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UPN: Remarkably, Still in Business

There are really only three proper ways to respond when you're roaming around the Internet and stumble across an article detailing the fortunes of the UPN television network for the upcoming fall season. You can stare at the screen with blank indifference for the nanosecond it takes you to click over to a site the contains information more relevant to your active, on-the-go lifestyle, like Swedish hockey league scores or Melanie Griffith's home page. You can furrow your brow in puzzlement since you could have sworn that you read years ago that UPN had ceased broadcasting. Or you can shrug and say, "This is all very interesting, this article about the UPN's new fall shows, but I don't think my cable company carries Spanish-language stations."

There is, I suppose, a fourth way to respond -- the way a loyal UPN viewer might. But that way involves a lot of grunting and hooting and all sorts of other non-sensical noises that are pretty much indecipherable to sentient human beings. Plus, that would presuppose a loyal UPN viewer actually reads, and if you're talking about someone who's sworn fealty to a network that's given the world Homeboys from Outer Space, Shasta McNasty and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeifer, that's a mighty tenuous supposition, indeed.

We kid, of course. Plenty of people tune into UPN on a regular basis -- good people, smart people, people who have learned to operate simple tools. Buffy the Vampire Slayer can count among its viewing audience many fine, upstanding members of the community who would perform very well on standardized tests or Jeopardy! Many partisans of Enterprise hold down well-paying jobs that require, at a minimum, a college degree of some sort. Even yours truly has been known to while away many a Thursday evening reveling in the bone-crunching pleasures of WWE Smackdown.

Yes, many well-read, reasonably educated people watch a show or two on UPN. And when those particular shows happen to end, those same well-read, reasonably educated people change the channel, usually in favor of a network that broadcasts less swill.

That's part of UPN's problem. But for UPN, the more persistant dilemma is that seven years into its existence, The Little Network That Couldn't has no more personality, appeal, or distinguishing characteristics than the processed chicken that makes up your typical McNugget. And, barring a sudden infusion of cash from venture capitalists for the express purpose of buying a clue, that sorry situation doesn't figure to change anytime soon.

UPN signed on back in 1995, largely to provide a forum for Star Trek: Voyager. When the Roddenberry estate's latest attempt to keep the residual checks flowing went off the air last year, UPN figured to curl up and die alongside it. Miraculously, the network still draws breath, which would surprise a number of industry pundits, if any of them could be bothered to give two shits about UPN.

If that seems harsh, consider that The WB -- another mini-network that arrived on the scene in 1995 -- now broadcasts six nights a week of network programming. UPN makes do with five nights, if you include its Friday night movie and its two-hour block of wrestling on Thursdays. While UPN has spent the past several years floundering, The WB has managed to make a comfortable living for itself by developing shows that have cultivated a devoted audience of young women and their hen-pecked boyfriends. As a result, it's produced a couple of certifiable hits, several more programs that were able to eek out a respectable run, and many, many bad sitcoms. UPN's current strategy is to try and develop shows that cultivate a devoted audience of young, stupid males. As a result, it's mostly produced many, many bad sitcoms.

Even UPN's few ratings successes are pulling up lame lately. Buffy, which the network managed to filch from its betters at The WB, had a laregly hit-and-miss season, its first on UPN. That a normally stellar show instantly would fall on hard times the moment it made its UPN debut is probably coincdental, but all the same, if a UPN executive offers you a lift on his private plane, I'd consider taking the bus. Smackdown has been treading water creatively for a year now, with its ratings descending accordingly. Meanwhile, Enterprise finds itself at the center of a fierce debate amongst the type of people who fierecely debate these sorts of things, with one side arguing that the show is a worthy successor to the Trek legacy and the other denouncing it as an embarrassement that likely has Gene Roddenberry spinning in his money-lined space casket. This is a debate in which I offer no expertise, opinion or interest, so it shall have to carry on without me. Unless, of course, the Star Trek fans decide to settle their differences with a nice afternoon of blood sport and a few pointed sticks -- in which case I'll wager 40 quatloos on the newcomer.

Bleak times indeed down at UPN -- the kind of times that make normal men close up shop, sell off the office furniture and use the profits to pay for correspondence courses over at the local vocational school where an exiciting career in clerical work, data entry or gun repair awaits. But, if the last seven years have proven anything, the folks in charge of UPN are not normal men. Like a punch-drunk boxer who's too battered and bruised to know when he's licked, the network is soldiering on, formulating a plan it believes will chase all its troubles away and have the viewers who once cruelly snubbed UPN returning to its waiting embrace in droves.

Yes, UPN has unveiled a new logo.

The old logo, the one with the circle and the triangle and the square? Les Moonves didn't like it. And since CBS now runs the show at UPN thanks to the twin miracles of deregulation and watered-down cross-ownership rules, the network decided that the of all its problems -- the scattershot programming, the creatively adrift hit shows, the lack of any history of developing watchable programs -- the logo had to go.

It's clear thinking like that which has the attractive 18-to-45-year-old demographic flocking to you in no time.

Assuming the new logo doesn't make you change the channel to your local UPN affiliate and bury your remote in a shallow grave out back, the network also has three new shows it hopes will do the trick. First up is Half and Half, which joins UPN's two-hour block of Monday night sitcoms that target African-American audiences. That a network would devote an entire evening of programming to a group of people long underrepresented and otherwise ignored by the TV industry would be laudable if most of the shows -- the otherwise decent Girlfriends, excepted -- didn't blow. Will Half and Half follow suit? I couldn't honestly say. But considering that the program centers around two half-sisters, as different as night and day, who, after an estranged childhood, become adult neighbors in the same hip, happening San Francisco apartment, you don't need a Magic 8-Ball to tell you that all signs point to yes.

Following Buffy on Tuesdays, there's Haunted, which stars Matthew Fox, most recently the dour, no-fun Salinger on Party of Five. Fox plays a private investigator who, after a near-death experience, is able to solve crimes with supernatural help. Presumably, he sees dead people. He's aided in his crime-fighting by a gang of quick-witted high school chums and a stuffy librarian named Giles who...

I seem to have mixed up my notes.

UPN's final new entry this fall is The Twilight Zone, the classic anthology series that CBS tried to revive with little success in the late 1980s. UPN hopes to fare better by offering what it calls a "modernized incarnation" -- which I take to mean "plenty of cursing and partial nudity" -- hosted by Forest Whitaker, who as we all know is very popular with the young people these days.

What tales of otherwordly creepiness does the new Twilight Zone have to offer? My guess is an episode about a group of TV executives who make a Faustian bargain to keep their penny-ante network on the air.

Doesn't sound very spooky? Obviously, you don't watch much UPN.


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