I recently picked up Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton for some leisure reading in between the endless deluge of science fiction and science history books that now lie ahead of me.
On the whole, I thought it was a good read. The book mixes Daniels’s personal history with the WB with Cynthia Littleton’s analytical prowess to tell the parallel stories of the WB and the UPN, both of whom were vying for the status of “fifth broadcast television network.” Like most stories about foregone conclusions (the networks merged and became the CW under the purview of CBS chief Les Moonves and head of programming Dawn Ostroff), this one’s good for the “how we got here” stuff. In that respect, the prose style works wonderfully; Littleton sets up the business narrative, and Daniels jumps in with personal stories connected to the subject matter at hand.
As someone who grew up watching quite a bit of television without really understanding why, this book helped jog my memory about some things, like Michigan J. Frog (may he rest in peace) and shows like Savannah and Everybody Hates Chris. There’s some surprising details (the notion of a network built primarily on Star Trek seems laughable now, but made sense in the context of the era) and some not-so-surprising details (the casting stories are well-worn by this point, although I have a very hard time imagining a younger James Van Der Beek. Or, I did until I got to the photo inserts, where he’s in a picture with the eternally beautiful Sarah Michelle Gellar). Through it all, both women weave a good sense of impending doom over the horizon, an appropriate mood considering that neither network was really able to get into the black for longer than a second.
The This Was TV Book Club covered a lot of what I wanted to talk about, but there are some things in part 3 (covering chapters 7 thru 10) worth adding onto here in this blog post. First is regarding Survivor. James B. Stewart, author of DisneyWar, covers a good swath of the development issues that came with the soon-to-be-hit reality series, in part because its island theme tied into Disney chair and CEO Michael Eisner’s summary rejection of the show that eventually became LOST. In defense of Dean Valentine, who deservedly gets ragged on in the book club, he was agreeing with the majority of industry leaders at the time — that a show like Survivor could not survive on the air, much less be the monster hit that it became. Second, it’s my understanding that Survivor was the show that drove the Big Five networks into the reality-TV business in the early-’00s. A big part of why Eisner and Disney-ABC rejected the show is because they had recently burned out their audiences with an assault of nonstop original airings of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the flash-in-the-pan game show that, despite its fate, helped ABC out greatly during that television season. So really, UPN taking a shot with Tyra Banks could have gone either way. America’s Next Top Model might have been another quick burnout; instead, it remains UPN”s lasting legacy on the CW. (The WB, meanwhile, survives as long as Supernatural keeps getting resurrected. Given that season 9 was just picked up today, the Frog will live on for a little while longer.)
Naturally, the book leaves out a lot of shows in its desire to talk big-picture, but then, I was the only one that ever cared about What I Like About You, anyway. In any case, it’s a good read if you were ever a fan of a show on either network, or just want to see the long, messy, and convoluted origin story of what we know today as the CW.