BROOKE GLADSTONE: In what came as a total surprise to many TV industry watchers, the head honchos at UPN and The WB announced this week that they're shutting down the two networks. In their place, there will soon be just one, dubbed, in keeping with the fashion, The CW. That's C for CBS, the owner of UPN, and W for Warner Brothers, the owner of The WB. The conglomerates, tired of losing money off of these properties, concluded that by joining forces, they could more successfully attract that all-important audience, 18-to-34-year-olds. CBS chief Leslie Moonves says he's confident the formula will finally translate into profits. But it's hardly a new formula. Youth was also the target 11 years ago when the two networks were born. The only difference back then was that the target demographic wasn't simply youth, but urban youth. And that, says, media scholar Kristal Brent Zook, was a strategy taken straight from the playbook of the Fox Network, itself launched in 1987.
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: For a long, long time there were only three networks, the "three blind mice," and people had tried to establish a fourth network and no one was really able to do that. But Fox came along and saw that there was this urban youth niche market that wasn't being addressed – African-American, Latino, and very successfully, brilliantly, some might say, [LAUGHS] tapped into that market. You know, in the beginning it was like "Married with Children" and "The Simpsons" and those kind of shows, and then there were a lot of African-American-produced shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But by the time UPN came along, Fox had pretty much abandoned that early mission. By '95 it was producing shows with a much wider or "whiter" appeal, shows like "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place," "Party of Five."
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: Right. Fox kind of abandoned the African-American urban audience anyway. In 1994, when it cancelled the majority of its black-produced shows, "Rock" and "South Central" and "The Sinbad Show" and, you know, shows that probably no one [CHUCKLES] remembers – [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: - now anyway, because they didn't last for very long, but you have to remember that these were shows with black people behind the camera creating them and producing them and really bringing some sort of cutting-edge content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But crossing over was a sound business strategy, right?
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: Right. That's true. The goal is always to cross over and to reach the mainstream audience. I think the questions came up, though, when you actually took individual shows on a case-by-case basis and looked at how well they were marketed and, you know, how much of a chance were they given to actually survive. And this is true, by the way, on all the networks. You know, they're very quick to take a black show off the air and say, "Well, it's not good business; it's not successful," whereas some other shows, they'll give them more time, they'll give them more space to find their audience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, statistics show us what African-Americans watch and what white Americans watch are very different things; that they don't seem to enjoy watching each other all that much.
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: But black viewers and white viewers, what they have in common is that they both watch integrated programming. So, for example, the one-hour dramas, "CSI" and "Law and Order" and all that, they actually have a really high African-American viewership, just as much as, you know, the white viewership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's that simple. Integrate the programs and you'll integrate the audience.
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: Well, yeah. And in particular, they've done a good job of that with dramas for some reasons, but when it comes to comedy, they've sort of ghettoized and kept separate this idea of black comedies. And it's strange also that we've never really had a successful black drama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think went wrong for UPN or, for that matter, The WB? Why couldn't they do what Fox ultimately was able to do?
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: UPN and The WB tried initially some of that same strategy in targeting the urban market, but you had so many different interests competing for this same small market. I think it was timing. And it was also, I think, [CHUCKLES] lack of imagination and daring on the part of the fifth and sixth networks. You know, they copycatted Fox in a way, but they didn't ever even do it with the same innovation and the same daring that Fox did initially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're shedding no tears for UPN and the African-American sit-coms that it supported?
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: I mean, personally I don't see it as much of a loss either way. You know, it's kind of like when BET was sold to Viacom and people said, "Oh, it's the loss of a black-owned network. Oh, this is awful." And, you know, my thing was, well, BET never behaved much like a black-owned network anyway in terms of any interest in deeper social issues in its programming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when Les Moonves says the new network will remain committed to, quote, "minority audiences," should we take him at his word or just assume it will be business as usual?
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: Well, for the most part, that's what it's been up to now. You know, there's a huge difference between a show like "Everybody Loves Chris," which is fine – it's entertainment – but there's a huge difference between that and a show like "South Central," which was on Fox, that tackled questions about gang violence and black and Latino relations and unemployment and single motherhood. I mean, it was a comedy – or a "dramedy" – that actually tried to be relevant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it strikes me that the kind of program you're describing, "South Central," probably requires a different business model and a different set of initials, and the initials I'm thinking of are H – B - O.
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: HBO has done a fabulous job. You know, they understand that they have a higher percentage, a disproportionate percentage of African-American viewers, but they've chosen to address that viewer in a way that goes much deeper. And some people could say, "Well, they're able to do that because they're HBO," but I think that Fox is able to do it. The WB could have done it. UPN could have done it. You know, I don't see why not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kristal, thank you very much.
KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK: Well, thank you, Brooke. It's my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kristal Brent Zook is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She's the author of Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. Her new book, Black Women's Lives, hits bookstores next month.