UPN (which originally stood for the United Paramount Network) is a television network in the United States, owned by Viacom Inc., which also owns the more widespread CBS network. Because of this dual corporate ownership, in several large American cities, the local CBS and UPN stations are operated as "duopolies."
Paramount Pictures (the "P" in UPN) has played an pivotal role in the development of network television; it was a partner in the DuMont Television Network, and the Paramount Theaters chain, spun off from the corporate/studio parent, was an early, important component of the ABC television network's survival in the 1950s. In the wake of the successful Universal Studios ad hoc syndicated package Operation Prime Time (which featured first a miniseries adaptation of John Jakes's novel The Bastard and went on to several more productions), Paramount had earlier contemplated its own television network with the Paramount Television Service. Set to launch in Spring 1978, its programming would have consisted of only one night a week. Thirty "Movies of the Week" would have followed Star Trek: Phase II on Saturday nights. When the decision was made to transform Phase Two into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, plans for the new Paramount network were scrapped.
But Paramount and its eventual parent Viacom didn't forget about the possibility. Independent stations, even more than network affiliates, were feeling the growing pressure of audience erosion to cable television in the 1980s and 1990s, and there were unaffiliated commercial stations in most of the major markets, at least, even after the foundation of Fox in 1987. Meanwhile, Paramount, long successful in syndication with repeats of Star Trek and I Love Lucy, found itself with several impressively popular first-run syndicated series by the turn of the 1990s, in Entertainment Tonight, The Arsenio Hall Show, Friday the 13th: The Series, and, perhaps most importantly of all, the two new Star Trek franchises, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Meanwhile, Paramount had formed Paramount Stations Group had been formed when it purchased the TVX Group, which owned several independent stations in major markets, a move not unlike that of the purchase of the Metromedia Group by Fox several years previously. All indicators suggested what was to come.
UPN was launched January 16, 1995, as the United Paramount Network, a joint venture between Paramount and Chris-Craft Industries. The "U" in UPN came from United Television, a Chris-Craft subsidiary. Both companies owned independent stations in several large cities in the United States. Each controlled 50 percent of the network. The first telecast, the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: Voyager, was an auspiciously widely viewed start; however, Voyager would never achieve such viewership levels again, nor would any of the series debuting on UPN's second night of broadcasting survive the season. In contrast, The WB Network (UPN's arch-rival) would debut two days later, with four series, only one of which would not survive its first season.
In 2000, Paramount's parent company, Viacom, bought out Chris-Craft's share to gain 100 percent control of the venture. Shortly afterward, Viacom dropped the "United" name for its new network, opting to change the official corporate name to be the three-letter initials, "UPN." Viacom also aimed to relaunch UPN as The Paramount Network, using the famous Paramount Pictures mountain logo as the new network logo. This idea was abandoned after many affiliates protested, citing that the new branding might cause confusion and erode viewership. Later in 2000, Viacom bought CBS, thus creating CBS-UPN duopolies in Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Detroit, and Wilmington, North Carolina.
Chris-Craft later sold its television group to Fox. The sale placed UPN's future in doubt, as it included the network's flagship, WWOR-TV in New York, as well as West Coast flagship KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. Fox later bought the third-largest UPN affiliate, WPWR-TV in Chicago. The largest owned-and-operated UPN station is WPSG-TV in Philadelphia.
Although considered a major network by the Nielsen ratings, UPN is not (as of fall 2004) available in all areas of the United States. In some areas, UPN programming is shown off-pattern by affiliates of other networks. Some affiliates have also been known to extensively preempt network programming in order to broadcast local sporting events. These factors have led to the network struggling in the ratings over the past few years, with its most recent ST franchise, Star Trek: Enterprise, perhaps suffering the most and ultimately being cancelled by the network in a controversial decision in February 2005. The most consistent ratings performer for the network has been their Thursday offering from World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the WWF), WWE SmackDown!. In the 2004-2005 season, the network was getting consistently better ratings than the WB, much of this thanks to the WWE. Executives at UPN also suggested those same-season Nielsen ratings may underrepresent the viewership of its core African-American audience, after noticing a 20% dip in key demographics for its African-American-oriented situation comedies early in the season.
That said, new shows began to breathe life into the network starting in Fall 2003 with America's Next Top Model, in Fall 2004 with Veronica Mars and Kevin Hill (starring Taye Diggs), and in Fall 2005 with Chris Rock's Everybody Hates Chris. Network executives have stated that UPN's current desired demographic is young women and African-Americans. This was seen as a contributing factor in the network's decision to drop the Star Trek franchise, and also in the decision not to re-new its contract with the WWE, leaving the future of SmackDown beyond 2006 clouded. It was estimated in 2003 that UPN is viewable by 85.98% of all households, reaching 91,689,290 houses in the United States. UPN has approximately 143 full-power owned-and-operated or primary affiliate stations in the U.S. and another 65 stations air some UPN programming as secondary affiliates. Many existing operate an UPN affilate on one of their digital channels.
The first official UPN network programming was the series Star Trek: Voyager. Other early UPN programs included the action show Nowhere Man starring Bruce Greenwood, the action show Marker starring Richard Grieco, the action comedy Legend starring Richard Dean Anderson and the science fiction themed action show, The Sentinel. After Voyager's 7-season run came to an end, UPN began broadcasting the newest Star Trek spin-off, Star Trek: Enterprise. UPN also bought the rights to broadcast the popular television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, and Roswell from 20th Century Fox and ABC after The WB cancelled the series.
The network also produced some special programs. For example, they presented the Iron Chef USA program during Christmas 2001. UPN also shows the WWE's Smackdown show, America's Next Top Model, Girlfriends, Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, loosely based on the childhood of comedian Chris Rock, and in the summer of 2005 UPN aired R U the Girl, in which pop group TLC searched for a woman to join them on a new song.
UPN has a new policy of "not picking up other networks' scraps," which was a strong argument when fan pressure was generated in 2004 for them to pick up Angel, the spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Although they currently run them very rarely, UPN has produced a number of Television movies. Almost all of them were Science-fiction, and mostly ran during the late 1990s. For a full list, see Television Movies That Aired on UPN.
- ^ John Consoli, "UPN's Start-of-Week Blues", Mediaweek, October 25, 2004.
- According to Simon Cowell's biography they were offered American Idol before Fox and turned it down.