On Jan. 24, 2006, Leslie Moonves, then-chairman of the CBS Corporation, and Barry Meyer, his counterpart at Warner Bros. Entertainment, held a joint news conference to announce that their respective television networks — UPN (United Paramount Network) and The WB — were struggling financially and would merge to form a new channel called The CW.
“I remember the day it happened,” says Rose Catherine Pinkney, former senior vp comedy development at Paramount Pictures Television. “I got off a plane and my BlackBerry started buzzing and buzzing; I was like, ‘What is going on?’ It was done in the dark of night. Nobody saw it coming.”
Launched in 1995, UPN was initially geared toward young white male viewers, with early programming including shows like Star Trek: Voyager and WWE broadcasts. But as network executives became increasingly interested in reaching underserved audiences, UPN soon became known for its Monday night block of groundbreaking Black sitcoms, such as Moesha, The Parkers, Half & Half, One on One and Girlfriends.
One of the forces behind the shift was Tom Nunan, who joined UPN as executive vp programming in 1997 and was appointed president of entertainment the following year. At Fox, in the late 1980s, Nunan had developed a reputation for greenlighting shows by African American writers, like In Living Color, Martin and Living Single. Other Black-centric sitcoms from that period, including The Cosby Show and its spinoff A Different World, were largely created by white showrunners. Shows by Black creators, Nunan reasoned, would likely resonate more deeply with Black audiences.
“By the time I got to UPN, Fox had started to pivot away from shows like Martin and Living Single, so suddenly there was an opening again,” he says. “When I arrived, Moesha was already on the air, so I built on that,” adds Nunan, who also helped develop The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards for UPN during his tenure. “[It wasn’t] just an effort to embrace an audience that hasn’t been embraced by the other channels; [it was] to encourage that audience to lead us with inspiration and ideas and in directions that none of us could predict,” he explains.
“You can say that you were looking for one particular demographic, but really the demo finds you,” says Kelly Edwards, who led UPN’s comedy division and had worked with Nunan at Fox. “So as we were developing material, even though we were looking for men 18 to 34 and going for the family genre, our most successful shows ended up being more African American, female-driven shows. You can develop all you want for a particular group, but if they’re not going to show up for you, you have to really chase the demo that is showing up for you.”
Edwards notes that UPN’s shows tended to be “very talent-driven” in that they capitalized on a celebrity’s preexisting star power and cultural cachet. Perhaps the network’s earliest and most successful example of this approach was Moesha, which starred Brandy, a hugely popular singer at the time, and boasted guest appearances from the likes of Maya Angelou. The family sitcom was set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park, depicting an upper-middle-class Black family navigating realistic situations.
“There hadn’t really been a show like that before, where the star was a young Black girl with brown skin and braids,” says Vida Spears, who co-created Moesha with Ralph Farquhar and Sara Finney-Johnson. “Sara and I always talked about how we never had a role model like that on television when we were kids.”
In 1999, UPN introduced a Moesha spinoff called The Parkers, also created by Farquhar, Finney-Johnson and Spears. The show, about a mother and daughter who attend the same junior college, marked the acting debut of Mo’Nique, then known as a stand-up comedian. “What was beautiful was when I walked on that set and saw all that Blackness, that was my introduction to Hollywood,” she says. “I took pride in that.”
The Parkers was a massive ratings success, ultimately reaching syndication. Another hit for UPN was the sitcom Half & Half, which premiered Sept. 23, 2002. Producer Yvette Lee Bowser (who had created Living Single years earlier) inherited the script for Half & Half — about a pair of estranged half-sisters who become neighbors — and developed it “into something that honestly and hilariously portrayed a modern family as I understood it and experienced it growing up. It resonated with the Black audience in particular because it authentically depicted the fraught and funny dynamics so many of us who are living with bonus siblings [understand].”
Rachel True, who starred as Mona on the show, found it rewarding to be working with a Black female producer. “[Bowser said,] ‘This is just a show about people, and I’m not going to make you be any more or less Black than you already are,’ ” recalls True. “That there was room for that on network television by that point … We hadn’t seen that many Black alternatives on TV.”
In addition to prioritizing the work of Black creators, UPN’s programming placed bets on more symbolically significant stories. One on One, which starred Flex Alexander and Kyla Pratt as a single father and his daughter, was praised for its representation of an alternative family dynamic and positive depiction of Black fatherhood, in contrast to prevailing stereotypes.
In its brief existence, UPN launched and nurtured careers. Mara Brock Akil began as a writer on Moesha and went on to create her own show, Girlfriends, and its spinoff, The Game. When pitching Girlfriends, Akil was inspired by the popularity of Sex and the City but felt that the Black female perspective was missing. “I was examining something that I sold in the room, which was that I was going to tell all the secrets of Black women, but my real secret was that we were human. And we had all these layers to us that deserve stories and deserve a place to be told,” she said.
“At the time that I was doing the pilot, there were rumors that UPN was going to go away, so it was a really strange time,” Akil recalls. But in the end, Girlfriends, which was executive produced by Kelsey Grammer, was such a success that it survived the merger and brought a built-in audience over to The CW, where its final season aired in 2008; The Game ran for three seasons on The CW before being picked up by BET, and now by Paramount+.
Nunan left UPN in 2001 and was succeeded by Dawn Ostroff (who’s now the chief content officer at Spotify). The merger with The WB was still five years away, but many already felt that the DNA of UPN was gradually mutating.
True recalls that the network had begun to import “all these … pretty white teenager shows, and it was very separate and unequal.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell were both purchased by UPN — which agreed to pay more than the WB for them — and Veronica Mars was developed for the network in its final years as part of this slow but steady programming pivot.
True remembers what she describes as segregated press junkets for UPN’s sitcoms: The Black shows were lumped together and there was a separate promo day for shows like Buffy. While actors in that latter group of shows were given sushi and salads, “We got buckets of fried chicken. It was insane,” True says. “Yes, some of us appreciate Roscoe’s, for sure. But we’re actresses [too]!” A producer on a Monday night show at the time remembers hearing about this catering choice from castmembers on other sitcoms included in this junket. Former UPN senior vp Kim Fleary joined the network shortly afterward and does not recall overtly segregated events, but she confirmed that the Monday night shows were often promoted as a block.
The CW would end up abandoning much of what UPN had built. The new network “essentially took on the identity of The WB,” Nunan says. “I thought it was a huge missed opportunity and a big shame for The WB to just let that programming block fade away, because we’ve learned over and over again that the African American audience can be a tremendously loyal audience, and it just seemed like this audience helped us build our channel, and now we’re just going to step away from them?” he says.
Pinkney believes the decision to merge UPN out of existence came down to ad revenue. “Ultimately, you want the most dollars that you can get for your ads,” she says. Though UPN’s Black-led scripted shows (which by the end of UPN’s run included Eve, All of Us, Everybody Hates Chris) were largely popular with audiences, advertisers were evidently less inclined to pay top dollar to support shows targeting Black viewers. Farquhar, co-creator of Moesha and The Parkers, recalls an advertising person saying, “We’re not interested in ‘downscaled demographics.’ ”
Fleary, who stayed on at The CW post-merger, says the executives at the network were simply responding to trends. “They were paying very close attention to different consultants,” Fleary says. “I think there was just more of a desire for shows that might have had a YA emphasis.” Though diversity did not disappear from The CW’s roster, the “YA emphasis” of the mid 2000s ended up translating to shows predominantly targeted toward young white women.
Edwards, who had left UPN by the time the merger happened, was disheartened by how much good work was lost in the shuffle. “CW got rid of all the comedies and just became strictly a drama landscape,” she says of the many UPN show cancellations. “A lot of [comedy] people ended up having to shift into drama, or they just dropped out altogether. So we lost an entire generation of writers of color who were not employed at The CW when it became The CW.”
Many of Bowser’s peers did not survive the transition. “We dubbed it the CW tsunami,” she says. “It decimated a lot of the progress we made in the ’80s and ’90s.”
UPN’s Monday night lineup for more than half a decade was “a golden era as it relates to Black presence on TV,” Farquhar says. “When we were shooting Moesha, you used to see all these Black kids who were starring in TV shows come over and hang on the set when they weren’t shooting, and those of us who were older would just remark that they didn’t know how special this was. That this had never happened before in the history of TV, period.”
The CW was intended to merge UPN’s diverse and creative programming with The WB’s profitability. Yet 16 years after its creation, the network has yet to turn a profit; it is now up for sale and being shopped by its corporate owners, ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia. Meanwhile, streaming platforms like Netflix have resuscitated many of UPN’s beloved shows.
“A lot of people who are not from our culture didn’t really understand [our impact] until Netflix and social media was able to show them that we have classic shows,” Pratt says. One on One, along with UPN’s other hit sitcoms, was acquired by Strong Black Lead, Netflix’s sub-brand dedicated to Black stories and creators, in 2020. “I’m so happy that so many shows were put on streaming platforms,” Pratt says, “just so new generations can see the type of quality we were bringing back then.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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