The WB and UPN's new network -- What the merger of the two fledgling networks means for viewers

Scientists have long known that it takes Jupiter about 11 years to circle the sun. Earlier this week, Hollywood made a scientific discovery of its own: That amount of time also happens to be the life span of an upstart TV network. On Jan. 24, 11 years to the month after the birth of The WB and UPN, executives shocked the television industry by announcing the networks’ deaths. Come September 2006, they will disappear, to be replaced by a joint entity called The CW. It’ll be run by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment (owned by EW parent Time Warner), and will be headed up by current UPN entertainment president Dawn Ostroff. (The WB’s top execs, Garth Ancier and David Janollari, will not be part of the new venture.)

Relax, CW doesn’t stand for ”Country Western” (it’s named for CBS and Warner Bros.). In fact, the new network will look remarkably like the two it’s replacing. The CW will target the same young audience, and will cherry-pick the best WB and UPN programming for its fall 2006 schedule. So what does this mean for you, humble viewer? Let us help you through four of the five stages of grief.

1 What happens to your favorite shows?

For now, nothing. The networks will continue to air their current schedules and plan to launch their midseason programming (like Rebecca Romijn’s WB dramedy Pepper Dennis) as scheduled. The fall slate is a different story. ”We haven’t made any decisions yet,” says Ostroff, adding that she’ll announce The CW’s schedule in May. Things look good for Beauty and the Geek, Smallville, Gilmore Girls, Supernatural, Veronica Mars, and Everybody Hates Chris, which were all touted in The CW’s official birth announcement. And Ostroff has already renewed America’s Next Top Model for next season, so it looks like a keeper. Says CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves: ”The [WB’s and UPN’s] programming is very complementary. The idea of putting Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars together is really exciting.” (We think so too.)

2 Why is this happening now?

To be blunt: Nothing else was working. Since 1995, The WB and UPN have competed for the same audience and have little ratings traction to show for it. (This season, UPN is averaging 3.4 million viewers; The WB, 3.3 million — 5 million fewer than the next closest network, Fox.) Plus, they both lose money. ”Everybody felt that the two were doing well in different respects, but people realized that together, this could be a real powerhouse network for the 18-34 demographic,” says Ostroff.

Interestingly, EW has learned the UPN/WB deal may not have been everybody’s first choice. According to a source close to The WB, its executives had tried to shop the network to at least one Big Four broadcaster — when that didn’t work, it was on to plan B.

3 How do The WB and UPN producers feel about this?

Since none of the talent connected to either network had any advance warning, you can go ahead and pick your adjective: Confused. Excited. Shell-shocked. Numb. ”This is the first time in my career that I’ve had my network canceled,” jokes Tom Fontana (Oz), executive producer of The WB’s midseason drama The Bedford Diaries. Equally caught off guard was Everwood creator Greg Berlanti, who is now awaiting word on his show’s fate. ”We’re fighting for our life,” he says, adding, ”I’d love to share a night with Veronica Mars.” (Buck up, Greg: Everwood was featured in a clip reel shown to reporters at the press conference. That’s gotta be a good sign, right?) Says another exec producer of a top-rated WB show, ”Nobody from the network called us — but we sure have a lot of calls in to them…. I think the logo will have a big UPN rock squashing the WB frog.” Speaking of big UPN rocks, Veronica Mars exec producer Rob Thomas is cautiously optimistic: ”The buzz is that we are one they plan on keeping, so it’ll be great to be on the air in 95 percent of the market rather than 75 percent, and great that people will be able to tune us in without a coat hanger attached to their TV for an antenna.”