Sarah Michelle Gellar by Richard Cartwright/FOX
It seems like a more innocent time, when a haircut could rock an entire network. But that's what happened when Felicity star Keri Russell's trademark curly locks were shorn during a summer hiatus in 1999. The early WB fave was never the same after that follicle debacle. Susanne Daniels, who was the creative executive behind many of the network's early successes, and Variety deputy editor Cynthia Littleton have recounted the wild ride of the short-lived six network era in Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN (Harper Books).

When reading the story, it's hard to believe two over-the-air broadcast networks were launched only a dozen years before we made a habit out of watching TV on our computers. Both UPN and the WB (which merged to become the CW last year) were born out of their studio-owners' fear that once the government allowed the established networks to produce their own series, they would be shut out of prime time. That never happened. But the youth-oriented approach that the networks took in trying to outflank their competitors helped reshape the TV landscape. Daniels (now programming chief at Lifetime) and Littleton recently talked with the Biz about the slice of broadcast history they revisit in the book, which hits stores on October 16. What's striking about this story today is that these were two new networks that were in search of a brand. Can you imagine that happening today?
Susanne Daniels: No. Since I've been in cable the last two years, not when you look at the specificity of a HGTV - networks are so brand specific. I can't imagine that happening today.
Cynthia Littleton: Or the idea of people going around fighting over affiliates in Topeka, Kansas or Louisville, Kentucky. What ultimately defined these networks?
Daniels: We did have a conscious strategy to go younger, because at that time, Fox, where I had just come from, was trying to go older in reaction to acquiring the New World station group (which switched their affiliations from CBS to Fox). Once that happened, we saw [News Corp. chairman] Rupert Murdoch pushing Fox to put shows on the air with Henry Winkler and George Carlin, which they did. We knew where he had had success getting Fox on the map, with [younger-skewing shows such as] 21 Jump Street and The Simpsons.
Littleton: The big difference between the WB and UPN was that while the WB was a network in search of a strategy for a long time, it was not a network in search of a leader - it had a very clear leader in Jamie Kellner, who had a lot of faith in his team and they very expressly said just like their Fox experience they were going to throw some things at the wall and see what stuck. They were not afraid to experiment. At UPN, you had infighting and bickering and backstabbing from before the thing got on the air, and you see the damage that it did. For most of its run, UPN was in search of a leadership and a brand identity and I think you could say arguably it only got to it late in life when it had the backing of [CBS chairman] Leslie Moonves, who put in Dawn Ostroff. She had the backing of her boss and wasn't looking over her shoulder in terms of whether she was going to get fired next month. The WB seemed to be onto something in terms of how to tap into a small but passionate audience. It proved that hit shows didn't have to have monstrous ratings to have a rabid following that could sustain them.
Littleton: I think it's pretty clear that it was the Little WB That Could - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Felicity - these shows had outsized influence beyond the kind of audiences they were bringing in on a weekly basis. These are the shows that everybody wanted on their magazine covers. These are the shows that journalists were talking about. I think the arrival of UPN and the WB right after two of the last big honking broadcast TV hits - Friends and ER - I don't think that timing is inconsequential. ER and Friends were the end of big tent hits and UPN and WB paved the way for what we see now to the nth degree with the Fine Living Channel - the total nichefication of the marketplace. But it wasn't WB's intent to be a niche network.
Daniels: No, definitely not. Having just come from Fox where I was meeting with Murdoch and hearing talk about going broad and taking advantage of those new stations - it certainly wasn't the intent to be as aggressively broad as Fox. The feeling was we would not be the new Fox, but we would not be as niche as cable. So Susanne, I'm not sure we get a true sense in the book of how pissed you were when Felicity star Keri Russell cut her hair. That scene in the book seemed a little understated.
Daniels: When Cynthia and I interviewed various people about it, everybody had different accounts of the experience. There was my recollection, which differed from [show creator] J.J. Abrams' and [WB programming exec] Jordan Levin's. I just recall getting an infuriating phone call saying she cut her hair and we don't know what to do and we're not sure how to handle this. We didn't know whether to put extensions on. I strongly disagreed with Keri and her management and ultimately J.J. - who wanted to make Keri happy - because I wanted the long hair back. But they wanted to go with the shorter hair. I always felt it had a negative impact on the ratings. When the WB wouldn't pay Fox Studio enough money to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it went to UPN for its final two seasons, did that sort of cut the heart out of the WB?
Daniels: It was a seminal moment where I felt incredibly strongly that our brand had been compromised and diluted, and I didn't know whether we'd ever get it back and recover.
Littleton: From a network perspective it signaled so much to the industry, and unfortunately not a lot of it positive, because the WB was still very much on the upswing at that time. The kind of thing big networks do is shell out money to keep their big hits or their signature shows. The fact that the WB didn't had agents, producers and writers in town questioning whether the network was really going to be in the big leagues. It was not beneficial to the WB's reputation in the creative community. The reviews for the new shows on the CW were as good as any notices for the best of the WB. Why aren't they clicking in the ratings? Is the distribution system not up to the task?
Daniels: I do not think it's the distribution system. Jamie Kellner used to say ad nauseum, 'If you build it, they will come.' If you build a great show, they will be there for it. It used to drive me crazy. I would say 'That's not true, we need the distribution, we need the marketing.' At the end of the day, the essence of what he said remains true. I know the new CW shows got great notices. I like some of the shows a lot. It may have something to do with the distribution and marketing, but I will always believe it has something to do with the show as well.
Littleton: I'm surprised that Reaper didn't open stronger. I know there's second-guessing at the CW going on right now about whether they should have opened in the thick of premiere week. Maybe they should have gone a little later or a little earlier. They have Tribune Broadcasting stations in key markets, but the stars have to align - it's either the right time on the right channel in the time slot on the right night for a show, or it's not.