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Taste in television

As head of a national television network, Dean Valentine, AB’76, doesn’t have much room for sentiment. A middleman between the shows’ creators and the market, he’s often shouldered the task of canceling a favorite program that, given a few years, could have grown into a hit show. “Television is always a balance,” Valentine says. “At times the audience just won’t come to the show.” The trick is finding the new shows that will strike the right chord with viewers, a trick Valentine mastered as president of Walt Disney Television, where he oversaw the production and creation of shows like Home Improvement, Ellen, and Boy Meets World.

Now Valentine’s trying to repeat that success as president and CEO of the four-year-old United Paramount Network, home to Star Trek: Voyager and Moesha. Vying for viewers in what he describes as “a very fragmented business,” Valentine hopes that the animated series Dilbert—which debuted in January and is based on a comic strip about the life of an average, cubicle-dwelling technocrat—will catch the attention of a fickle, channel-changing audience and bolster UPN’s flagging constituency. “People are bored with the multiple-camera sitcom,” he says, explaining the recent surge of animated prime-time programming. “The Baby Boom generation grew up with shows like The Flintstones, and recent generations have grown up with prime-time animation and animated feature films.”

Leaving the corporate juggernaut of Disney in 1997 for the helm of underdog UPN was not the safest career path for Valentine, but provided him with a much-needed career challenge. “I decided that UPN was the much more interesting way to go. It’s more of a high-wire act,” Valentine says, a balancing act between “what you have available, what you want, and what you can afford.”

Valentine’s efforts at UPN are hampered substantially by the fact the fledgling network simply cannot match budgets with the major networks. Another big obstacle: The dilution of the talent pool following the rise of cable networks has affected the whole industry. He says it leaves many studios without known or experienced writers and producers to choose from. Yet Valentine remains hopeful. “Another whole new talent pool has surfaced,” he explains. “We’ve tried to turn to some of these new voices for this coming year.”

The fact remains that television is a volatile business, where shows fail more often than they succeed. “I believe in the vision and quality of the writers,” Valentine says, but admits that like any industry with a bottom line, the television industry is subject to a form of natural selection. “At the end of the day, my job is to put on hit shows,” Valentine confesses. “The challenge is to find shows that appeal to a wide enough audience. The networks that do will survive, and the ones that don’t, won’t.”—M.D.B.

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