Brace yourselves: The Only TV Column That Matters® is not the bottomless well of television information its dozens of fans believe it to be. Yes, it’s better written and far more entertaining than your other options, but Tube Town as definitive source material? Ha! This ain’t exactly the investigative shoe-leather department.
That is, until last week when the incessant question of “Where the hell is my UPN?” finally clogged up the voice- and e-mail to the point of driving me into action—or at least as much action as a TV writer can muster.
When Larry Miller’s KJZZ 14 prematurely ejected from its strained affiliation with UPN last month, the network took WWF Smackdown, Star Trek: Voyager and the rest of its motley crew to Ogden’s KAZG 24, a station airing cheesy home-shopping shows with two employees and no office—just a transmitter and a control board. Since then, Trekkies have had to follow the final season of Capt. Janeway’s space castaways through a fuzz-crap signal that may as well be beaming from Voyager itself on the other side of the galaxy, and Smackdown Thursday at WWF-fanatical Burt’s Tiki Lounge has been an even surlier affair than usual.
A phone conversation with Ogden Standard-Examiner TV writer Nancy Van Valkenburg (thanks and props to the only scribe who’s been covering Utah’s UPN crisis) led to another with now-KPNZ 24 station manager Duncan Brown, an Eastern transplant who’s been on the job for all of 20 days. In the midst of moving operations lock, stock and (possibly) transmitter to Salt Lake City, he’s had to deal with a few upset calls, as well—but not necessarily from the fan-base you’d think.
“The worst call I’ve gotten was an expletive-laced voicemail from a Voyager fan, which means they missed the entire message of the show about civility and peace,” Brown laughs. “Ninety-nine percent of the calls are extremely nice, even the ones venting a bit of frustration. Sometimes they call and say, ‘I know it was your idea to take UPN away from KJZZ’! When all that was happening, I was living blissfully ignorant in North Carolina.”
Those who do get KPNZ 24 via antennae or cable (channel 8 on most AT&T systems) have been treated to a glitch-ridden ride, the result of building a major network affiliate out of nothing in a matter of weeks while everyone’s watching. “It doesn’t happen often,” Brown says of the quick turnaround. “I’ve done it once before, but this is challenging. It’s like starting a brand-new station. But, since we’re already on the air, there’s no practice time.
“We have an agreement with AT&T to be on most of their cable systems by March 1, give or take a few days. For our over-the-air viewers, we’re investigating the mechanics of moving our transmitter to Farnsworth Peak [the best vantage point to reach all of the Wasatch Front]. Until then, I don’t really have any relief or good news for them, but we’re proceeding as quickly as we can. Trust me, we want as many people to be able to see us as possible.”
Toward the end, KJZZ didn’t care a whit about Utahns seeing UPN, constantly pre-empting it with hours of higher-rated Jazz basketball. Ironically, now that the network’s powered down locally from Miller’s 60,000-watt gorilla to spit-’n’-bailing-wire KPNZ, Brown thinks UPN might finally catch a toehold in Utah.
“Programming consistency is the key to ratings. KJZZ is a great station, and we’re an upstart—one of the toughest things to do is change viewers’ habits. I like being the underdog, actually. The bigger and splashier promotions are going to have to wait until everyone can get our signal, by fall or maybe sooner. You don’t invite everybody to the dance and have no music.”
Looks like the XFL, already a Smackdown-sized hit for UPN, couldn’t have come along at a better time. “I’ll be honest. I’m a wrestling fan, so I was anxious to see it. Now, I take the WWF at their word that it’s going to be straight football, that there aren’t any predetermined outcomes—and it sure looked like that in the first game,” Brown laughs, noting the lopsided 19-0 score of the XFL’s debut. “You wouldn’t script that kind of a blowout.”
Still, UPN is about more than just Trek, rasslin’ and football with slutty cheerleaders. Will Zion ever really embrace shows like When Chefs Attack, Cheating Spouses Caught on Tape, and my personal new animation anarchy favorite, Gary & Mike?
“Uh … it’s what it is,” Brown chuckles diplomatically. “A lot of critics call it adolescent humor, or toilet humor, but even that’s funny sometimes. I’ll take any good review I can get.”