Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Feature

THE CRUCUAL MISTAKE THAT FELLED THE WB.

A Buffy-centric look at Susanne Daniels's Season Finale

 

by Shiai Mata

If the 1990s were often a time of audacity in America, few acts were as truly audacious as the attempts to launch not one, but two new television networks.

In retrospect, one can see how both were almost certainly doomed to failure. First, there were the uneasy relationships between the various partners in each enterprise; the United Paramount Network (UPN) was something of a shotgun marriage between Paramount Studios and the Chris-Craft network of independent television stations…one in which both sides were increasingly unhappy and edging toward an ugly divorce. Adding to the problems was the fact that Paramount was bought up by Viacom, which already owned CBS, and preferred to focus its efforts on the "Tiffany Network", leaving UPN as something of an unwanted step-child. This resulted in an unstable executive corps that was unable to produce anything more than a relative handful of ratings hits over the course of the network's dozen years.

And the WB was not necessarily in better shape much of the time. Named for majority shareholder, Warner Bros. (a facet of the AOL/Time/Warner media conglomerate), it was partnered with Tribune Broadcasting. Additionally, an 11% stake in the company was held by Jamie Kellner, the man who "created' the WB (after having helped launch the Fox network in the 80s); Kellner's part ownership would prove to be an irritant to other WB executives over time, and would help hasten the network's collapse.

Much like UPN's relationship with Viacom, the WB was relatively estranged from its parent company. Warner Bros. was a powerhouse producer of television series, but that branch of the organization never even gave a passing thought to offering such fare as ER and FRIENDS to the WB, instead preferring to pitch them to the 'real' networks: NBC, CBS, ABC, and (sometimes) Fox.. As a result, in its earliest days, the WB (again, like UPN), was limited to picking up pilots that were usually already rejected by the major networks. Of such castoffs are TV networks not successfully launched.

Also threatening to smother the WB in its crib was a rear guard attack from Ted Turner, whose Turner Broadcasting had been acquired by AOL/Time/Warner, and who was determined to see the WB shut down so that those production resources could be committed to his own TBS and TNT cable channels. As a member of the board of directors and a well-respected media mogul, Turner has a lot of influence, and there's no telling how much damage he may have been able to inflict on the WB in its infancy…although obviously not enough to strangle it. Still, he threw up enough roadblocks to make the network's first few seasons more than a little unpleasant for its executives.

Launched in January of 1995 (just days after UPN kicked off with a ratings blockbuster, STAR TREK: VOYAGER), the WB limped along for months with such less-than-scintillating fare as UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER and KIRK, seemingly suffering from a schizophrenic desire to ape both the Fox 'low brow' sitcom approach and ABC's family-friendly TGIF series…and not being particularly successful at either. And the effort to pick up a just-cancelled ABC series, the critically acclaimed cult hit, MY SO-CALLED LIFE, failed; the best the WB could do was snag another ABC cast-off, SISTER, SISTER. After two seasons of such unappealing efforts, it really seemed as if the WB might not make it through a third season (and UPN might not be far behind, as VOYAGER's ratings bottomed out, and the 'netlet' seemed unable to come up with anything else that could draw a significant number of viewers).

However, it was in 1996 that things began to turn around for the WB, as Kellner and his small group of enthusiastic executives (including Susanne Daniels, who would go on to become President of the WB) came up with a battle plan to forge their network's new identity…as the home of family friendly programming. The cornerstone of this approach was a new hour-long series called 7TH HEAVEN, which was intended to pave the way for a full slate of other wholesome fare.

7TH HEAVEN was a tremendous ratings success (basically the WB's first). Yet, as it turns out, it was not the harbinger of anything, but rather an island of propriety in a sea of decided edginess. Over the next few years, the WB would blaze trails with such teen and twentysomething-appealing shows as DAWSON'S CREEK, FELICITY, CHARMED, GILMORE GIRLS and SMALLVILLE. And what kicked this new, youth-oriented direction off?

A weirdly named 'dramedy' called BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

In Daniel's opinion, 7TH HEAVEN aside, it was BUFFY that was not only the WB's first true homegrown smash, but also the one series that truly reflected the network's identity. Not surprisingly, then, she talks about the program quite a bit, and offers some tantalizing information and anecdotes, such as:

  • Already well known in the industry as a screenwriter and 'script doctor', Joss Whedon literally walked in through the WB's front door unexpectedly one day and pitched an idea based on a film he had written several years earlier. He had seriously disliked what the director and the studio had done with his script, but he still saw potential in the concept, particularly as a weekly television series, and figured that the struggling WB would be more likely to take a chance on BUFFY than any of the more established networks. And, thanks to having lost out on picking up MY SO-CALLED LIFE, the WB was interested in producing its own original series featuring a strong, appealing, young female character. Call it kismet, karma, or just good timing.
  • Although Joss's faith in and enthusiasm for Buffy was rock-solid (and infectious), he wasn't entirely clear at first on exactly how he would translate her onto the TV screen. Early on in the creative process, he suggested making it a half-hour sitcom…with a laugh track! Happily, Daniels and other WB execs saw much greater opportunities for it as a sixty minute program.
  • Curiously, while 20th Century Fox had produced the original motion picture, their lawyers had neglected to include further rights to the property…specifically for a television adaptation…in the contract. The WB had hoped to convince a reluctant Warner Bros. to finance it, but before any such decision could be made, Fox reentered the picture. Having heard the positive buzz about the proposed series, the studio threatened to take the WB to court unless their rights to the property were restored. Wanting to avoid a legal battle…and happy that a major studio was suddenly anxious to fund the series…the network graciously allowed Fox to buy in.
  • As many BtVS fans know, Sarah Michelle Gellar was originally cast as Cordelia Chase. However, anxious to prove her range beyond playing stereotypical teen bitches, Gellar asked for permission to re-audition, this time for the starring role. What is perhaps not as well known was that a big stumbling block in Sarah's way was the fact that Joss was already committed in his own mind to casting another actress as Buffy. Daniels does not identify who she was (rumors over the years have suggested several actresses, including Katie Holmes and Selma Blair), but she does say that WB executives nixed her because they felt she "didn't capture all of the character's youthful contradictions." This paved the way for Gellar to take a stab at the part, and she nailed it.
  • With Gellar now moved up to being Buffy, Cordelia had to be recast. Daniels tells an amusing story about how Charisma Carpenter showed up for her audition late, complaining in exasperation about how she had been sent to the wrong room. So blithely wrapped up in her own aggravation and oblivious to the nuisance her tardiness caused everyone else was Carpenter, the execs knew instantly that she was born to play Cordy!
  • In spite of the strong enthusiasm which the WB had for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, the entire series was almost derailed when Whedon insisted on directing the pilot, announcing it as the deal-breaker for him. It was finally decided to let him direct a low budget test pilot, which was ultimately deemed not good enough to air (and the WB also requested that the role of Willow Rosenberg be recast), but the execs felt they saw enough raw potential in Joss as a director to let him helm the reshoot, as well as future episodes as he saw fit.
  • Even before the first episode had aired, UPN had managed to procure a bootleg copy of the two-part episode, so curious were they to find out what this show that had the WB's executives so pumped up was all about. When it was over, the rival network's top tier programming and marketing execs deemed it "cheesy” and doomed to failure. However, many of the younger junior executives in the room admitted later that they realized immediately how important BUFFY was going to be; however, their opinions were dismissed out of hand by their superiors, who instead placed their faith in UPN clobbering the WB with such expected smash hits as HOMEBOYS IN OUTER SPACE and THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER. As far as UPN was concerned in 1996/97, BtVS wasn't worth wasting a second thought on…an opinion that would change rather dramatically in a few years.

In Daniels's estimation, BUFFY wasn't simply an early hit for the WB…it was the one program which truly represented all that the network aspired to. It was the WB's true "baby”…which was why, not long after she left the network, she was heartbroken to learn that the WB was letting BtVS go…to UPN! As she writes, "It was a highly public fumble that spoke volumes about where the WB was –and was not – in its growth curve as a network at the time."

Although the series would run on the WB until May of 2001, the seeds of the disunion between program and network were sown in early 1998, during the third season. That was when Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox Television, met with Jamie Kellner and expressed Fox's desire to renegotiate the contract for the series. Fox was losing significant sums on money on BtVS; although episodes were budgeted at $1.1 million dollars each, budget overruns frequently ran up to $800,000 a week. And though BUFFY was a critical darling with a loyal viewership, it was not the kind of ratings triumph that allowed for the sort of ad revenues that could make up those budgets deficits. Fox made it clear: they wanted the WB to cover those extra costs, in exchange for getting a contract extension once the original pact expired after five seasons.

Kellner flatly refused. For one thing, the WB never did enjoy very deep pockets, and having to cover BUFFY's red ink would devour what profits the network was making…and would also set a very costly precedent for other series making the same demands. And besides, the WB head knew, Grushow was being disingenuous; while the television series itself was losing large sums of money, Fox was making much of those shortfalls up with the profits from a host of merchandizing, from comic books to novels to action figures…and when the series would be released in syndication and on DVD, it would inevitably prove to be a money making machine for Fox.

From that date on, tension grew between the WB and Fox over BtVS, and it was not helped any in 1999, when Grushow told reporters that the studio would consider moving the series to the Fox network if the WB kept insisting on "lowballing” them. Still, the WB might have been able to stave off Fox's demands if they had kept Joss Whedon in their corner. Unfortunately, Kellner let his frustration with Fox spill over into his relationship with Joss, culminating in a very ill-considered Entertainment Weekly interview in which Kellner virtually dismissed the importance of BtVS to the WB, saying, "It's not our No. 1 show. It's not a show…that stands above the pack. Maybe what we should be doing is to not stay with the same show for many years, and refresh our lineup." Whedon took Kellner's flip remarks as a personal insult to his own intensive work on creating and nurturing the program, and from that point on, Joss was entirely on board with Fox's efforts to move the series to another network.

And the network that everyone expected BUFFY to jump ship to was, of course, Fox. However, unknown to the world at large, the internal decision had been made by 20th Century Fox to not bring BtVS over; their fear was that it would send the wrong signal to the rest of the industry, suggesting that Fox would use other networks to build up the audience for Fox-produced programming, and then snatch those established series away from their original homes in order to put them on the Fox network schedule.

Suddenly, having made it clear to one and all that Buffy would no longer air on the WB after May of 2001, Fox was now faced with the dilemma of having no place to put it, since the other major networks had little interest in picking up a former WB series. Luckily, it was just then that UPN expressed its interest.

Having fought tooth and nail with the WB in their first formative years to stay out of last place, UPN had basically had a lock on the Nielsen basement for the last several years; its best-rated show was SMACKDOWN, a pro wrestling program that was actually owned by the WWE, which essentially "rented” the weekly airtime from UPN much like an infomercial, and thus the network saw little financial profit from it. What the network desperately needed was a show that could draw an audience (and, as a happy bonus, would be liked by the critics), and since UPN had proven itself spectacularly incapable of producing such a show, it was decided that the only real solution was to go shopping for one elsewhere. BUFFY fit the bill perfectly. Once acquired, the show would enjoy two more seasons on the air, serving as UPN's crown jewel (although, quite honestly, that wasn't really saying much).

It's well worth noting that, after BUFFY, the WB enjoyed exactly one new truly hit series, SMALLVILLE. Mostly, the network was saddled with flops like MAYBE IT'S ME, BIRDS OF PREY, and the prophetically titled DEAD LAST…none of which survived a single season on the air. None of the "hits” which did last a few years… EVERWOOD, ONE TREE HILL…ever approached the ratings of SMALLVILLE or 7TH HEAVEN…much less BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Daniels feels that a big part of why the WB suddenly went into a creative and commercial drought is that many series creators were suddenly reluctant to sign on with the network, feeling that the BtVS fiasco indicated that the WB was unwilling to stand behind its series over the long haul.

On the other hand, BtVS never commanded the kind of audience numbers at UPN that it enjoyed during its WB peak years. And although adding BUFFY to the network's roster sparked a sort of mini-Renaissance at UPN (with the likes of VERONICA MARS and EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS), it was not enough to stave off what increasingly came to be seen as the inevitable end.

On September 18, 2006 the WB and UPN merged as a single new network, the CW. Most of the CW's execs came from the UPN side of the deal, with the WB scattering to the winds (somewhat ironically, Kellner had left the WB several years before in order to oversee Ted Turner's cable channels). The night before, Sunday the 17th, the WB signed off the air with "The Night of Favorites and Farewells", consisting of rebroadcasts of the initial episodes of some of the network's biggest hits, including BtVS; it was Joss who had noticed that the WB had originally slated only one hour to air "Welcome to the Hellmouth”/”The Harvest”, and it fell to him to remind them that the two-parter ran for two hours. The network also included the first episode of the BtVS spin-off, ANGEL (which the network had cancelled in 2004).

Probably, the WB and UPN were doomed from the start. By the 1990s, standard networks were already fading in industry importance and profitability, and the smart money was on cable networks (which was Turner's argument the entire time). The two netlets were forever constrained by the fact that they didn't possess any affiliate stations of their own, they merely partnered (and frequently uncomfortably so) with corporations that did own local stations. And since affiliate advertising is where the true profits in network television are, the WB and UPN were never able to fulfill their financial promise. The netlets also failed to realize the potential of the Internet, and until it was too late to matter, never had anything more than a cursory presence on the web (interestingly enough, TheWB.com has recently been launched…long after the fact when it would have helped, of course…to try and profit off of providing full episodes of old WB and other Warner-produced shows online, including BUFFY).

Nonetheless, for five solid years, the WB could claim to be on the cutting edge of American television, offering sixty minutes of entertainment each week that was simply like nothing else found on TV. And the moment it abandoned that weekly hour, it sealed its own demise.

[Season Finale by Susanne Daniels with Cynthia Littleton is a fascinating look not only into the backstage politics of the BtVS saga, but also the mechanics of creating two networks from scratch and then struggling to find their voices amid the din of an ever-growing array of cable channels. I heartily recommend it!]