Revenge of the Niche

Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Everett Collection

Maybe I’m just showing my demographic, but I wasn’t exactly jolted by the fact that the WB and UPN—those runty Davids of the network lineup—were joining forces, becoming one slightly larger David with a moderately heavier slingshot and a better lead-in for Veronica Mars. In fact, my first thought was, Hey, what’s going to happen to that dancing frog?

I can’t be the only one who frequently mixed up the two networks. Both were conceived in 1995, in the afterglow of Fox’s success. And just like Fox—which built itself with black-centric comedies such as In Living Color, then moved on to mainstream hits like Ally McBeal and The X-Files—both the WB and UPN developed offbeat African-American comedy early (The Jamie Foxx Show! Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer! Homeboys in Outer Space!), only to swerve toward a white teen audience, battle for the mainstream ad dollars, and kill off a promising Joss Whedon production in the process (UPN: Buffy. WB: Angel. Fox: Firefly). On the day the two networks merged into the blandly named, vaguely country-music-sounding the CW, UPN and WB sported almost frighteningly well-matched lineups: UPN’s Veronica Mars with the WB’s Gilmore Girls; UPN’s America’s Next Top Model with WB’s Beauty and the Geek.

For fans of niche TV programming (and Buffy freaks like myself), this may seem like a moment for nostalgia, and even regret. The WB and UPN existed to put on shows that were too risky, wonky, or downright weird for the other networks; they had to take chances to survive. Back in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was considered an oddball gamble for a network, a goofily named TV series based on a flop movie. But Buffy became the series that defined the WB. Buffy never won a best-series Emmy, but it thrilled critics and triggered a renaissance of one-hour teen dramedies. Buffy was soon joined by its evil twin, the bloated melodrama Dawson’s Creek, and then came the deluge: a bad Buffy copycat (Charmed), then a superior alternative to Dawson’s Creek (J. J. Abrams’s Felicity), a Christian variant (7th Heaven)—and then Smallville, Roswell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Supernatural, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Popular, and Everwood. (Plus a few memorable misfires like Birds of Prey and Jack & Bobby.)

UPN followed in the WB’s footsteps, snatching up WB castoffs Buffy and Roswell and green-lighting a worthy Buffy heir like Veronica Mars. These shows had a glossy, flippant, distinctive commercial aesthetic—not to mention a built-in financial safety net, with marketable soundtracks and young, pretty, white cast members perfect for the kind of advertising tie-ins that favored Katie Holmes over Moesha.

For the audience of a niche show like the black sitcom Girlfriends—and there is one, loyal and betrayed—the merger is, in the short run, a bad thing. But the truth is, network TV is no longer the place for what the netlets did well—identify and cater to (and occasionally pander to) underserved niche audiences. In fact, the drive to service smaller, more specialized audiences isn’t going to vanish—it’s the very thing fueling the current TV revolution. With DVDs, BitTorrent, the video iPod, video-on-demand, TiVo, not to mention the whole tangled Wild West of the Web—well, who needs a netlet when we’ve all become our own niche programmers for our own niche network of one?

The very viewers the netlets corralled into an audience—i.e., teens—are the ones on the leading edge of this new model. So if this is farewell, sort of, to the WB and UPN, it’s not really good-bye. In the final analysis, the netlets didn’t fail. They didn’t even outlast their usefulness. They simply outlasted TV.

Before they got hitched, UPN and the WB were caught in the middle of a nasty public spat back in 2001. First, WB head Jamie Kellner refused to renew the licensing agreement for cult favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer, making belittling comments about the show’s profitability. Then star Sarah Michelle Gellar threatened to bolt if the show left the WB. Creator Joss Whedon bristled at Kellner’s comments, then reminded Gellar of her contractual obligations—and the show and cast moved intact to UPN, which had stepped in with a two-year commitment.

Revenge of the Niche