PASADENA, Calif. - The bitter feud that dominates the relationship between the WB and UPN - the country's fifth and sixth television networks - has gotten so out of hand that the two are mocking each other in public like small children.
But while the pushing and prodding may be slightly entertaining as the two gear up for a new TV season (after all, UPN snatched up two of the WB's shows, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Roswell," gloating all the way), the real story is how both are changing in surprising ways.
The WB, long a bastion for hip young girls and a wonderful developer of dramas, is now turning to sitcoms (where it has failed miserably) and has begun to reach out to teens through the kind of family-friendly programming that almost makes it look like CBS.
UPN, on the other hand, is following up a season in which it finally homed in on its target audience - young boys - only to snatch up those two WB dramas that primarily attract young girls.
Some at the WB have called UPN the "Used Parts Network," while executives at UPN point out that the WB received zero Emmy nominations to UPN's 10, and that if they really wanted to be spiteful, they could call their rivals "the White Boy" network, in reference to the WB's deletion of much of its black-oriented programming.
On and on it goes. Spice is nice, but ultimately it's ratings that keep fledgling networks alive. The WB is generating some buzz for two new shows, the drama "Smallville" and the sitcom "Maybe It's Me." But the rest of its offerings have failed to ignite much critical interest and instead have focused on the fact that older stars like Reba McEntire and Bob Saget (and even Fred Willard) have added some wrinkles to the network's perpetually youthful face.
New WB entertainment president Jordan Levin says what people don't understand is that teens don't always want their comedy coming directly from so-called "teen" shows (young cast, silly premise, etc.) and have proven that they'll watch sitcoms about families provided their point of view is in the mix.
"I think it's about the sensibility and a voice of a show and not so much the age of the casts," he said. Levin is savvy, but we'll have to wait until fall to see whether the theory pans out.
Launching eight new shows may be ambitious for the WB, but at least it actually has shows. UPN shook up its lineup and image with the acquisitions of "Buffy" (through a bloody bidding war) and "Roswell" (which was canceled by the WB) while developing relatively few offerings. Add in "Enterprise," the newest "Star Trek" franchise, plus a couple of pallid new series, and what you've got is essentially three retreads and some scraps.
Granted, "Buffy" was the defining series for the WB, and its ratings should be a boon to UPN if loyal viewers follow. "Roswell" fits UPN's scienc-fiction-friendly programming while pulling in the same desired young demographic as "Buffy" (the two are paired on Tuesday nights). And "Enterprise," a prequel to the previous "Star Trek" series, could turn out to be hugely successful.
So maybe there's something to familiarity. At least Dean Valentine, the president and CEO of UPN, thinks there's reason for optimism.
"I'm going to make a prediction," he said. "Based on the strength of our schedule and the momentum we already enjoy, when we meet this time next year, UPN will not only have improved substantially from where we are today, but we will have beaten the WB on four out of five nights that we program in adults 18 to 34, 18 to 49 and total viewers, thus ensuring that the lead we already enjoy will only increase."
That's easy to say in July, when the trash talk falls on forgetful ears. But both networks seem to be at a curious and dangerous intersection of their respective futures, and neither one looks like it did last season, for better or for worse.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)