Friday, January 9, 1998
New hope for 'Voyager,' 'Moesha'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

PASADENA, Calif. - Star Trek: Voyager may not vanish into hyperspace after all.

UPN President Dean Valentine told TV critics attending the Winter Press Tour here he's optimistic that Voyager, Brandy Norwood's Moesha and other UPN shows could remain on WSTR-TV after Channel 64 switches to rival Warner Bros.' programming next Friday.

UPN is in ''serious negotiations with Sinclair Broadcast,'' which owns Channel 64 and stations in four other cities that are changing affiliations to WB, Mr. Valentine said.

Apparently, UPN would rather have programs air late nights on full-power Channel 64, instead of on low-power WBQC-TV (Channel 25), the former WB affiliate that doesn't get any ratings points. Channel 64 averages a 6 percent audience share - about one-third that of Channels 5, 9 and 12 and twice the average of Channel 48.

In Dayton, UPN has a ''secondary affiliation'' with Fox's WRGT-TV (Channel 45), which airs its network lineup 1-3 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday.

''I'm optimistic that we will come to some deal with them (Sinclair),'' Mr. Valentine said. ''It's a pretty sensitive subject to talk about until it's done.''

Word that UPN and Sinclair folks were even speaking was big news here. Since Sinclair accepted WB's $84 million offer to switch affiliations last July, the two companies have communicated with each other in lawsuits. UPN sued Sinclair for breach of contract; Sinclair countersued for restraint of trade.

The talks are so hush-hush that Sinclair's chief counsel, Robert Quicksilver, refused to discuss the negotiations.

''All I can say is that on Jan. 16, WSTR will become a WB affiliate,'' Mr. Quicksilver said from Sinclair Broadcast Group headquarters in Baltimore.

Mr. Valentine's revelation was news to Channel 64, which already has reaped big dividends from its WB promotional campaign. Channel 64's three-hour marathon of WB's 7th Heaven family drama on Jan. 1 finished third in local ratings, drawing more viewers than NBC's Gator Bowl (Channel 5) and Fox children's programs (Channel 19).

''The next day, we had dozens of calls asking if 7th Heaven was a real show, and whether they would be able to see it every week,'' said Chris White, Channel 64 program director. In the series, Stephen Collins stars as a Protestant minister raising a family in the WB series.

Tristate viewers may sample more heavenly TV on Channel 64 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday. The pilot for WB's cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer airs 8-10 p.m. Sunday. The following Sunday (Jan. 18), Channel 64 begins airing WB's prime-time programs Sunday-Wednesday.

With Channel 64's last scheduled Voyager Wednesday, Mr. Valentine was upbeat about UPN's chances of staying in town. ''There is a good chance it (an agreement) could happen soon,'' he said.

Of all the UPN shows, Voyager has the most loyal, vocal and organized fan base. Worried Trekkers started calling Channel 64 the day the switch was announced in July.

Keeping Voyager on Channel 64 ''would make them extremely happy,'' Mr. White said, ''But that's beyond my personal control.''

UPN's new conciliatory attitude toward Sinclair is the only path to survival, said Mr. Valentine, the former Walt Disney Television president who took over UPN in September, after the network sued Sinclair.

At stake is the race to become the nation's fifth full-service network on a limited number of U.S. stations. Both UPN and WB have lost millions since their debut three years ago this month.

Sinclair became a bigger factor to UPN in December, when the company bought six Max Media stations, three of them UPN affiliates. Sinclair now owns 13 UPN stations but five switch to WB next week (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Baltimore, Oklahoma City). Trade publications have speculated that Sinclair may drop the nine remaining UPN affiliations.

''We clearly need to have a working relationship and a good relationship with each other,'' Mr. Valentine said.

''Sinclair is going to be around for a long time. They're out there buying stations ... some of which are going to wind up being UPN affiliates.

''It's been a very, very frustrating negotiation. It may still break apart, I don't know,'' he said.

If the deal crumbles, Mr. Valentine promised that ''something will be done'' to keep Voyager and Moesha fans happy. ''They will have an opportunity to watch UPN.''

Stay tuned.

Enquirer TV critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the Winter Press Tour in Pasadena.