2006 United States broadcast TV realignment
Between January and September 2006, the United States broadcast television industry was realigned. In September 2006, the country's two "second-tier" television networks, UPN and The WB Television Network, both shut down on September 15 and 17 respectively, and their operations were transferred to a new joint-venture "fifth" network, The CW. Meanwhile, the Fox Television Stations (which owned several UPN stations in large cities that were blocked from affiliating with The CW) signed up with MyNetworkTV, a new network owned by parent company News Corporation's Fox Entertainment Group.
In January 1995, The WB Television Network and the United Paramount Network were launched, each hoping to recreate the success of the Fox network, which had launched in 1986 and quickly became one of America's "major" networks. All three networks had been joint ventures between major Hollywood studios and large owners of previously independent stations. The WB was owned by Time Warner's Warner Bros. Entertainment division, in a joint venture with the Tribune Company. UPN was founded by Chris-Craft Industries, in a programming partnership with Paramount Pictures. In late 1993, Tribune cut affiliation deals with The WB for all eight stations it owned at the time (including stations in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago) – as well as one that Tribune bought from the Gannett Company the following year, though only seven would join the network at launch due to the company's Atlanta station affiliating with CBS (its New Orleans station would follow suit in 1996, switching its affiliation to ABC); Chris-Craft and Paramount also each owned stations in large and mid-sized markets (with the former owning stations in New York City and Los Angeles).
Both new networks launched to limited fanfare and generally poor results. Over the course of eleven-and-a-half seasons, despite a number of minor-hit or cult-hit series such as Star Trek: Voyager, 7th Heaven and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, neither network was able to attain the stature Fox had gained in its first decade, much less that of the longstanding "Big Three" television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). By early 2006, both networks were losing money, although The WB had been profitable a few seasons earlier. UPN had never turned a profit. Reports indicated that the prospects for both networks were fading quickly.
A further complication was the various shifts in network and affiliate ownership at UPN. Shortly before its launch, Paramount was purchased by Viacom, which later purchased a 50% stake in UPN in 1996, and acquired the CBS network in 2000. Viacom was permitted to keep interests in both networks, in effect, resulting in the Federal Communications Commission lifting its long-standing ban on television station duopolies. Chris-Craft's relations with Viacom were strained in 2000 when the latter firm exercised a contractual right to force Chris-Craft to either buy Viacom out of UPN, or sell out its stake in the network to Viacom. Chris-Craft could not find a suitable partner and sold out. That August, when Chris-Craft put its television stations, most of them UPN affiliates, up for sale, it sold them to News Corporation's Fox Television Stations instead of Viacom. At the time, Fox seemed to be a willing partner in UPN, but made no firm commitment. Fox later renewed affiliation agreements for its UPN stations through 2006. In December 2005, Viacom split into two companies: a new company named Viacom (which took the original company's film and most of its cable television properties), and CBS Corporation (essentially the old Viacom renamed, which retained the broadcast properties, along with Showtime Networks). In this "split", ownership of UPN went to CBS Corporation.
The new "fifth" network
On January 24, 2006, CBS Corporation and Time Warner announced they would shut down both UPN and The WB that fall. In place of these two networks, a new "fifth" network, jointly owned by both companies, would launch, with a lineup of the most popular programs from both The WB and UPN. The network was given the name "The CW" ("CW" representing the first initials of CBS and Warner).
The CW immediately announced ten-year affiliation agreements with 16 WB affiliates owned by Tribune Broadcasting, and 11 UPN owned-and-operated stations under CBS ownership, giving the new network coverage of all of the top 13 markets and 48% of the country. The remaining affiliates were to be drawn from the pool of stations affiliated with UPN and The WB. The CW took on The WB's scheduling model (two hours of primetime on weekdays and five hours on Sundays, a two-hour daytime block on weekdays and a Saturday morning children's block), which was larger in scope compared to UPN, which aired primetime programming on weeknights only and a two-hour repeat block on weekends at the time of the CW announcement.
It was immediately clear that most media markets with stations owned by Tribune would receive CW affiliation, leaving Fox Television Stations, UPN's second largest affiliate group (after the UPN O&Os owned by CBS Television Stations), without any network programming during primetime hours. Rumors began to circulate that Fox would plan its own network for those affected stations and others left out in the merger. The rumors proved true, and on February 22, 2006, Fox announced the launch of its own network, MyNetworkTV, a programming service meant to fill the two nightly primetime hours that would open up on its UPN-affiliated stations after the start of The CW. Fox also offered the service to other stations.
Following the CW network announcement, the new network immediately announced ten-year affiliation agreements with the Tribune Company and CBS Television Stations. Tribune committed 16 stations (including its flagship broadcast stations WGN-TV in Chicago, KTLA in Los Angeles and WPIX in New York City) that were previously affiliated with The WB, while CBS committed 11 of its UPN stations (including WPSG in Philadelphia, WKBD in Detroit and WUPA in Atlanta). These stations combined to reach 48 percent of the United States. Both groups also owned several UPN and WB stations that did not join The CW in overlapping markets. As part of its agreement, Tribune agreed to divest its 22.5% ownership interest in The WB and did not take an interest in The CW.
The network would eventually reach 95 percent of the United States. In markets where both UPN and WB affiliates operated, only one station became a CW affiliate. CW executives were on record as preferring the "strongest" stations among The WB and UPN's existing affiliates. However, as the reorganization was structured not as a merger in the legal sense, but as a new network launching concurrent with the WB/UPN shutdown, The CW was not obligated by existing affiliations with The WB and UPN. It had to negotiate affiliation agreements from scratch with individual stations.
As a result, in some markets, the new CW affiliate was a different station than either the former WB and UPN stations. In Helena, Montana, Ion affiliate KMTF became a CW station. In Las Vegas, Nevada, independent station KVCW chose to affiliate with The CW. In Honolulu, Hawaii, The CW did not available in the market until early December 2006, where it was carried on a digital subchannel of local Fox affiliate KHON-TV. The network also affiliated with some digital channels, mainly newly launched subchannels of a local Big Four affiliate, in several markets.
Under the new network, a new service titled The CW Plus began serving Nielsen markets with rankings of 100 and lower. The CW Plus is similar to The WB 100+ Station Group, which supplied locally-branded WB-affiliated cable channels. In most cases, distribution for The CW Plus covers not only cable but broadcast as well, including the digital subchannels discussed above.
On March 1, five stations – four WB affiliates and one UPN affiliate – were the first outside the core CBS and Tribune stations to sign affiliation deals with The CW. By May 18, 2006, 174 stations had signed agreements to become affiliates of The CW, reaching 105 million households and covering 95.3% of the country (the latter two figures excluding the CW stations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).
Station groups with a large number of CW affiliates include Pappas Telecasting Companies, ACME Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group, although many other large groups, including Hearst-Argyle Television, Clear Channel Communications and Belo Corporation had signed up selected stations. Sinclair signed deals to carry the network in early May despite reservations with The CW's reported demands for reverse compensation.
While WGN-TV in Chicago became a charter affiliate of The CW, its out-of-market superstation feed WGN America does not air programs from The CW as the network has sufficient enough affiliate coverage that The CW does not need to use the WGN superstation feed to carry its programming; WGN America had previously carried WB programming from that network's January 1995 launch until October 1999, when Tribune Broadcasting and Time Warner mutually decided that The WB's national broadcast coverage had increased to a level that allowed the WGN national feed to discontinue carrying the network.
Several affiliates changed their call letters to reflect their new affiliation with the CW (e.g. KPWB-TV (Des Moines) to KCWI, WNPA-TV (Pittsburgh) to WPCW-TV, WJWB (Jacksonville) to WCWJ, WHCP (Portsmouth, Ohio (Charleston, West Virginia market)) to WQCW, WEWB (Albany, New York) to WCWN, KWCV (Wichita, Kansas) to KSCW, WBDC (Washington, D.C.) to WDCW, KBHK (San Francisco) to KBCW, and KHWB (Houston) to KHCW). Some stations, however, still kept call signs referring to UPN and The WB, such as WUPA in Atlanta and KWBA-TV in Tucson, Arizona, respectively. In August 2006, CBS Corporation's CW stations dropped all references to UPN from their branding.
Due to the availability of "instant duopoly" digital subchannels, and the overall lack of a need to settle for a secondary affiliation with shows aired in problematic timeslots, both The CW and MyNetworkTV launched with far greater national coverage than that enjoyed by UPN and The WB when they started in 1995. For several years, UPN had coverage gaps in the top 30 markets, and by 2005 had only managed to reach 86% of the population. This resulted in secondary affiliations with other networks and diluted ratings when programs were shown out of their intended timeslots, or the lack of the program airing at all (a problem experienced by many Star Trek fans with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise).
Comparisons to 1994 realignment
The WB and UPN were the first major television networks to close since the collapse of the DuMont Television Network in 1955, although other small broadcast television networks have also ceased operations over the years. Given the merger of the two networks to create The CW (as well as the eventual launch of MyNetworkTV and the proliferation of digital subchannels), the scope of the realignment caused the largest single shakeup of American broadcast television since the Fox/New World Communications alliance of 1994, which preceded the subsequent launches of UPN and The WB the following year that drastically reduced the number of independent television stations in the U.S., some of which had been marketed as superstations as recently as the mid-1990s.
While The CW debut affected more markets, unlike the Fox/New World deal of the mid-1990s, it was unlikely to cause the same degree of viewer confusion as almost no affiliates of the four major networks dropped those affiliations. Only two former Big Four affiliates switched their primary affiliation, in both cases from Fox to MyNetworkTV:
- In the Jackson, Mississippi market, Fox affiliate WUFX swapped affiliations with sister station (and original Fox affiliate) WDBD (The WB) in the summer before joining MyNetworkTV the following season after three seasons with Fox. Unrelated UPN affiliate WRBJ, which went on the air in early 2006, joined The CW.
- In Fort Smith-Fayetteville, Arkansas (#102), low-power Fox affiliate KPBI-CA switched to MyNetworkTV (along with KPBI (TV)). Fox had moved its affiliation to full-power KFTA-TV, formerly a satellite of NBC affiliate KNWA-TV. None of the three stations that were available (the two KPBI's and UPN affiliate KFDF-CA) joined The CW; they were all owned by Equity Broadcasting, which shunned The CW in every one of its markets (KFDF-CA joined Equity's own Retro Television Network instead). The CW would finally come to the market the following year on a cable-only channel available via Cox Communications (and eventually on digital subchannels of the market's ABC affiliate, KHBS/KHOG-TV). Equity would eventually declare bankruptcy in 2009 due to a number of factors involving the digital transition and problems with RTV which led it to losing control of that network.
There were several other cases where Big Four affiliates picked up The CW, MyNetworkTV, or both as a secondary affiliation or a digital subchannel, even in markets where viable non-network affiliate stations remained.
Network affiliation repercussions
In those media markets where there were separate affiliates of The WB and UPN, one local station was left out in the merger. Many of these stations signed with MyNetworkTV including the vast majority of the Fox stations acquired in the 2001 acquisition of BHC Communications (the former Chris-Craft stations). Additionally, MyNetworkTV signed with three Tribune stations who did not take the CW affiliation: WPHL in Philadelphia, WATL in Atlanta and KTWB in Seattle. Tribune had indicated interest in Fox-developed programming blocks such as MyNetworkTV for stations that did not pick up the CW affiliation; it announced on May 15 that the aforementioned stations would join MyNetworkTV. In contrast, CBS initially seemed more hostile to MyNetworkTV, and announced its remaining UPN affiliates – KTXA in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, WSBK in Boston, WBFS in Miami/Fort Lauderdale, and WUPL in New Orleans as well as WB affiliate WTCN-CA in West Palm Beach – would all become independent stations. Four of the five stations, excluding KTXA eventually all joined MyNetworkTV.
Some stations bypassed by The CW that did not take MyNetworkTV instead opted to become (or revert to) independent stations. For example, the two remaining former Viacom-owned UPN stations – WSBK and KTXA – reverted to their roots as independent stations (the latter was constrained to independence in any event due to Fox-owned KDFI affiliating with MyNetworkTV). As a consequence, in three of the top 10 media markets – Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Francisco – programs from The WB, UPN and MyNetworkTV were all available to viewers from September 5 to September 17. MyNetworkTV affiliated with longtime former independent stations WZMY in Derry, New Hampshire (serving the Boston market) and KDFI, while in San Francisco the network affiliated with former longtime NBC affiliate KRON-TV (WB affiliate KBWB reverted to independent status). Other stations elected to become (or revert to) independent stations as well, particularly in situations where either more than two non-major network affiliate stations existed or another station picked up an affiliation with The CW or MyNetworkTV via a digital subchannel.
Additionally, four former UPN affiliates became affiliates of "Big Four" networks themselves:
- WJKT in Jackson, Tennessee and the digital subchannel of WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland joined Fox on August 21, 2006.
- WLQP-LP in Lima, Ohio became the local ABC affiliate on September 1, 2006.
- WSWG in Valdosta, Georgia became a CBS affiliate and added MyNetworkTV as a digital subchannel on September 4.
Additionally, while some stations joined newly established or lesser-known broadcast networks such as RTV), whose now-defunct parent company Equity Broadcasting did not commit any of their WB affiliates to The CW, other stations (mainly digital subchannels, cable channels such as those that were WB 100+ cable channels, and struggling low-power stations) which received neither The CW nor the MyNetworkTV affiliation opted instead to sign off permanently and cease to exist. For example, in Dayton, Ohio, the "UPN17" cable channel run by CBS affiliate WHIO-TV closed down at the end of 2006.
Despite the launch of The CW on September 18, 2006, many households around the country were not able to see the new network when it premiered because many stations in several markets, primarily those who picked up The CW on a digital subchannel of the station's primary affiliate, were unsuccessful in trying to strike a deal with Time Warner Cable to carry their CW subchannels on basic cable lineups, despite The CW being 50% owned by then-parent company Time Warner. These markets included Cincinnati, Honolulu, Charleston (South Carolina), El Paso, Corpus Christi, Palm Springs and Lima, Ohio. In late 2006, the Honolulu, El Paso and Palm Springs affiliates were made available on TWC systems in those markets.
Network transition repercussions
After the conclusion of the May 2006 sweeps period, as both The WB and UPN started shutting down, both programming schedules and on-screen graphics were affected, and on August 14, 2006 both networks stopped inserting their bugs into prime time programming in order to allow new CW affiliates to add lower thirds and bugs promoting The CW during this time – this practice was automatically used on WB affiliates' primetime programming.
Also on August 14, 2006, UPN ceased all promotional advertising for their programs during network time (except for audition promotions for America's Next Top Model during that show), though some local stations still aired promos for the network's shows. The network also stopped customizing the closing credits of their shows to their graphics scheme (perhaps in reaction to affiliate preemptions, see below), instead showing studio credits full-screen with theme music (save for ANTM, where previews of the next episode were shown on the left with studio credits on the right). In contrast, at The WB, advertising for their shows continued during network time, mixed in with promos for The CW, and the network's standard closing credits format remained unchanged with promos in the upper two-thirds of the screen and credits in the lower third.
The networks also filled spare timeslots with low-cost movies on some weeks (including UPN on Wednesday night and The WB during its infamous "Friday night death slot"), and reruns and unaired episodes of long cancelled programs, such as the sketch comedy series Blue Collar TV on Wednesday nights, and repeat and unaired episodes of Just Legal on Sunday nights (both on The WB). Prior to the MyNetworkTV announcement, many stations (including those snubbed by The CW) had reportedly begun to search for new programming to fill empty timeslots, which had been likely to further boost the fortunes of the syndication industry. Ironically, one of those syndicated offerings, Desire, eventually became part of MyNetworkTV's fall 2006 schedule.
Other affiliate repercussions
Following the CW announcement, the fate of many WB and UPN affiliates changed drastically. On January 27, 2006, La Crosse, Wisconsin UPN affiliate KQEG dropped its UPN affiliation, becoming the first station to drop an affiliation due to the CW announcement; it retained its FamilyNet affiliation.
Many affected affiliates took similar measures. Following the May 2006 sweeps period, many stations began to pre-empt UPN and WB programming for a variety of reasons. In the Green Bay/Appleton market, future MyNetworkTV affiliate WACY (as of June 5) opted to replace all of the network's second hour of programming whenever possible (except for Veronica Mars) with airings of infomercials. In Cincinnati, eventual independent station WBQC-LP moved its UPN programming on July 4 to between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. early Tuesday to Saturday morning, with the intention of promoting the station's "Independence Day" programming in its place.
Another eventual independent station, KPNZ in Salt Lake City, ceased to air UPN programming in June 2006 with no replacement affiliate for the remaining two months (the station is now an affiliate of Spanish-language network Estrella TV). In Springfield, Massachusetts, WB 100+ cable channel WBQT was at one point seen as a CW affiliate on the official website and even started advertising as such, but due to a lack of confirmation, the channel's call letters (which were fictional as WB 100+ stations were not licensed by the FCC due to being cable-only services) were removed. However, on August 29, 2006, WBQT signed a formal affiliation agreement with The CW as a member channel of The CW Plus.
Before the merger, cash-strapped Granite Broadcasting Corporation had previously reached an agreement to sell its WB affiliates in San Francisco and Detroit to AM Media, a unit of private equity firm Acon Investments. With The CW choosing to affiliate with CBS-owned UPN stations in those markets, the Granite-AM Media deal eventually collapsed, and Granite responded by instead deciding to sell the stations to DS Audible, LLC instead for a lesser price. Granite later announced it was suing CBS and Time Warner over the failed deal. On July 18, 2006, the deal to sell to DS Audible also fell apart, and on December 11, 2006, Granite filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization after missing an interest payment on its $400 million+ debt. Granite emerged from bankruptcy in June 2007 under control of Silver Point Capital, which also took over another bankrupt broadcasting company, Communications Corporation of America (a key Fox affiliate group in smaller Southern markets), later that year.
In New Orleans, CBS filed a lawsuit against Belo, owner of market-dominant CBS affiliate WWL-TV, in early 2006 over allegations that Belo tried to renege on the terms of buying WUPL after Tribune-owned WNOL was named the market's CW affiliate (but before WUPL's affiliation with MyNetworkTV was announced). The deal, already complicated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which caused catastrophic damage to much of the Greater New Orleans area, would have created a duopoly between WWL-TV and WUPL with both stations merging into WWL's studios on Rampart Street. All matters were settled eventually, and the deal closed in February 2007. However, the Belo purchase of WUPL delayed that station's transition to high definition until mid-2010 as the secondary master controls for WUPL at the WWL-TV facility were only capable of pillarboxed 4:3 standard definition broadcasts until the recent upgrades took place.
UPN and The WB closures
UPN quietly closed on Friday, September 15, 2006, with its usual airing of WWE Friday Night SmackDown; in addition, some stations aired the network's usual, but optional, weekend repeat block. The low-key closure was not surprising given that in nine media markets, including the three largest, UPN was not available because the local affiliates were owned by Fox Television Stations and switched to its new network, MyNetworkTV, on September 5. UPN programs ended on WPWR in Chicago and KUTP in Phoenix on September 1, and on the other seven Fox-owned stations (including WWOR-TV in New York City and KCOP in Los Angeles) the day before, August 31.
Several CW affiliates began airing Smackdown and some other CW-renewed UPN programming a few weeks early to replace UPN affiliates who had made the switch to MyNetworkTV. Otherwise, it was unclear whether MyNetworkTV affiliates would air UPN or WB programs at all. Additionally, as a Tribune-owned station Fox affiliate WXMI in Grand Rapids, Michigan aired Smackdown on tape delay between WXSP-CA's switch to MyNetworkTV and the launch of WWMT's digital subchannel as the local CW affiliate.
The WB closed on Sunday, September 17 with a five-hour block of pilot episodes of the network's past signature series, including Felicity, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which was a two-hour episode) and Dawson's Creek, and during commercial breaks, re-airings of past image campaigns and network promotions. It also involved promo spots given to the cable networks which carried these shows in off-network syndication, along with ads for each series' TV-on-DVD box set.
After its final commercial break, a montage of the stars of several of The WB's shows over the years was broadcast just prior to The WB's shutdown, ending with former mascot Michigan J. Frog taking a final bow. This was followed by the studio credits for the pilot of Dawson's Creek; the credits for the other three pilots that aired were shown in the network's standard credits format. The final night of WB programming netted relatively low ratings, mustering only a share of 2, meaning just 2% of viewers were tuned into The WB on its final night. The reasoning for the low ratings was due to certain areas whose WB affiliates became MyNetworkTV affiliates, which rendered The WB unavailable in these markets for the final two weeks of programming.
That evening, after The WB shut down, WPIX in New York City aired a montage of all of its logos throughout the station's history leading up to its current logo before its 10 p.m. newscast aired, while KHCW in Houston aired a retrospective of the station's history during its 9 p.m. news. In Dallas/Fort Worth, KDAF had changed the title of its newscast to CW33 News at Nine immediately following the end of WB programming, and featured a video clip of the sign being changed outside the studio. However, the old WB33 News at Nine bumper aired upon the first return from commercial that night.
Since 2006, The CW and MyNetworkTV have struggled mightily in the Nielsen ratings despite The CW showing initial signs of promise. The CW has usually finished fifth in the Nielsen ratings, even falling behind Spanish-language network Univision at times, though it has come close to beating out NBC (which has had similar ratings challenges since the 2004-05 television season) on several occasions. Additionally in 2008, concerns regarding the future of The CW led Tribune to begin rebranding its CW affiliates in a way that deemphasized its CW affiliation, and another major CW affiliate ownership group, Pappas Telecasting, cited The CW's poor performance as a factor in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Pappas has since winded down operations, while most of Tribune's CW stations (with the exceptions of WGN-TV and KTLA, the latter of which only includes network references in promos for CW shows) began reincorporating references to their CW affiliation beginning in 2011.
In 2008, The CW outsourced its five-hour Sunday block to Media Rights Capital (MRC) in order to concentrate on its weekday schedule. The eventual Sunday lineup performed poorly in the ratings and eventually The CW gave back its Sunday time to the network's local affiliates in the fall of 2009, reducing its primetime programming to weeknights only. After September 26, 2008, WWE Friday Night SmackDown left The CW for MyNetworkTV in large part due to The CW's newfound focus on targeting 18- to 34-year old female viewers; SmackDown moved to cable network Syfy in October 2010.
Since its launch, MyNetworkTV has struggled to gain an audience. In 2009, it was announced that the network would convert to a syndicated programming service, and since SmackDown moved to Syfy in October 2010, MyNetworkTV has been devoid of first-run programming other than that shared with syndicators. In many markets it now shares channel space with other minor networks such as America One, This TV and Me-TV and is more apt to air out of primetime on several affiliates.
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