So long, UPN. Goodbye, WB. In the past, viewers have been graced with some of the most original and innovative programming (as well as some of the worst) in years from the two little netlets that could. But now there’s only one. No, there is no winner in the battle for fifth place, but rather a tie. Enter the CW.

Jess Cox

What is it?

It’s the new network that will combine the best programming from both the WB and UPN in an attempt to finally be a real player in the world of network television. From the looks of it, UPN will control the merger, not the WB. UPN had the superior ratings this season, though both networks have incurred losses, and its president will carry over to the CW.

But many viewers will be left in the lurch when the dust settles.

UPN and the WB started out as niche stations, primarily catering to minority and teen audiences. These two groups of viewers are consistently ignored by the major networks, and the pair of netlets provided a safe haven for these types of programs. While some shows featured in the early days don’t exactly elicit fond memories (UPN’s “The Secret Diaries of Desmond Pfeiffer” rings a bell), many great, albeit lowly rated, series emerged.

Truthfully, my fondness for UPN is somewhat small. They began to specifically peddle middling sitcoms and new “Star Trek” series. Their biggest hit until this past year was professional wrestling. “Veronica Mars” is the first show to be called the next “Buffy” that actually lived up to the hype, and “Everybody Hates Chris” managed to find a perfect formula of laughs and heart.

The WB, on the other hand, found more of an identity than its counterpart. That image may have been closely linked to teen drama, but many of those series grew beyond the confines of their target audience. I’ll bite my tongue and not write the rest of this piece expounding the virtues of Joss Whedon’s two masterpieces (“Buffy” and “Angel” for those not in the know), but it should be known that these incredibly offbeat works would never have been created without an upstart network like the WB.

And here is the CW. One look at the press materials and it becomes pretty clear that the schedule is already extremely crowded. If they simply bring back what they deem the best of both worlds and only air original programming five nights a week, then there may only be one or two empty slots for a new series. This is a glaring problem, especially when the whole point of merging the networks seems to be to compete with the big boys. Even the best ratings of the WB and UPN would easily be considered putrid by the big four.

The nice thing about the WB and UPN was that they attempted different types of programs. More often than not, they failed. But in the rare case where they did succeed, it provided viewers something that network TV couldn’t.

Now, it doesn’t even look like the CW would try anything different. They seem content to let the critical darlings stay on the network until they have the necessary pilots in place for the following season.

While it’s great that the CW has faith in a great series like “Veronica Mars,” I feel as if it’s all going to be short-lived. The CW doesn’t want to be a small-time player. The whole reason for the merger was to expand the marketplace and the number of stations broadcasting this programming. They wouldn’t pump this much money in to continue airing programs other networks would deem ratings poison.

The current slate of shows looks transient. I get the feeling that next year, we’ll see a fall schedule filled with the same run-of-the-mill sitcoms and procedural dramas that fill its competitors’ primetime blocks.

– Rottenberg is gravely concerned about the future of “Girlfriends.” E-mail him at arotten@umich.edu

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