News Corp. In Advanced Talks To Buy UPN

By Christian
April 25, 2001 - 10:56 AM

Viacom, the parent company of Paramount Pictures, CBS and UPN, is in talks to sell either all or part of the Voyager network to News Corp. The news comes less than a week after the FCC allowed Viacom to remain in possession of UPN and has some interesting implications for the Star Trek franchise.

News Corp. is currently putting the finishing touches to its takeover of Chris-Craft Industries, a station group owning UPN affiliates in several of the country's most important markets. That deal is expected to be completed in May, and an unnamed source told Reuters that News Corp. hoped to complete its negotiations over UPN around the same time.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission repealed its long-standing multiple network ownership rule. This move not only allowed Viacom to own both CBS and UPN, but would also allow News Corp. to take over the netlet and still own Fox. This news also comes only a few days after Fox's television production arm moved Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the WB to UPN, and is sure to refuel speculation that this move was aimed at weakening the WB in favour of a network that Fox would soon own.

If successful in the negotiations, News Corp. was reportedly planning to maintain UPN as a separate network.

What this will mean for the Star Trek franchise is unknown. Variety reported two days ago that it was all but certain Series V will end up on UPN, with an announcement only days away. If UPN is bought by News Corp., the next Star Trek series will lose the security of being shown on a network that is being owned by the same company that produces it.

However, if UPN were to remain with Viacom its future is far from secure. Viacom President Mel Karmazin said last year that UPN would need to turn a profit within a year to maintain the company's full support, a target that likely will not be reached this year. News Corp., on the other hand, has expressed a clear interest in the network and might be more willing to support it than Viacom is. As part of News Corp., which owns an extensive number of television stations, UPN might even be able to expand its reach from the 176 affiliates it has now to the 220+ affiliates that networks like the WB and Fox have.

But according to UPN president Dean Valentine, Viacom still supports the network. "Both Mel and [Viacom chairman] Sumner [Redstone] said a number of months ago that a year may have been a little too hasty," he told Reuters. "For us, I can tell you [the Buffy acquisition] improves our financial picture enormously and hastens our march towards profitability."

Valentine confirmed that News Corp. had indeed held discussions with Viacom about making their relationship "tighter" with regards to UPN. However, he said that UPN's negotiations for Buffy began at least two months ago, long before these talks with News Corp. Still, having both Buffy and Enterprise on UPN should make the station a nice asset for the company, if it is able to reach an agreement with Viacom.

Viacom itself, meanwhile, announced its first-quarter financial results yesterday. The company posted higher-than-expected revenues, and said that it wasn't hurt by the advertising recession. "Advertising is alive and living at Viacom," said Mel Karmazin. "While there was a great deal of talk about whether or not there was an advertising recession, Viacom was generating 15 percent pro forma [pre-tax earnings] growth."

The company's higher earnings, which impressed many analysts, where due mostly to strong box office results from movies such as 'Save the Last Dance' and the runaway success of 'Survivor' on CBS. Other strong parts of the company where its cable networks, while radio broadcasting arm Infinity performed slightly lower than expected. UPN's performance wasn't highlighted, suggesting that the network still isn't doing as well for Viacom as the company would have hoped, which could perhaps be a factor in a possible sale to News Corp.

Wherever it ends up, business is still continuing as usual at UPN. Variety reported that the network has picked up a reality pilot starring radio host Tom Leykis. The series, which is intended to debut in Fall, will be a talk/variety hybrid focusing on male-female relationships. As a reality series, it will help UPN in combating the effects of a possible writers' and actors' strike.

Also to Variety, Paramount Network Television refused to comment reports that former Quantum Leap actor Scott Bakula has been tapped for the leading role in the next Star Trek series, which according to Variety will be subtitled Enterprise. Still no official confirmation is yet available on what the series will be about.

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