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How UPN gave voice to a new generation of Black storytellers in the late 1990s and early 2000s before it was "merged out of existence"

  • UPN launched in 1995 with shows appealing toward young white male viewers, from Star Trek: Voyager to WWE. "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," explains Evan Nicole Brown. "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." Nunan says, “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. When I arrived, Moesha was already on the air, so I built on that." Nunan oversaw the creation of The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards and prioritized the work of Black creators with shows like One on One and Mara Brock Akil's Girlfriends. After Nunan left in 2001, he was succeeded by Dawn Ostroff, who added WB shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell. She also launched Veronica Mars in 2004. Rachel True, who starred on UPN's Half & Half, says UPN had begun to import “all these … pretty white teenager shows, and it was very separate and unequal.” True recalls the Black sitcoms being segregated from the white shows during promo day -- "we got buckets of fried chicken" while shows like Buffy were given sushi and salad. In early 2006, the announcement came that UPN and The WB would merge to form The CW. Rose Catherine Pinkney, former senior vp comedy development at Paramount Pictures Television, believes the merger was the result of advertisers paying less money for Black shows. Though some Black shows survived the merger, The CW focused on young adult shows targeting young white women. "The CW was intended to merge UPN’s diverse and creative programming with The WB’s profitability," says Brown. "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."

    TOPICS: UPN, The CW, The WB, Girlfriends, Moesha, Rachel True, Tom Nunan, African Americans and TV