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It's the fringe network Smackfest!

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Here, in the belly of Hollywood's dream factory, they call it the Battle of the Weblets.

It's really the semiannual sniping contest between the WB and UPN, two outlets at the edge of the network TV business. Both are fighting hard in a situation where experts expect only one to survive.

Sunday and Monday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, their rivalry meant an ongoing war of words before the 200 writers assembled at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, sparked by UPN's snatching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from the WB's lineup for fall.

Things got rough from the start of the WB's news conferences Sunday, when an executive launched a stand-up comedy-style welcome filled with barbs tossed at UPN (which he called the "Used Parts Network"). He suggested critics next meet at the state penitentiary, "where you can meet UPN's most loyal viewers."

The bad blood over the Buffy move was palpable, as WB executives ruled out any chance of "crossover" episodes between Buffy and its spinoff show, Angel, which stays at the WB.

Monday, UPN declared it would beat the WB in all-important ratings measures within a year. Executives waved aside suggestions that the young men clicking onto WWF Smackdown might not warm to female-friendly shows such as Buffy and Roswell.

"We think some of the Smackdown guys actually like wearing makeup," quipped UPN president Dean Valentine. "For some reason, women kicking guys' butts really gets a (male and female) audience."

Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar was all smiles while disavowing comments she had made months earlier on the horror of possibly joining the network of Star Trek and WWF Smackdown!

"For five years we had a home where we could do the show we wanted," said Gellar, who was whisked away seconds after her news conference ended, before further questions could be posed. "The idea of a move was scary. But it also makes you want to work harder, to show everyone you can do it."

Buffy creator Joss Whedon shrugged off comparisons with Dallas and the long-ago Who Shot J.R. craze as he talked about his big challenge: resurrecting Buffy, who was killed in the show's final WB episode.

"Dallas was lame, and it was a cheat," said Whedon, who is also planning a musical episode, likely in November sweeps. "You just have to make the audience feel what the characters are feeling. . . . It won't be a cheat."

WB is fighting back against the loss of its signature show by pushing Smallville, a retelling of Superman's life as a teen that may take the tone of a Buffy-style, youth-oriented action fantasy.

The network is counting on corporate parent AOL Time Warner to help promote its record eight new shows, including a comedy, Maybe It's Me (the show was supposed to be called Maybe I'm Adopted, but adoption advocates protested). It will field a night of family-oriented Friday comedy similar to ABC's long-gone TGIF franchise, plus two reality shows.

At UPN, the programming comes down to four categories: black folks, science fiction, sorcery and Smackdown!

UPN is now the only network with a night full of black-centered comedies (Mondays). But its main hopes are pinned on Buffy, Roswell and Enterprise, a fifth series from the Star Trek franchise.

As in past years, UPN will debut its first fall series in early September, with Enterprise debuting Sept. 26 and a two-hour Buffy premiere set for Oct. 9.

But perhaps its oddest program involves Star Trek grad William Shatner, who is the emcee for the American version of Iron Chef, the Japanese cooking show that is a sort of a culinary Smackdown. Look for that one Nov. 16.