UPN was once the go-to station for primetime Black television. But after years of securing the Black television demographic, the network's autonomy began to shift. In 1996, Viacom bought a 50 percent stake in the network, and four years later, Viacom bought the remaining 50 percent from UPN's owner, Chris-Craft Industries. UPN would then be given to CBS Corporation after CBS split with Viacom (although as of this week, the two companies are back together). By 2006, UPN had faded out of existence when it was announced by CBS and Time Warner that both the network and The WB would close and unite under a joint venture, now known as The CW.
Six UPN series, America's Next Top Model, Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, All of Us and WWE SmackDown, held over to The CW and the three leftover sitcoms led by black talent wrapped their runs between 2007-2009. Since then, it is rare to see a show led by a predominately Black cast on the network, with the DC Comics series Black Lightning and recent fan-favorite All American being an exception (two out of the three focal characters for the network's Charmed reboot are also Black).
Many Black actors of the day worked on UPN, including Essence Atkins, who starred on Half & Half during the show's run from 2002 to 2006. Atkins, who currently stars on OWN's soapy drama Ambitions, talked to Shadow And Act about the dissolution of UPN, and how Black networks usually run aground when it comes to believing in earning "mainstream" (i.e. white) appeal.
"When you're the number one, number two show on a network and then the network just dissolves and gets bought out and becomes something else...it's not the first time that a network has built their wealth on Black content and then, slowly but surely, [goes] through a gentrification process," she said, revealing prior that when she learned about UPN's death in 2006, it was as a shock announcement from her investment banker.
"We, as Black audiences, we are incredibly loyal, we have a lot of buying power and so markets capitalize on that," she continued. "What seemed to be the pattern was that they would get their hit white show and then they would slowly but surely eradicate their directives. That leaves a big deficit in terms of us being able to see our own stories, believing in your own story and amassing an audience to the point where you become undeniable."
Thankfully today, Black creatives have more avenues to showcase their work thanks to streaming services, the rise of independent crowdfunding, and social media. But UPN's death is still yet another example of how disposable Black talent has been viewed in Hollywood.
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The power of Black audiences has been underestimated, overlooked, and exploited for decades and, unfortunately, gentrification is no stranger to the TV and film industry. #EssenceAtkins (@essence_says) knows this fact all too well due to her own experience with networks using Black storytelling to build their wealth only to leave us high and dry in the end. #ShadowAndAct sat down with the TV star to discuss how she personally found out #UPN was dissolved in the midst of ‘Half & Half’ being one of the top shows on the network. Click the link in our bio for more. #blackstorytelling #essenceatkins #tvnetworks #blacktelevision
Ambitions airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on OWN.
Photo: Shadow and Act / UPN