WB's Prime-Time Audience Slipping

By David Bauder
The Associated Press

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - A haircut, a missing creator and the switch of a
single station. Sometimes the little things mean the difference between a hot
network and a struggling one.

The WB was everyone's darling last season. Ratings were up, and it became a
particularly popular destination for tastemaking teen-age girls with smart
dramas like ``Dawson's Creek,'' ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' and

This year, though, its audience has dropped by more than 15 percent. Its
total prime-time viewership has even slipped behind the resurgent UPN, the
mini-network rival that many believed the WB had left behind for good.

Perhaps the first hint of trouble arrived in a card sent to ``Felicity''
creator J.J. Abrams last summer.

It was from a vacationing Keri Russell, the series star. As a joke, Russell
sent a picture of herself in a wig, covering up her flowing, brown curls with
a short hairdo.

That got Abrams to thinking. Since the series planned to have Felicity break
up with her boyfriend, Ben, early this season, why not have Russell cut off
her hair? That's something a college sophomore might do to put a failed
romance behind her.

Bad idea. The show has been flooded with angry e-mails. Superficial as it may
seem, WB executives think the haircut may be one of the reasons the
``Felicity'' ratings are off.

``It was distinctive,'' said Jamie Kellner, the WB's chief executive, ``and
we cut off our distinctiveness.''

Now there's a new rule on WB shows: no dramatic haircuts without permission.

Early this season, ``Felicity'' also effectively isolated Russell's character
from her friends, a no-no when you're trying to create an ensemble that
appears to care for each other like family, said Susanne Daniels, the WB's
entertainment president. A brief romance with a brooding professor's son
didn't help, either.

Daniels believes ``Felicity'' is on the road back, starting with a critically
well-received special episode that was a ``Twilight Zone'' homage. She also
hopes a behind-the-scenes personnel change will right another listing ship,
``Dawson's Creek.''

For much of this season, the show's special chemistry was buried beneath bad
soap opera plots. The introduction of Eve, a manipulative vixen, is seen in
retrospect as a telling mistake.

``It sort of took the show to a darker, harder, edgier place,'' Daniels said,
``and a lot of what works about the show is the hopefulness and the emotional
bonding of the characters.''

The absence of Kevin Williamson, the series' creator, from any involvement in
the show is obvious; he often said the characters were based on different
aspects of his personality. Williamson went off to try other projects, so far
without much success.

Daniels has put one of the show's original writers in charge of the series
now. Its ultimate health may depend on whether Williamson can be coaxed back.

Kellner concedes that the WB's schedule is too heavy on dramas. As a result,
the network is concentrating most of its development efforts on establishing
new comedies.

A more subtle problem is the WB's effort to build a schedule with shows a
little too much like what they already have on the air. The idea is to
promote a natural audience flow from one to another so no one clicks the

Unfortunately for the WB, competitors noticed that young dramas were working
and tried to imitate. The market quickly flooded, and a backlash may have set

The WB has also suffered this year from the loss of a key affiliate, WGN in
Chicago. WGN is a superstation available on many cable systems, and it found
it was duplicating many local stations that also carried WB programming.

It was one more thing cutting in to the WB's viewership.

``We knew it would be a bump in the road,'' Kellner said, ``but we were so
positive about our schedule we thought we would drive right over it. But we

He looked uncomfortable talking about it. Kellner, who worked at Fox before
the WB, is used to growing networks, not stagnating ones.

But he insists there's no panic.

"We're not changing our plan,'' he said. ``We're not changing our people. We
are just going to be more aggressive.''

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.