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''Buffy'' could flee the WB for ABC

The latest on the battle brewing behind the scenes for the vampire slayer

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Anthony Head, Alyson Hannigan, ...
Buffy: Jeffrey Thurnher

”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) could take a big bite out of the WB this winter. Though the $1 million per episode action drama series has been a top performer on the WB since 1996, the show is produced by Twentieth Century Fox, owner of a rival network. This January, when the two companies sit down to hammer out a new ”Buffy” contract, Fox’s producers are expected to ask the WB for a hefty raise, to $2 million per episode. If the WB balks over the price hike, ”Buffy” could drive a stake through the netlet’s Tuesday night lineup by moving to a new home. ABC is rumored to be interested in the show. ”To be honest, there has always been a suspicion that the WB didn’t quite get it,” ”Buffy” star Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) tells EW.com. ”I don’t know what the hell will happen.”

If penny pinching causes ”Buffy” to dump the WB like day old vampire ashes, both the network and the show could suffer. Though ”Buffy” would probably score higher ratings overall on ABC (the WB has 111 affiliates, while ABC has 225), it may not bring in the youth market that many advertisers hope to reach. ”The nice thing about the WB is that they deliver young audiences pretty well,” says Chris Geraci, director of national broadcast advertising at OMD/ BBDO. ”The show may not trend as well if it goes elsewhere.” Furthermore, what counts as a hit for the WB (”Buffy” frequently ranks 65th in the ratings) could be a miss on ABC, where advertisers pay more for commercial space and expect higher numbers.

Though some of the WB’s former red hot hits are stumbling badly this season (close to cancellation ”Felicity,” ”Dawson’s Creek”), ”Buffy” is kicking impressive ratings butt in its fifth season, when most series start to sag. Usually ranking just below ”7th Heaven” on the network’s roster, the show is drawing in a broader audience than just teenage girls. The season premiere scored record high ratings with men 18 to 34. ”Buffy” executive producer Marti Noxon says the series is drawing fresh blood with the arrival of the heroine’s ”sister” Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) and by Buffy’s quest to understand her inner slayer. ”This is a whole world, and you can explore a lot of different corners of it,” she tells EW.com. ”Now we’re covering the experience of being a young adult, which dictates you go deeper.”

If ”Buffy” does hop to ABC, the move could come at the expense of its spinoff, ”Angel.” Without a complementary lead in show, the angst filled vampire — already suffering in the ratings because of competition from Fox’s ”Dark Angel” — might be lost amid the network’s more conventional teen fare. Initially at least, ”Buffy” isn’t likely to find such compatible companion shows on ABC, which broadcasts ”The Wonderful World of Disney” and sitcoms like ”The Drew Carey Show.” But that could change. ABC has reportedly been trying to woo ”Buffy” creator Joss Whedon into creating a new show. ”’Buffy’ has a big enough name that whoever picked it up might want to try to program something else along those lines and build an evening around the show,” says Geraci.

Even if ABC doesn’t bite, the WB shouldn’t dally at the negotiating table, or ”Buffy” might find another home. ”[Fox] would be the logical choice,” says Mediaweek analyst Marc Berman, noting that only a few of the network’s hits (”Malcolm in the Middle,” ”Dark Angel”) are recent shows, which is causing some programming gaps. Though $2 million per episode may sound like a lot, it pales in comparison to what other networks shell out for their top shows. (NBC pays Kelsey Grammer alone $1 million per episode of ”Frasier”). ”We’re extremely fortunate, but on the scale of things our cast doesn’t get much,” admits Head. ”And there have been times when I’ve felt a little more money in the kitty would help the show, such as when we had the mayor turn into a serpent. You look at those special effects and go, eh.”

At least one insider suspects that talk about ”Buffy”’s future home is much ado about nothing. ”There’s a lot of blustering going on,” says Noxon. ”What gets said in the press is not a reflection of the way the WB has treated us at all. I believe all of this is posturing because of the negotiations.” But what if the WB really doesn’t want to pay twice the price? In that case, Noxon seems ready to pack her bags. ”If they really do feel that way, there are other people who want us,” she says. Fangs for the memories.