UPN Network Boasts Its First Viewer Ever

October 24, 1999
divisiontwo staff writer

Between its debut in January of 1995 and last Friday, the United Paramount Network (UPN) had yet to reach the milestone that marks a broadcast network's maturation from conception to fetus: Grabbing the attention of its first viewer.

When UPN went on the air in the early months of 1995, hopes were high that many prime time viewers, their curiosity piqued by shows with such peculiar titles as "Moesha" and "Platypus Man", would tune in and see what the new network was up to. But night after night, and all through the nearly five years since, not a single person served by any of the 4 UPN affiliates ever did. Actors and crew from UPN's debut series didn't even watch any of their own shows, citing "better things on" and "errands" as reasons for not tuning in. Even the network's paid focus group wandered out of a screening of Moesha after five minutes, reportedly asking to use the bathroom and never returning.

Doubly embarrassing was the network's failure to reach Star Trek fans, a group aggressively courted by advertisers for their sedentary lifestyle and loyalty to any series that features a metallic jumpsuit and phazer. According to numbers released by the Nielson Ratings Service, not a single normal viewer or Star Trek fan tuned in to watch the premier of the Trek-like spin-off Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager's failure was even more distressing for the network considering that the cast included one actor from every known human race and religion. UPN executives had assumed that the show would at least get a Native American viewer or two to tune in and see one of their own kind make it big on the small screen, but none did.

During the 1996-97 season, UPN launched a nation-wide promotional ad campaign promising, "Watch UPN and get a million dollars!" The gimmick guaranteed a million dollars to every viewer who tuned in for more than 5 minutes of the black-centric sitcoms Homeboys in Outer Space or In Da House. The promotion flopped, as many would-be viewers complained that a million dollars wasn't enough compensation to sit through five minutes of Homeboys or House. The fact that House featured rapper LL Cool J as a nanny-with-attitude didn't help.

"We had initially hoped that In Da House would become our network's Charles In Charge," laments Dean Valentine, chief executive officer and president of UPN, "but I guess Americans weren't ready for Charles to carry a glock."

The 1998-99 season faired just as badly, with such dismal flops as The Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a period comedy that featured Abraham Lincoln killing underperforming slaves, America's Greatest Pets, which broadcast the live euthanasia of terminally ill cats and dogs, and the mysterious DiResta, which no one at the network seems to know anything about. "I have never heard of that show," Valentine told divisiontwo reporter Cal Sindel, "but I believe you that it existed."

For the current 1999-2000 season, UPN has decided to drop the tagline, "The Shit Network" and to make its on-screen logo larger and more opaque. The decisions seems to have paid off, as on the night of Friday, October 22, Nielson headquarters reported the first-ever viewer of a UPN original series. Valentine describes it fondly: "I was sitting at home, watching something on ABC and sharing a can of tuna with my cat, when the phone rang. It was a Lou Redfield [UPN Programming VP and Custodian] screaming into the reciever, 'We did it! We did it!' When I got to work the next day, the ratings chart was on my desk. We had done it. I cried."

The ratings chart confirmed what had excited Redfield the night before: The Nielson Ratings Service registered a viewer for the UPN network between 8:41 and 8:43, smack in the last quarter of the UPN action-drama Relic Hunter starring Tia Carerre ("Wayne's World" "Facejam") as a sultry hunter of valuable antiques. Nielson data indicates the viewer was from the Detroit area, and watched the network for 94 consecutive seconds.

The mood was one of celebration today in the tiny apartment above the Red Top Liquor Barn in Los Angeles, CA, that serves as UPN's national headquarters. Champaign-flavored soda flowed like water, and the seven employees of UPN patted one another on the back. "I can finally maybe move out of Mom's garage," hoped a jubilant Valentine.

Reaction throughout the rest of the television industry has been more subdued, however. Jamie Kellner, president of the WB Television Network, urged caution. "We thought we had over twenty viewers for Felicity back in 1998," he recalls, "but it turned out to be a power surge in a Milwaukee apartment building."

Bill Westreman, spokesman for the Nielson Ratings Service, also expressed skepticism. "It's too early to tell if this was an actual viewer or just someone flipping past the UPN network to get to somewhere else. Sometimes these little ratings-blips can even happen if a squirrel or mouse gets into the transformer."

In light of the network's recent victory, Valentine looks back on the previous four years of UPN programming with a critical eye. "I guess we made a mistake going after Native American viewers with Voyager," he concludes. "Indians are probably too busy building teepees and scalping pioneers to tune into a show about aliens in a spaceship. Next season we plan to debut a show about maize." As for the failure of Homeboys in Outer Space, "I don't want to talk about that anymore," was all Valentine would say.

So, is the UPN network shaping up to be a major player in the prime time landscape? Only time will tell for sure. In the mean time, UPN plans to air re-runs of Relic Hunter during the prime time schedule every night throughout November and December, hoping that the viewer may come back and bring a friend, and has ordered 23 more episodes of the series for the 2000-01 season. Tia Carerre seemed appreciative, but was too busy fellating Valentine to comment.

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