Kids Will Be Kids

Couch Spuds Had No Reason to expect gripping television when two TV networks--United Paramount Network and the Warner Bros. Network--were launched earlier this year. Both barely had a staff in place. And they aired over a patchwork of TV stations, in many cases on different nights. To no one's surprise, both nets met the low expectations. Some shows were downright silly. (How does a sit-corn about a cable cooking-show host strike you?) And UPN and WB have lost millions.

What's surprising is that the upstarts remain in so much turmoil after six months in the network business. UPN is replacing three of its four shows for the fall. And WB, hoping for a miracle hit, is sticking with most of its duds, in part to save money. Things are even messy off-screen. Both nets are trading potshots, dissing everything from their rival's managers to their vapid shows. Behind the scenes at UPN, the plot twist is more enticing. Insiders say there's a backstabbing clash between network boss Lucie Salhany, a highly regarded industry executive, and Kerry McCluggage, head of Paramount's television studio.

The sniping and infighting underscore the enormous stakes for the networks' backers. Chris-Craft Industries' BHC Communications, which for now is footing the entire bill for UPN, is betting it can build a brand-name network that will boost the value of BHC's local TV stations. And as the major networks begin to make more of their own TV shows, Viacom's Paramount, the other UPN partner, sees UPN as an outlet for the programs the majors used to snap up. Warner Bros. studio, with partner Tribune Broadcasting, also wants an alternate outlet for its TV shows and to exploit its strength in cartoons for kids. But while the networks share some similar goals, they have gone in different directions. UPN, aiming for young male viewers, introduced a two-night, five-show schedule anchored by yet another "Star Trek" spinoff, "Voyager," a debut-night hit. Insiders say UPN is also negotiating with MTV veejay Bill Bellamy about introducing a late-night talk show. Meanwhile, WB aimed for young families with a one-night lineup of comedies like "The Wayans Bros."

The shows, except for "Voyager," crashed in the ratings. A better shot at another hit might be a show loosely based on the real-life high jinks behind the making of rival upstart networks. For example, WB has launched a whispering campaign to discredit "Voyager." Although the show enjoyed a big opening night, gleeful WB execs volunteer to reporters and the ad community that the show's ratings have plunged. "If enough shows start going south, it gets more difficult for [UPN] to sustain the losses," says Garth Ancier, WB's top show picker.

WB officials, many of whom launch the Fox network, They suggest that the UPN team doesn't have the right stuff for the long haul. "It's a business about a team of people making judgments," says Jamie Kellner, WB's chief and the former Fox president. We have

Neither net has been shy about leaking disinformation about the other. It's petty stuff, to be sure. But it's the kind of TV-land propaganda that might persuade an affiliate to eventually switch camps. The WB crowd is telling any reporter who will listen that UPN's affiliates are worried that the network is replacing too many of UPN's shows. Not so, say several UPN affiliates. Firing back, UPN is hinting in interviews that WB is competing unfairly. The charge? WB's sister company, Time Warner Cable, tried to discourage some local stations from affiliating with UPN by threatening to not carry the network. Yet there's no proof of such a ploy. That's not to say UPN doesn't have cause for concern: WB, Time Warner Cable and cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. are discussing a broad plan to provide WB choice channel positions, WB insiders say. But the real battle is going on at UPN. Paramount, one of UPN's founders, doesn't think the schedule shakeup is such a bright idea. (Three of the shows that were canceled--"Legend," "Pig Sty" and "Platypus Man"--had been supplied by Paramount.) Some Paramount officials are angry with Salhany, who, sources say, ignored a plea not to slash the entire Tues-day-night lineup. The sources say Salhany and Paramount TV chief McCluggage spend too much of their time belittling each other in conversations with other executives. Salhany admits that she didn't let paramount executives review the fall lineup before she announced it. "Paramount can't get preferential treatment," she says.

Can the young nets get beyond the ratings and the backbiting? There is some good news. UPN will expand to a third night next year and has a bona fide, ff fading, hit in "Voyager." WB, which is adding a second night, has a good shot at the lucrative kids' market and already has seen one small payoff: its mascot Michigan J. Frog is selling out as a stuffed animal in Warner Bros. studio stores. But this much is clear: each network is anxious for the other to blink.

Animated mice plot to take over the world-brought to you by Steven Spielberg.

Kirk Cameron's just-out-of-college character becomes the parent of his younger siblings.

A Forrest Gump-like youngster takes his naive optimism to the Big Apple.

After two seasons on ABC, real-life identical twins move their act to WB.

The crew's struggles in space resume, despite fallen ratings.

A photographer shoots a secret execution. The villain, "Twilight Zone"-style, gets revenge by wiping out all evidence of his life.

A scientist creates a videogame and it becomes his own life. Yup, he's the hero.

Calling Lou Grant. Personal lives and work intertwine in the hectic, cutthroat world of a local television newsroom.