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Tuned In: Soured by ratings decline,WB tries to lighten up

Tuesday, January 18, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- During the winter Television Critics Association press tour, game shows were compared to crack and wrestling to marijuana. But WB Entertainment president Susanne Daniels compared her network's reliance on youth dramas to a legal addiction.


"Teen shows are chocolate," Daniels said. "They're sweet and you just want to eat more and more."

But with declines in the ratings this season, The WB seems to have learned young women cannot live by chocolate alone. And neither can a network.

Shows in development for next season appear to be more comedic, more mature and with greater appeal to guys.

"I think we have widened our base a bit," Daniels said. "That was a conscious effort on our part. Let's open it up and look at a bunch of different kinds of shows for our network."

Possible programs for next fall include a family comedy from Alexa Junge (a writer on "Friends"), a comedy about aspiring actors in Los Angeles from Darren Star ("Sex and the City"), a sitcom starring Nicholas Turturro ("NYPD Blue"), a drama about a road trip to California and a show about law students empowered to act as attorneys for the underprivileged. The most hopeful sign for maturity came with the news that producer John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing," "Third Watch") has signed to develop a show for The WB, although it probably won't be ready until fall 2001.

With both UPN and The WB celebrating five years on the air this month, WB chief executive officer Jamie Kellner said the two mini-nets are "hormonally further apart" than they've ever been -- UPN targets young men; WB targets young women.

And this season while UPN's audience grew, The WB's declined, in part because cable superstation WGN stopped carrying WB programming so local affiliates could derive all the benefits from advertising sales. The loss of WGN meant The WB was available to 10 million fewer households, but that alone may not account for WB ratings slipping 15 percent among adults 18 to 34. Too many of the one-hour shows look the same.

"Are we too heavy into drama? We know we are," Kellner said. "We wish we were a little heavier on the comedy side."

Several of The WB's successful series also took creative missteps, most notably "Dawson's Creek," which was almost ruined by new show runners brought in after Kevin Williamson left to create the ABC disaster "Wasteland."

"We went through some bumpy episodes, in particular at the beginning of this season," Daniels said. "We think creatively we were not on track."

The introduction of Eve, a sexy con artist, was singled out as a poor choice to begin the season. Though it was implied Eve and Jen (Michelle Williams) are half-sisters, WB executive vice president of programming Jordan Levin said an episode that would have revealed Eve to be a liar was scrapped simply so the character would disappear quicker.

"We wanted to get back to our core characters," Levin said. "If you start relying on plot devices like an Eve character, you quickly turn from a show that's a much more character-based, relationship show [to] a soap."

One of Williamson's lieutenants has been elevated to show runner on "Dawson's Creek."

Returning shows at midseason include "Zoe" (9:30 p.m. Jan. 31), a revamp of last season's "Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane" with the high schoolers now in college, summer's "Movie Stars" and the fall animated flop "Mission Hill."

New midseason shows on The WB include:

"Brutally Normal" (premieres 9 p.m. Monday) -- Another high school show and one with little to say that hasn't been said before.

"Baby Blues" (no air date) -- An animated comedy based on the comic strip of the same name about the horrors of suburban parenting. Surprisingly funny, but will The WB's target audience of teen girls appreciate the humor?

"D.C." (no air date) -- Dick Wolf ("Law & Order") executive produces this drama about interns in Washington (don't even think about that woman) starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar ("Saved by the Bell," "Hyperion Bay") and Jacinda Barrett ("The Real World," "Wind on Water"). Not a bad twentysomething show.

"Young Americans" (summer) -- If you saw the "Mad TV" parody of WB shows, "Pretty White Kids with Problems," then you'll know what to expect from this drama set at a ritzy boarding school in a depressed town. Along with the issue of town-gown relations, "Young Americans" also delves into cross-dressing and possible incest. I guess that's one way to top the shenanigans on "Dawson's Creek."

UPN DEVELOPMENT: UPN executives might have felt besieged by critics at the network's press conference Sunday (best question of the day: "How do you feel about the image of UPN as a network of monster truck rallies, wrestling and cockfights?"), but their development slate gave no indication the network plans a change in direction.

Shows being considered for fall include "Hip Hop Bounty Hunters" and "I Spike," an undercover series featuring female spies who pose as professional volleyball players. Talk about high concept.

Not to be outdone, The WB's Nikki Cox sitcom for fall will feature the former star of "Unhappily Ever After" as a dancer in Las Vegas married to an aspiring wrestler. Each episode will begin with Cox doing a dance number.

UPN is also developing a new version of "The Saint" with director John McTiernan ("Die Hard," "The Thomas Crown Affair") and a crime thriller called "Level 9" from John Sacret Young ("China Beach"). There's also talk of a "Planet of the Apes"-like series from Todd McFarlane ("Spawn"), tentatively titled "Gorilla World."

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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