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
Ed. note: Cory Barker was unable to participate in this installment because he was shopping for a pet gator.
Noel: So we’re at the end times for both the WB and UPN, and, fittingly enough, this week was the week in 2006 that launched The CW. (Really, we didn’t plan this.)
Kerensa: That’s so weird.
Noel: Isn’t it?! In that light, I wanted to ask you about the formation of The CW, before we jumped into the book too much. It’s a recent event, though it feels like The CW has been around forever. Were you both pretty in tune with the TV news happenings by 2006, or was this something that you weren’t really aware of until it happened?
Eric: I actually didn’t realize The CW existed until something like 2008 or 2009.
Noel: HA. Well, that answers that question.
Eric: Pretty sure I only found out that the merger happened when I started mainlining Supernatural and got kind of confused by the logo. And even now, i have much stronger memories of The WB.
Kerensa: I remember The CW because I believe I was in heavy Veronica Mars mode my last year of college. And we had viewing parties—and I was so angry it got canceled and subsequently replaced by that Pussycat Dolls reality show.
Noel: Good grief. I’d already forgotten not only about that show, but about the Pussycat Dolls.
Noel: Haha, no, I did not forget about Veronica Mars! I forgot about the Pussycat Dolls reality show!
Kerensa: I was going to say!? I would be morally offended. I only remember the Pussycat Dolls show because I was so pissed.
Eric: Oh, I actually remember that. Oops, I guess?
Noel: Memory is a fickle thing.
Eric: I was like 14!
Kerensa: I feel so old.
Eric: Well, to not so subtly segue away from the Pussycat Dolls, but it seems like The WB staff was pretty pissed too.
Kerensa: So pissed.
Eric: I thought it was pretty funny that they were all furious that UPN won, even though obviously Les Moonves was going to win everything in the end.
Kerensa: So true.
Noel: It’s something we should all take away from history. Never invade Russia in the winter, and Les Moonves is always going to win in the end. What did you all think about that flurry of corporate backroom dealings?
Kerensa: Didn’t Cory mention that Aaron Sorkin should write the movie version of this book? That’s what it felt like to me.
Eric: It kind of reminded me of a slightly more evil version of “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” the season three finale of Mad Men.
Kerensa: That’s a perfect reference.
Eric: Yeah, it was sort of amazing to me that they did it all more or less under the radar.
Kerensa: Agreed! Especially since everything else (squabbles included) for both networks had been so public. It was rather impressive. And they didn’t take that much time to bring it all together.
Eric: It says a lot about how concentrated power is that just a couple of guys who were really committed to the idea made it work so easily and without involving anyone else. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be naive about networks.
Noel: Obviously some of it may have been streamlined in the book for the sake of narrative excitement, but it does seem like something that happened really easily, naturally.
So, to back away from the formation of The CW, and to talk about the waning days of each network, did either of you watch Platinum? I was aware of its existence, and heard good things about it, but never got to it.
Kerensa: I didn’t either but it sounds relevant to my interests. I’m assuming that’s something super hard to find.
Noel: Probably, and sadly, too. It seemed like one of those big moments for UPN, like a sign that the tide was turning for them just as momentum was leaving The WB.
Eric: Noel, do you think that had the networks been allowed to run their courses, UPN would have kept rising in stature? I kind of felt like there was too much uncertainty for both of them, and they’d have kept trading places. But maybe that’s reading too much into the early narrative.
Noel: In all honesty, I feel like the merger was inevitable. (Though it’s easy to say that since it happened.) The WB seemed to be entering an executive dark age after Jamie Kellner and Susanne Daniels left, while UPN has the potential to be on an upswing with Dawn Ostroff (love her or hate her).
I remember thinking, “Yes, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars are both female-skewing shows. But, no, Veronica Mars does not really fit into this ad mold of girls talking about the love interests on the show while having fashion tips.” (I forget which brand was sponsoring that block of programming, but it was terrible and ham-fisted during the Veronica Mars hour.) [It was Aerie. Thanks to Wesley Ambrecht for giving us the name.]
Eric: I do think that even though UPN won on the business side of things, it seems like in the long term (of six years) The WB’s programming brand has sort of won out in The CW. Is that fair?
Kerensa: Um, yes and no? There is a tiny mention of ABC Family in there. I think ABC Family has more WB-ish programming than The CW. Minus Hart of Dixie—which has so many WB vibes.
I know we talked about our familiarity with the emergence of The CW. And I think what Noel just said concerning the influx nature of the identities of both networks was super interesting. Do either of you think that The CW has a specific identity?
Noel: I don’t know. I don’t watch enough of The CW to say for sure. Certainly my perception is that it still skews for a young, hip female audience. And it tries to be edgy and cool between its “Catch VD” campaign last year for The Vampire Diaries and the network’s second screen experiences with… CWingo.
Kerensa: True. I feel like when Gossip Girl started it was the first hit independent of UPN or The WB (not sure if this is entirely true) and they seemed more cohesive? But now Gossip Girl is ending, and I feel like the pilots from this season were trying to skew older.
Kerensa: Aw Ringer! Ha! But yes, similar to Ringer last season—this season there’s Arrow, Emily Owens, and you could even argue The Carrie Diaries, because do 12–18- year-old girls have a knowledge of Sex and the City?
Noel: Probably. I try not to think about what kids know or don’t know these days. Eric’s the youngest. He can tell us.
Kerensa: Haha! I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t think that they have a cohesive identity really either.
Eric: Neither do the kids! IT’S GENIUS!
Kerensa: Post-post-post modern?
Noel: I do think they’re in flux again, struggling to survive. Arrow, to me, is a mad grab to get young men to watch. The sheer depths they’ve announced they’re digging into the DC universe to bring forward characters—it shows a desire to get that comic book audience (which is perceived as largely male) to the network.
And that same audience would likely dig Nikita (which, sadly, I am so behind on despite liking the first half of that first season), but I’m not sure what else they can find on The CW.
Eric: I actually like Supernatural (and a bunch of my friends do too), but it’s hard to get people to start watching it.
Noel: Supernatural is a great show (I say after five seasons, plus random bits of season six). But I think the brotherly love aspect is pretty well-known, and it might turn off some folks.
Eric: Well a lot of people just assume it’s about the beef.
Kerensa: Isn’t it? Kidding, kidding. I’ve never watched.
Noel: Haha. It is about the beef, sometimes, but you know, it’s okay! They’re both good-looking guys.
Eric: Right. Sometimes it’s just about two bros killin’ stuff.
Kerensa: That might be the book club quote today. Or The CW’s new tagline? Maybe then they can get more dudes to watch. Is Supernatural the last UPN/WB relic left on The CW?
Noel: Well, the last scripted one. America’s Next Top Model is there.
Kerensa: Is that it then?
Noel: Yeah. One Tree Hill finished last season.
Eric: But they brought back Sarah Michelle Gellar for a season so it’s okay.
Kerensa: So the UPN/WB remains aren’t totally gone
Noel: No, and Supernatural keeps getting renewed even after people think it’s done. Was there anything else in the book that you two wanted to discuss?
Eric: The WB farewell was pretty touching. If anyone wants to talk about it.
Kerensa: I thought it was, too.
Noel: It was. I really liked the pilot send-off they did as well, re-airing the first episodes of some of their classic shows—Buffy, Dawson’s Creek. It made me think about, how, really, they were lucky to be able to do that. The other networks… so much of their history is lost or damaged that if they were to ever go off the air, wouldn’t necessarily be able to do that send off.
Eric: Yeah. It helps that they had so many iconic shows in such a short period.
If anyone has any thoughts about the “where are they now,” I’d be interested to hear them. Some of them were kind of amusing.
Noel: Dean Valentine’s amused me because it was nothing but buzz words.
Eric: Yeah, Valentine: “content/technology hybrid.” It felt like a euphemism.
Noel: It’s the failed TV executive phrasing for “unemployed.”
Eric: Yeah, exactly.
Noel: So, since we’ve beaten around the bush a bit on this, talking about influences, what are the last legacies of each network? How are we remembering them?
Kerensa: I think both networks helped to mainstream teen TV. And made it so that genre wasn’t entirely a secret guilty pleasure for older people to watch, I guess (Grantland ran a really great article discussing teen TV along those lines). For example: The O.C., on Fox, and on primetime. I don’t know if that would have happened without UPN/The WB?
Growing up I don’t ever remember watching teen shows at night—they were for mornings or afternoons—with the exception of Beverly Hills 90210 (but that was with my parents, so it seemed adult at the time). I just think UPN and The WB helped normalize it.
Eric: I kind of agree with Daniels. I think both networks were sort of stepping stones in the process of dramatically increasing entertainment options and generally exploding niches. That sort of explains why teen TV became a thing, and why the networks were capable of capitalizing on them until the idea of two networks competing for the same audience just became untenable.
They seem like they were sort of tragic business ventures from the outset (which we’ve talked about before), but still really fascinating ones that were probably important for the future of the industry.
Noel: I think you’re both saying similar things. In a way, both networks were cable-esque projects—chasing after a niche, and engaging in narrow-casting practices.
This could be part of the reason why The CW hasn’t managed much success: it’s still operating within that mindset. Whereas something like ABC Family, as Kerensa has alluded to, has taken the mantle of teen-targeted (and teen-centric) dramas, and revived it on cable, where things are a bit more flexible, ratings-wise. Not always successfully (Poor Chloe King), but they’ve managed to do that.