story engine for Smallville worked really well at the beginning (and at times later, but that’s neither here nor there).
Eric: Imagine a WB Batman.
Cory: Like, an early Bruce Wayne show doesn’t sound that exciting. And if it does to you, then The CW has something you might be interested in and it’s called Arrow.
Kerensa: Arrow was boring.
Eric: Where is my Aquaman series????
Cory: Blame Dawn Ostroff for that one, Eric.
Eric: All the sads.
Cory: Maybe it’s just because I’m a fan, but I think Daniels undersold how popular Smalville was at the beginning. Highest rated premiere ever! But it also made the cover of Rolling Stone, which in the early ’00 still sort of meant something. People cared.
Eric: Yeah it was sort of the pinnacle of WB-y concepts in a lot of ways.
Kerensa: Hot dudes. Coming of Age Story. Superheroes! Angst!
Eric: I remember being vaguely interested even though as a 10-year-old boy, or however old I was, I thought The WB was for girls with cooties.
Cory: I’ll be the first to admit that Smallville eventually went off the rails in the middle years, but it doesn’t really get its due in this book or anywhere else. I’m guessing that a lot of that has to do with how the network crumbled around it.
Noel: Do you think, Cory, that Smallville‘s off-the-rails-in-the-middle was due to the executive problems? That things just weren’t working at the top and it trickled down? I just ask because it took down Birds of Prey, but it didn’t seem to have much impact on Everwood. (And Amy Sherman-Palladino was running her own fiefdom, so she just fought with them all the time, particularly Jordan Levine.)
Eric: Seems like Birds of Prey was largely a casting issue? Like, maybe if some of the actors were known quantities it might’ve survived? I know a lot of its trouble was due to executive turmoil, but still.
Noel: Eh. Was it? I mean, The WB made its name on discovering unknowns. The book makes seem like a collapse from the top of the show to the top of the network.
Eric: Yeah, but it seems like they sort of stopped testing whether the unknowns were more than just pretty faces. Tarzan, especially, seems to have had that problem. The stories about the successful castings all show a lot more personality.
Noel: True, true.
Cory: Noel, I think you make a great connection there. Daniels hints at how with all the management upheaval, the stress levels were high and yeah, it probably got a little sloppy. Eric mentioned Birds, you mentioned how ASP fought with Levine, Kellner botched everything with Joss Whedon. I think what really defines the end of The WB—and this is jumping ahead—is how they lost that drive to connect young creative talent together.
Smallville‘s showrunners were pretty terrible, and after season three the show kind of worked in spite of them… until it completely bottomed out in seasons six and seven, and they left. But some of the other shows from the late WB era weren’t run by heralded creative folks. I guess Greg Berlanti, with Everwood and Jack and Bobby, but that’s about it.
Eric: Yeah. In a lot of ways I think they let their brand eat itself. In the same way they sort of went with an actor or non-actor type, they sort of assumed they’d keep catching lightning in the same bottle.
Noel: Speaking of eating itself, let’s talk about UPN! [At this point, we had technical difficulties that made it difficult to Noel to contribute too heavily, so that's why he's absent from much of the rest of the discussion.]
Kerensa: I thought the section that highlighted the tension between Nunan and Dean Valentine was super interesting. Especially because they passed on so many shows that are now pretty iconic.
Kerensa: Mostly because Valentine was cray-cray.
Cory: It’s funny that Valentine fancied himself such a ingenious programmer and yet he constantly said no to the likes of Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Though I wonder how successful those shows would have been on UPN anyway.
Kerensa: And Malcolm in the Middle!
Cory: Millionaire doesn’t get Regis if it’s on UPN.
Kerensa: No. I wonder who would have hosted it!?
Cory: Malcolm OBVIOUSLY doesn’t get Muniz if it’s on UPN. His quote was outrageous.
Kerensa: It is still just so puzzling how much UPN just kept fucking things up.
Cory: I still wonder how close those shows were to being picked up.
Kerensa: I know we didn’t get an in depth discussion but I feel like not that close.
Eric: Not very close, Daniels makes it seem. And honestly I’m not sure how much we can blame them. Obviously they were a huge mess, but predicting these things seems harder than she makes it look in hindsight. They seem super unlucky. Then again: Survivor. How do you pass on that?
Kerensa: She does make them look super unlucky.
Cory: I agree. It also seems like Survivor wasn’t fully-formed, at the pitch stage anyway. They had Mark Burnett in there to talk about something else, and Daniels makes it seem like he just came up with the idea off the cuff, pitched it to UPN and then Valentine was like, “YEAH BUT NATURE SHOTS!”
Kerensa: Haha. I felt pretty bad for Nunan. He seemed to have an instinct that Valentine didn’t and there wasn’t anything he could do with it there. Or at least the instinct Valentine thought he had himself.
Eric: Can anyone think of a way he could have gotten around Valentine? I don’t know as much about that kind of inside baseball.
Cory: Not really, I’m guessing. Daniels suggests that Valentine still had A LOT of power, even despite the network’s continued free-fall. There are always smart people working at shitty networks. If they were allowed to make decisions anyway, those networks probably wouldn’t be shitty. Though UPN was destined to be a cesspool.
Kerensa: Can we talk about Buffy a bit?
Cory: Probably should.
Kerensa: Kellner was all about making some dick moves at the end of this section, especially everything that went down with Buffy.
Eric: So to play devil’s (vampire’s?) advocate, it was a lot of money for a show kind of past its prime.
Eric: Well I didn’t say I agreed! I love season five!
Kerensa: Haha! Okay! Although my initial reaction to that comment was a Lucille eye roll.
Eric: Well yeah, obviously, because it’s Buffy. I don’t know, I think the vodka must have gone bad once Whedon opened it.
Kerensa: Comment of the night!
Cory: As someone who hasn’t seen much Buffy (cue record scratch app), it’s always interesting to me how much reverence people pay to the show. Don’t get me wrong, based on what I’ve seen, it mostly deserves it, but it did seem like a high pricetag for a show on the decline, both ratings-wise and as a cultural phenomenon.
Kerensa: That’s probably true.
Cory: No question that Kellner puffed out his chest though.
Kerensa: For sure. One thing I remember hearing—if anyone can confirm or deny—was that they had more freedom with Buffy at UPN.
Noel: I remember hearing that as well.
Kerensa: Okay. I remember hearing it in terms especially of the portrayal of Willow and Tara’s relationship.
Cory: What’s so compelling about that section is how it describes the ways in which 5-10 years of deals, partnerships, and tensions (even going back to Kellner’s time at Fox) completely coalesced with the Buffy situation. Lots of people with egos, grudges, and big PR arms fighting over something they ultimately didn’t really care about as much as the fans or Joss (presumably) did.
Eric: Depends who you mean. I think that’s partially true, but it was also a slightly different staff at the show. If I remember correctly, Marti Noxon became the showrunner for season six.
Noel: Yes… but the less said about Noxon, the less we’ll attract lots of haters.
Cory: Where did Whedon go? Firefly?
Eric: That, and Angel. How he managed to be an executive producer on all those simultaneously is amazing.
Cory: He was like the original Ryan Murphy!
Cory: Only less successful. SNAP.
Kerensa: I need another Lucille Bluth GIF.
Eric: Tyler Perry? Joss Whedon’s House of Rayne.
Cory: Well, and although it was clearly a blow to The WB to lose Buffy, UPN didn’t really gain that much either. It was a weird no-win situation, or at least a circumstance where both networks were so downtrodden and damaged that neither option mattered. Keeping Buffy on The WB in 2001 wouldn’t have saved the network, just like it didn’t do much for UPN. Because it was an older show destined to rule the world of Internet media streaming.
Kerensa: I really wonder what, if anything, would have happened if Kellner wasn’t so weird about WB.com. Think it would have changed anything at all?
Eric: That’s why I even partially sympathize with Kellner here. Not enough incentives to pay that much for it.
Cory: The convoluted business relationships in play at this time were probably the biggest reason all of this went south.
And as I’m guessing that we’ll see in the final chapters, those relationships and tensions only further snipped away at the already-deteriorating structures of The WB and UPN. There isn’t much hope left. I’m not even sure if there will be shows to talk about other than Veronica Mars.