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Slay It Ain't So: Free-Agent Buffy Heads for UPN

Hold your breath, folks. We now live in a world of network free-agency.

That's right. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made The WB what it is, but now she's pulling up stakes at the Frog and moving to the other fledgling network, UPN. The big announcement came late Friday -- it's a two-year, 44-episode deal worth roughly $100 million... and about $30 million more than The WB's last, best offer.

Keep in mind where The WB was when Buffy premiered. Heck, just read my article from early 1997 on the subject. The fact is, The WB deserved its "We Blow!" nickname. Today, things are different, and the network is populated with solid series. Some of them are just my taste (Buffy, the Buffy spin-off Angel, and Gilmore Girls) and others aren't (7th Heaven, Charmed, Dawson's Creek, Roswell)... but they're all respectable on some level.

In the meantime, UPN has stunk up the joint. Star Trek: Voyager was the network's marquee show for a long time, despite its status as a fading, uninteresting copy of a copy. Finally in 1999, after years of trying, UPN got its signature show... and it was WWF Smackdown!

Now Voyager's staggering to its conclusion, and while there's a new Trek series in development, there's no guarantee it will air on UPN. The network needed a marquee name, and it's gotten it with Joss Whedon and Buffy.

It's a fair question to ask if the acquisition of a five-year-old show that's probably heading for a long downhill slide into syndication is worth two million an episode -- but let's leave that aside for now. Instead, consider for a moment the dramatic change this might have on the television landscape.

Buffy is network TV's first free agent. It's the first show to switch from a network that wanted to keep it to some other network. And at $50 million a year, The Slayer turns out to be worth even more than Alex Rodriguez.

More than that, Buffy's departure is an example of the growing importance of corporate synergy in the TV industry. That's because although Buffy was airing on a network owned by AOL Time Warner, it's owned and produced by Fox. And this move means that Fox has chosen to relocate its series to a network that's not just the highest bidder, but one that's half-owned by Fox itself.

Sure, Fox could've chosen to air Buffy on the Fox network. But perhaps Rupert Murdoch's crew decided it was more useful to use Buffy to invest in UPN's future. Or perhaps the money was just too sweet to ignore -- that's what Fox is saying about the deal, anyway.

But forget about why Buffy moved for a second. The big question is, will it be a quirk in the history of TV, or a milestone? Lately there have been lots of rumblings about series bolting for other networks -- and before you break out the hankies for The WB, let's not forget that Warner Brothers held NBC hostage over ER (which it produces) a few years back -- but none have made the big jump yet. Most network-jumpers have either been series that were past their prime, hadn't yet found an audience, or simply were no longer wanted by their network.

We might have cynically looked at the games of chicken over ER and Frasier and the like and decided that it was all just part of the negotiation, that eventually a deal would be done. After all, ultimately if a network wants a show, it always keeps it.

That time is gone. Open the floodgates. Nothing's the same anymore.


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