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July 27, 2000, Thursday, 0 South Pinellas Edition
CITY & STATE; ENTERTAINMENT; Pg. 2B

WB, UPN full of hope, uncertainty for fall

ERIC DEGGANS
St. Petersburg Times

DATELINE: PASADENA, Calif. : So you're facing a roomful of surly TV critics who have spent more than two weeks stuck in hotel meeting rooms, eating bad chicken dinners and watching network executives hype their latest, horribly ill-considered lineup of fall shows.

How do you avoid going down like the Titanic?

If you're the WB Network, you make 'em laugh - with a yuk-filled presentation near the end of the Television Critics Association's summertime press tour that underscored the network's need for a comedy viewers might actually watch.

Cast members from the Mad TV-style sketch comedy show Hype kicked off the day, presenting a parody of Joan and Melissa Rivers' Oscar pre-show that took shots at everyone from Regis Philbin and President Clinton to their own network (one joke: "WB: Short for Why Bother - nobody's watching anyway.")

Given some of the hard knocks the WB endured last season, it's hard to believe anyone there can laugh at all.

Taken off the WGN superstation last year, the WB saw viewership dip by 20 percent just as youth-oriented dramas on competing networks brought their biggest challenge for viewers age 12 to 34.

It didn't help that established shows such as Felicity got a little stale creatively. Network officials even blamed the ratings downturn on star Keri Russell's haircut. "It's grown out, and she looks fabulous," joked Susanne Daniels, WB entertainment president. "The hair crisis has passed."

This fall, the network snatches Sabrina the Teenage Witch from ABC and The PJ's from Fox to boost its sitcom fortunes and chase young males. New offerings feature Unhappily Ever After bombshell Nikki Cox (Nikki) and Hype.

Moving Sabrina to college, star Melissa Joan Hart will be joined by former Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye, who plays her streetwise roommate.

The network's most promising new show is Gilmore Girls, a quirky dramedy about a thirtysomething mom (M.Y.O.B.'s Lauren Graham) and her teenage daughter that features a Korean-American teen girl, Hispanic dance coach and east Indian hotel clerk.

"My world has never been a totally white world," noted series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. "So if I'm going to create a world I feel right about, I'm going to create a diverse world, because that makes it much more real."

Less rosy was the presentation by UPN, which will change its name to The Paramount Network on Jan. 1. Facing an uncertain future following CBS's merger with owner Viacom, UPN's leadership offered a half-day presentation that only highlighted the instability of their new shows.

Buoyed by the ratings success of WWF Smackdown! and The Parkers, network executives struck a confident tone, targeting young males and black viewers. But some new fall series are still under development and one mainstay, Star Trek: Voyager, will air its final season in 2000-01.

Only one new series, the cyberspace-themed action show Level 9, had a complete pilot tape available. But the show's producers announced Tuesday that one of the lead characters there won't be featured in the series, after all.

In February, the network will televise the World Wrestling Federation's new XFL football league, offering 11 games as the network's first and only Sunday night programming (NBC will also air XFL games on Saturdays).

Most of UPN's other new series - a black-oriented version of Sex and the City dubbed Girlfriends, a Matrix-style action show called Freedom and a retooled version of ABC's The Hughleys - had only short presentation clips to offer.

"When I see people talking about how they got out of an abusive relationship I know exactly how they feel," said series creator D.L. Hughley of his relationship with ABC, which he considered suing after the network developed a sitcom for Damon Wayans similar to The Hughleys. "Now we're at a network that gets us." And whatever happened to I Spike, the UPN action series that was to feature a band of spies masquerading as a girls volleyball team?

"I can't bring myself to bull---- you it was just bad," admitted Dean Valentine, UPN president, to a wave of applause from weary critics. "Nobody would have been happier to announce that (it) was a success. Alas it fell short of our, um, standards."

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