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Season FinaleThe Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN
By Susanne Daniels
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Susanne Daniels
All right reserved.
During the summer of 1993, nobody who worked in the main executive office building on the sprawling Warner Bros.' studio lot in Burbank, California, could figure out why Jamie Kellner was spending so much time in Barry Meyer's office. Kellner was barely six months removed from his resignation as president and chief operating officer of Fox Broadcasting Company. Meyer was the chief operating officer of one of Hollywood's largest studios and the executive responsible for overseeing Warner Bros.' vast television production operation. The two had become close friends a few years earlier by prospering together in a programming deal between Fox and Warner Bros.
Kellner had turned to Meyer for help when he wanted to push forward with what had become a pet project during his final years at Fox. He wanted to see the network expand its Fox-branded footprint into morning and afternoon time periods with children's programming. Kellner proposed to Meyer a wide-ranging production deal that called for Warner Bros. to draw on its trove of cartoon characters to produce several new series in the classic Looney Tunes zany, gag-driven style.
Fueled by shows likeTiny Toon Adventures and Taz-Mania, the Fox Children's Network debuted in 1990 with morning and afternoon program blocks that quickly became a cash cow for the network and its affiliates. Warner Bros. made a profit on producing the shows for Fox, and it made still more money—much more, in some instances—from selling T-shirts, lunchboxes, calendars, and all sorts of other licensing and merchandising. It was found money derived from intellectual property assets that had been gathering dust in the studio's vault for decades.
Kellner and Meyer also hit it off on a personal level despite their different temperaments. Jamie is a born salesman and bold entrepreneur; Barry is a lawyer and a gentleman who is respected as a highly effective manager. The two moved in the same business circles, and they enjoyed conversing about the entertainment business and debating about where it was all headed next. Given their friendship, Meyer was not particularly surprised to get a call from Kellner one day in early June 1993. When Meyer picked up, it was clear from the crackle of the connection that Kellner was calling from a car phone. Their exchange was brief, but it piqued Meyer's interest.
Kellner asked Meyer if he would be interested in meeting to talk over a new network venture he was considering. Meyer didn't hesitate in his reply. He respected his friend enough to know that he needed to take the meeting. At that moment Kellner was on his way to catch a flight to New York to visit his brother, Tom, on Long Island. He was pleased that Meyer hadn't paused when he'd said "network." The launch of a broadcast network was not for the faint of heart, as Kellner knew from experience. He would spend the next few days sitting on a beach with a yellow legal pad propped up on his knees, sketching out his "fifth network" presentation to Warner Bros.
A man of medium height, sandy brown hair, cut short and preppy, and penetrating blue eyes, Kellner sported a boyish grin just beneath his otherwise steely exterior. He had a nervous habit of twirling a quarter in his fingers when he was deep in thought. Early on in the summer of 1993, he kept the quarters spinning as he and Meyer had long talks about the state of the television business and the monumental changes that were then looming. The entertainment industry was being forced to come to grips with a deregulatory juggernaut in Washington, D.C., that would span the decade, the growth of cable as a mainstream competitive force, and the audience fragmentation it spurred. With more channel choices than ever pouring into the average American living room, ABC, CBS, and NBC couldn't help but lose audience share to Fox and myriad cable upstarts.
It was the confluence of these forces that spurred Kellner to pick up the phone to call Meyer when he did. But according to the WB's founder, there was no more powerful motivator than the visit he paid to his former coworkers at Fox in May 1993, as the 199293 television season drew to a close. About five months had passed since his resignation, and Kellner, by his own account, was dismayed by what he found. Most of his closest former coworkers at Fox were either unhappy, insecure in their jobs, burned out, or all three. After laying low at his home in bucolic Montecito, California, Kellner had forgotten, at least a little bit, how cutthroat the environment at the network could be.
Kellner pulled out of his VIP visitor's parking spot and out of the 20th Century Fox studio gate in West Los Angeles that day feeling sad. The people who had slaved in the early days to build Fox, against all odds and a Greek chorus of naysayers, were not getting the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Many of them, himself included, had left on less than happy terms. As much as he tried to take it easy in the months after his resignation, Kellner couldn't turn off his entrepreneurial gene. He couldn't stop thinking about the potential opportunity for a start-up broadcast network aimed at a younger audience—like Fox in its early days.
"I began to wonder if I could create a network where we could have fun, an environment where the people who built it could then enjoy it," Kellner says. "That sounds a bit idealistic, but that's what I had in my head."
When Kellner decided to act on his impulse, Warner Bros. was his first choice for a partner. On top of his close relationship with Meyer, Kellner knew Warner Bros.' chieftain Bob Daly from their respective tenures at CBS in the early 1970s, when Daly was rising through the senior management ranks and Kellner was emerging as a business and marketing whiz. Kellner respected Daly and Meyer, and he believed they would trust him to run the network his way. Warner Bros. had a well-established reputation for nurturing mavericks, whether they were directors, actors, musicians, or executives.
Excerpted from Season Finale by Susanne Daniels Copyright © 2007 by Susanne Daniels. Excerpted by permission.
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