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Tuned In: UPN schedule plays to men with WWF wrestling

Tuesday, July 20, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- TV critics can be an unforgiving lot, but UPN's fall schedule makes compassion tough to muster.

In an effort to draw more viewers -- particularly young, male viewers -- the struggling network has scheduled two hours of WWF wrestling Thursday night. Critics are bound to sneer, but it's an easy move that's likely to boost the network's ratings.

But couldn't UPN have come up with other shows that look, well, not awful? Is that so much to ask?

"Secret Agent Man," from film director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "Wild Wild West"), may hold promise, but what happened to that planned series from Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson? And why change the title of the "Moesha" spin-off "Mo'Nique" to something as generic as "The Parkers"?

Ralph Farquhar, co-executive producer of "The Parkers" (starring "Moesha's" Countess Vaughn) said that show's working title, "Mo'Nique," was never set in stone and was changed to better reflect the lives of the mother-daughter lead characters.

UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan said the Fontana/Levinson show, once titled "Flesh and Blood," was filmed only as a presentation. It's being reworked as "The Beat," keeping some of the same characters and jettisoning others (including original star Jorja Fox, who plays Maggie Doyle on "ER").

Fontana and Levinson will be directly involved in "The Beat." Fontana wrote the pilot, which Levinson will direct next month in Manhattan.

Nunan and UPN president Dean Valentine said the network's move to targeting young men made more sense than last year's efforts to broadly capture families because the sporting events carried by many UPN affiliates already attract a male audience.

Nunan called the addition of "guy-friendly" wrestling to Thursday night a "destination franchise" like "Monday Night Football" on ABC that can be used to promote the rest of UPN's schedule.

While UPN executives could take credit for being the most progressive network in terms of casting shows with minority characters in lead roles, they took it on the chin for adding WWF.

Valentine defended the addition of WWF, saying it's "an incredibly mild form of entertainment" that focuses less on violence and sexuality and more on storytelling.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with the messages it sends out," Valentine said. "We do not believe there is anything violent or sexist about WWF."

That includes a WWF character named "The Pimp" who parades into the ring with his "hos," Valentine said. "Hey guys, lighten up, it's a comedy."

WWF has come under fire for showing wrestlers and fans in the audience raising a middle finger to the camera on USA Network, a practice that's not likely to change on UPN's "WWF Smackdown."

"The guy's are going to make obscene gestures," Nunan said. "How we handle it -- if it's fuzzed out or how many can occur -- we're still working that out. I think if we handle it responsibly, it's not going to be a problem."

MORE WRESTLING: UPN's not the only network about to add professional wrestling to its lineup. TNN debuts Extreme Championship Wrestling Aug. 27, but ECW owner Paul Heyman said it would be different from WWF and WCW.

"It's the classic example of give someone an inch and they'll take a yard," Heyman said of the competing wrestling franchises. "Professional wrestling promoters will take a concept and take it so far past the envelope that it does nothing but invite criticism that is probably well-deserved."

Heyman said the other wrestling shows have forgotten about wrestling and moved into the realm of "semi-pornographic, pseudo-hardcore, non-athletic soap opera." He said ECW will emphasize athleticism and in-the-ring theatrics instead of out-of-the-ring soap stories.

But ECW won't be namby pamby wrestling. TNN has already announced the show will carry a TV-14 parental guideline rating.

WITHER 'MOESHA'? Singing star Brandy, who plays the title character on "Moesha," said this season is the last year in her contract and she doesn't know if she'll be back. She later clarified her comments, saying as long as UPN "shows us the money" and she's not cast in a film opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, she'll be back.

MUSIC STAR: Wexford native Christina Aguilera will be among the performers on "L'Oreal's Summer Music Mania '99" airing Aug. 31 on UPN. 'N Sync, Britney Spears and 98 Degress will also be featured.

IF THEY MATED: What do you get if you cross the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys? Probably something like S Club 7, the latest group of hand-picked, fresh-scrubbed, singing teens (they were selected by Simon Fuller, who also created The Spice Girls).

With four girls and three boys, S Club 7's first single, "Bring It All Back," became a hit in England in June. Now the group hopes to get in sync with American teens and kids when 13 episodes of their "Monkees"-like series "S Club 7 in Miami" debuts on Fox Family Channel in November.

STILL SNOBS: More film actors continue to make the switch to television, often working on prestigious projects for cable. But not everyone has figured out TV is as viable a creative medium as film.

Appearing on an AMC panel to discuss the old studio system, Faye Dunaway said there's more at stake making movies.

"TV is a different sort of thing, it's sort of a training ground," she said. "It's an advertising medium, really. You know, you're just there to sell things."

Perhaps it's a matter of sour grapes. After all, Dunaway starred with Robert Urich in the short-lived 1993 CBS sitcom "It Had To Be You."

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