All Good Things...By Michael Hinman
Posted at August 15, 2000 - 6:45 PM GMT
In 1995, the United Paramount Network came to the airwaves, bringing with it the newest -- and most highly criticized -- Star Trek series. For the first time, a woman was going to captain a ship full time for the Star Trek universe, and we were going to find a ship nearly half the size of The Next Generation's Enterprise-D lost in unchartered space.
UPN was the fruition of nearly two decades of planning. Back in the mid-1970s, long before the Fox Network was a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch's eye, Paramount was very interested in starting a fourth network to compete with NBC, CBS and ABC. This network was going to be led by Paramount's greatest franchise: Star Trek.
Most of the original cast was signed, and production began for Star Trek: Phase II. But before the series could begin principal photography, Paramount suddenly scrapped their idea of a fourth network, and no one would hear that kind of talk again until nearly 20 years later.
UPN was a disaster in the making from the start. Not only did Warner Bros. jump on the bandwagon and decide to launch their own network at the same time, but UPN joined together Sumner Redstone and Herbet Siegel. Redstone, the head of Viacom, has always been a staunch supporter of Paramount Studios ... even in the 1960s when Paramount was a small, fledgling studio. At the time, Redstone rallied the stockholders together and protected the small company from a hostile takeover, orchestrated by none other than Herbert Siegel.
If there was no bad blood formed there, then it definitely came in the 1990s with the formation of UPN.
Using the word "united" in the name signified the partnership between Viacom and BHC Communications, the newfound working relationship between Redstone and Siegel. But the freshman year of the network was anything but good. Only two shows survived that first year ... Star Trek: Voyager and Moesha.
Over the next few years, the WB Network would get the upper hand in the ratings war with shows like Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but UPN held its own. Voyager remained the top-rated show, and both Viacom and Chris-Craft seemed determined to make UPN a success.
Nearly four years after they first took the air, UPN had an opportunity to run a special WWF event. At the time, the WWF was slowly gaining ground on the Turner Broadcasting giant WCW. That special event became the highest-rated broadcast in UPN history, and before long, the WWF was part of the weekly schedule, becoming the "Survivor" of UPN.
Thanks to the WWF and the desire to bring fresh programming to the airwaves, UPN finally took the edge and defeated The WB in the 1999-2000 season's ratings. While their numbers weren't spectacular compared to the Big Four, UPN was definitely holding its own.
But UPN continued to lose money. And not small change ... millions and millions of dollars. Not being able to achieve the ratings they were hoping for, and not getting the national market penetration they had wanted, UPN kept finding itself in the red. And when a business is losing money, tempers are going to flare, as they did between the "united" front of Viacom and Chris-Craft.
In early 2000, Viacom announced plans to acquire CBS and finally face the music with the Federal Communications Commission. Chris-Craft, getting the drift that UPN's days were numbered, did everything in their power to block the acquisition ... even taking their business partners to court.
Chris-Craft lost, and were immediately given an ultimatum by Viacom: Either buy out Viacom and take complete control of UPN, or sell your stake in the network.
Chris-Craft decided to take the $5 million out, but still had an edge to Viacom as they owned three of UPN's major affiliates in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco.
When it came time to sell, Siegel decided to play hardball with his former partners, and when he gave Viacom an offer they could -- and did -- refuse, News Corp. stepped in to snatch the major affiliates away, affiliates who are expected to dump Voyager, Moesha, 7 Days and even WWF wrestling by January 2001.
Until Viacom makes an official announcement on what to do with the new Paramount Network, speculation will continue to run rampant. Will UPN survive? If not, where will the shows go? Will we be able to see how Vince McMahon takes care of his wrestling problems? Will Janeway ever get her crew home? Will Paramount -- responsible for some of television's biggest successes -- ever find a home of their own?
It's hard to say. Losing $150 million a year is a lot of money, even for someone like Bill Gates who wouldn't touch that network with a 20-mile pole. But if the plug is pulled on UPN, maybe Star Trek fans will get the biggest payoff of all: It's not too far-fetched to see Voyager suddenly become part of the fall schedule ... on CBS.
Michael Hinman is the webmaster of SyFyWorld.