History & Future Of UPN

By Fred Shedian
Posted at June 2, 2001 - 6:24 PM GMT

For the first time in a very long time, we are sitting at a cross roads in the history of the Star Trek Franchise. I would say it is comparable to the "calm before the storm." With the pilot episode of "Enterprise" still in production, all are waiting for those first coveted pictures, ship specifications, etc. For a couple of moments, however, I would like to discuss something I haven't really dealt with in recent times...the United Paramount Network. This is a topic which will have just as much impact on Series V as the writing and acting, perhaps even more.

To trace the origins of this Paramount based television network, we must go back over two decades...to the year 1977. Here, Paramount Pictures started the process of investigating the feasibility of starting another major television network. At this time, as many might recall, only ABC, NBC and CBS dominated the major television markets. Cable television was still a dream in someone's mind and Satellite was not even something worth mentioning. Yet, Paramount started the process of developing programming they thought could be sold to independent television stations who might become affiliates of the network.

In this time, we find the rebirth of the Star Trek Franchise...namely "Star Trek: Phase II." With ship models under construction, pilot scripts being developed and cast negotiations in progress, Star Trek was going to be the lead show on this new "Paramount Network." Yet, something happened which is still shrouded in mystery twenty-four years later, the "network" idea lost it's appeal. Perhaps the catalyst was the release of "Star Wars," a big budget science-fiction flick which showed many that sci-fi could be done without being another "2001: A Space Odyssey" (though many will say ST:TMP had a feel of 2001).

So "Star Trek: Phase II" was terminated, with paint never even put on the ship's version of the refitted NCC-1701. Here, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was created...as Paramount attempted to launch competition against The Force. And the rest is...history...or is it?

In the mid-80s, a new major television network was finally developed in the United States...FOX. Many speculate this network owes it's existence to the failed or canceled attempt by Paramount to create the "Paramount Network." Yet, in the early 90s, Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers looked into the possibility of developing their own television networks. A key factor in this decision may have been major network production of less syndicated shows, filling up their Monday through Friday schedules with network only programing.

Thus, in 1994 and 1995, the Warner Brothers Television Network (WB) and United Paramount Network (UPN) came into existence. As if Paramount's attempt to get into the game had resulted in the use of fifteen year old documents, a Star Trek show was developed to act as the network's leading program. This decision is one many people, myself included, see as one of the worst in the history of the Star Trek Franchise.

Some may ask why, so let us review that. At the time "Star Trek: Voyager" developed, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" were both already in production. Indeed TNG was in it's final season, but all hope had been for those fans to transfer over to DS9...clearly visible by the simple addition of Chief Miles O'Brian to the cast. A familiar face many thought would keep the tradition moving forward with a show which was something completely new in the Star Trek Universe.

In the midst of the first "space station oriented" incarnation's second season, clearly moving away from the "wagon-train to the stars" concept, the "lost in space" incarnation came into development. The season following TNG, Voyager launched and had problems. Part of the problem may have been the fact Star Trek was in direct competition with...Star Trek. The fan base which remained for DS9 was split in two. Non-UPN stations had a choice...show a more established Trek incarnation or the new kid on the block. Given the fact one appeared to be more reliable, DS9 was often shown instead of Captain Janeway.

Yet, beyond the problems surrounding it's "star show," UPN had even more issues. They appeared incapable of establishing a solid lineup for Monday through Friday evening programming. Here it became clear that executives were grasping at straws, perhaps realizing the 1977 documents about a new network were never finished. So the network started a spiral down, grasping at straws to produce quality programing that no other major network would take. Thus, affiliates started to leave.

In the midst of this, "Voyager" had the development of Jeri Ryan. This feature of the show is one I do not need to harp on, as most know my feelings. Yet, even with this addition of the male 18-24 population, ratings continued to fall. Star Trek was not being Star Trek...and DS9 was producing much better quality programming. There is only so much good talent in Hollywood...and it was sitting with Captain Sisko. Soon it became clear that UPN needed something beyond "Voyager" to keep it from becoming the H.M.S. Titanic. Thus, the WWF entered the picture...giving the network a lifeline and stablizing it's ratings.

And now, at the first completed season of the 21st Century, UPN remains the worst network on television. Yet, it has indeed found more lifelines to support itself. The kidnapping of "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" and "Rosewell" will be welcomed additions to the network's lineup. However, these are not original programs UPN developed itself...causing one to wonder if anything has improved during the network's seven years in existence. UPN has been unable to create it's own "7th Heaven," unable to get WB affiliates to change to UPN. Can that happen with Season 8?

Personally, I doubt it. As I said earlier, there is only so much talent in Hollywood and I'm not sure UPN is putting in what it takes to get that talent. Now the network is owned by the same people who have CBS. I see a parallel here....CBS vs UPN and DS9 vs VOY. One can only hope that "Enterprise" will not suffer as UPN executives try to figure out how to save their network. Fans should pray that Rick Berman, in an attempt to raise ratings which may be suffering simply because of the network the show is on, doesn't attempt to bring aboard "Velca"...the sexy Vulcan who's another Sybok.

As I look at UPN I wonder why it is still in existence. Has it become nothing more than a place for reject television shows the other networks refuse to air...such as "Chains of Love?" Without the ability to show it's programing all over the continental United States, can it ever hope to be as powerful and mighty as the WB or even FOX? What worries me are the answers I see, what straws executives will try to grab at to save their U.P.N. Titanic and what effect it will have on Star Trek's 22nd Century.

As always, I welcome comments, suggestions, complaints, discussions or even donations to the "Shedian Retirement Foundation." Feel free to send any or all to shedian@treknation.com. Please remember to include your name and the column you are referring to. I do try to respond to every piece of mail I receive, though it sometimes does take some time.

Before I conclude, I wish like to take a moment to thank everyone who reads "A Take On Trek" on a consistent basis. I must admit I was overcome with the response my last column generated and thank all of those who wrote with questions or comments. As the three year anniversary of "A Take On Trek" quickly approaches, it has indeed grown by leaps and bounds. With an average readership in the thousands, I want to thank all those who read this column, write in or post to the BBS.

Until next time...

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Fred Shedian Produces the long running TrekNation column "A Take On Trek." For a complete catalog of Fred Shedian's columns, please click here to visit the Take On Trek website.