Recent news that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will move from The WB to UPN disappoints on so many levels.
Let's start with image. The WB has an identity - a "strong brand," as they say in the business. The WB knows how to market its programs with a savvy style that belies the network's youth.
UPN barely has an identity and what it has is tied to wrestling and the worst "Star Trek" series ever. (A WB publicist said UPN stands for Used Parts Network because of its reliance on castoffs from other networks, including "The Hughleys" from ABC and now "Buffy.")
Compare "Buffy's" move to magazine placement on a store shelf. "Buffy" going to UPN is like a magazine that's stacked next to Time or Newsweek that gets moved to the rack with Penthouse and Hustler.
"Buffy" will gussy up UPN quality-wise, but will UPN taint "Buffy"? "Buffy" is a smart show. The smartest show UPN had in the past year, Tom Fontana's "The Beat," got canceled for not attracting enough viewers. UPN reaches 5 million fewer homes than The WB. Last week, 4.3 million viewers tuned in to see a new "Buffy" episode on The WB.
The future of spin-off series "Angel" also remains up in the air. If The WB cancels it out of spite, UPN has promised to pick it up. But if The WB keeps the show, the chances of future crossovers to "Buffy" will likely disappear.
And there's another show left hanging in the balance. In January, WB honcho Jamie Kellner intimated The WB might cancel "Roswell" as retaliation for the loss of "Buffy." Like "Buffy" and "Angel," "Roswell" is produced by Fox.
I suppose UPN could pick up "Roswell" too, but with a "Buffy"-bloated prime time budget, that seems like a long shot.
So who's to blame? Some will point the finger at The WB for behaving like a cheapskate. Others will blame Fox for playing favorites and choosing UPN, which Fox may soon have a financial stake in. I choose to blame the government for reckless deregulation that now allows networks to own their own series.
There was greater competition for shows when the networks had to buy programs from outside suppliers. In a deregulated TV universe, we're inching perilously close to the ultimate in vertical integration when the only shows on ABC are produced by Disney, Fox makes shows for Fox (and UPN), Viacom produces exclusively for CBS and UPN and Warner Bros. makes shows only for The WB. (NBC remains stubbornly unaligned with a studio.)
It could be argued that vertical integration improves the odds that low-rated shows will stay on the air because the networks have an ownership stake in them. But it's a double-edged sword. In time we'll know whether that sword swings "Buffy's" way or fatally wounds the series.