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Posted at 12:43 a.m. EDT Saturday, April 8, 2000

Sabrina' Is Flying to WB

BY BRIAN LOWRY
© 2000, Los Angeles Times

The WB network has acquired ``Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,'' boosting that fledgling network's efforts to establish a comedy beachhead while seemingly putting a nail in the coffin of the teen-oriented ``TGIF'' sitcom lineup ABC has programmed Friday nights for more than a decade.

Industry sources viewed the deal for the prime-time show as a coup for the WB, which has ordered two seasons, or 44 episodes, of the fantasy-comedy series to begin airing in the fall. WB has the right to reduce that commitment to one season if the program fails to meet certain ratings expectations.

WB has acquired castaways from the major networks before -- among them ABC's ``Sister, Sister,'' with the Mowry twins, and NBC's ``Brotherly Love,'' featuring the Lawrence brothers; however, ``Sabrina'' is by far the most successful show to make such a leap, averaging 10.5 million viewers this season and routinely ranking among prime time's top-rated shows with teenagers.

Indeed, ABC officials have long pointed out ``Sabrina'' out-rates any current WB show among teenage girls, a narrow but profitable demographic slice in which the series routinely ranks as prime time's most popular series.

Despite enjoying considerable success among teens with such dramas as ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' ``Dawson's Creek'' and ``7th Heaven,'' the WB has largely struck out with home-grown comedies -- a source of ongoing frustration for the network. ``Sabrina'' will not only appeal to that same audience but provide a potential launching pad for the WB to introduce other sitcoms aimed at its target audience.

WB Entertainment President Susanne Daniels admitted she was surprised ABC would let ``Sabrina'' go and believes the deal will yield dividends for her network.

``Getting Sabrina' went right to the heart of our No. 1 goal -- to get a broader-appeal comedy on our network,'' she said.

ABC, meanwhile, now appears certain to pursue a different direction on Friday nights, where the network has long commanded the loyalty of kids and teenagers with such shows as ``Full House,'' ``Family Matters'' and more recently ``Sabrina'' and ``Boy Meets World.''

ABC officials have acknowledged they are mulling what to do about ``TGIF'' as ratings for the long-running franchise have steadily declined. Industry sources speculate the network may add a fourth or even fifth night of its quiz show hit ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' in the fall, which the network could use to introduce more adult-oriented programming on Fridays.

Another scenario would involve moving ``The Wonderful World of Disney'' from Sundays to Fridays, making room to sandwich a drama series -- perhaps the romance ``Once and Again,'' which is struggling Mondays -- between ``Millionaire'' and ``The Practice'' on Sunday nights.

An ABC spokesman said the company is still committed to scheduling programs the family can watch together and that the future of ``TGIF'' is still being evaluated. ABC had no comment regarding ``Sabrina'' or other ``TGIF'' components, which include ``Boy Meets World'' -- which will likely be canceled -- and ``The Hughleys,'' which remains on the fence regarding a third season.

Starring Melissa Joan Hart in the title role, ``Sabrina'' is produced by Viacom Productions, whose parent company has an ownership stake in UPN, the WB's chief rival in the battle to be known as the ``fifth network.''

Sources note that ``Sabrina'' skews primarily to girls and young women and wouldn't be nearly as good a fit with UPN, which is leaning heavily toward programs reaching young men and boys with ``WWF Smackdown!'' and a host of related shows designed to tap into that audience.

Though sources say the WB will pay Viacom in the neighborhood of $650,000 per episode -- less than ABC had initially offered -- the network's commitment ensures ``Sabrina'' will be able to produce enough episodes to cash in on the lucrative syndication market, with its rerun rights having already been sold to several TV stations in major cities owned by the Tribune Co. that provide the cornerstone for the WB. (The Tribune Co. is in the process of merging with Times Mirror Co., parent company of the Los Angeles Times.)

While WB has poached from the major networks, it may soon face a similar challenge to retain one of its signature shows, ``Buffy.'' The Fox network, whose sister 20th Century Fox Television unit produces the series, is said to have expressed interest in the teenage vampire slayer if the WB fails to meet the studio's asking price for the series, which becomes free to be shopped to other networks after next season.

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