Paramount Pictures had played a pivotal role in the development of network television. It was a partner in the DuMont Television Network, and the Paramount Theaters chain, spun off from the corporate/studio parent, merged with ABC in a deal that helped cement that network's status as a major network. The Paramount Television Network was launched in 1949, but dissolved in the 1950s.
In the wake of the successful Universal Studios ad hoc syndication package Operation Prime Time, which featured first a miniseries adaptation of John Jakes' novel The Bastard and went on to several more productions; Paramount had earlier contemplated its own television network with the Paramount Television Service. Set to launch in early 1978, its programming would have consisted of only one night a week. Thirty "Movies of the Week" would have followed Star Trek: Phase II on Saturday nights. Plans for the new network were scrapped when sufficient advertising slots could not be sold, though Paramount would still contribute some programs to Operation Prime Time. Star Trek: Phase II went into production as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, absorbing the costs already incurred from the aborted television series.
Paramount, and its eventual parent, the original Viacom (which bought Paramount Pictures in 1994), did not try to forget about the possibility. Independent stations, even more than network affiliates, were feeling the growing pressure of audience erosion to cable television in the 1980s and 1990s, and there were unaffiliated commercial stations in most of the major markets, at least, even after the foundation of Fox Broadcasting in 1986. Meanwhile, Paramount, long successful in syndication with repeats of Star Trek: The Original Series, found itself with several first-run syndicated series by the turn of the 1990s, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
In 1993, Time Warner and Chris-Craft Industries entered into a joint venture to distribute programming via a prime time programming block, the Primetime Entertainment Network (PTEN). PTEN can be seen as the ancestor of what would become UPN and The WB, since Chris-Craft later became a partner in UPN, while Time Warner launched The WB (in a joint venture with the Tribune Company) at roughly the same time.
Paramount had formed the Paramount Stations Group when it purchased the assets of TVX Broadcast Group, which owned several independent stations in major markets, in 1991. This was not unlike the purchase of the Metromedia stations by News Corporation ten years earlier, which were used as the nuclei for Fox. In another parallel, 20th Century Fox, like Paramount, had long been a powerhouse in television syndication. All indicators suggested that Paramount was about to launch a network of its own. By the end of 1994, Paramount announced the formation of the United Paramount Network. The new network would be owned by Chris-Craft Industries, while most of its shows were to be produced by Paramount Television.
UPN launched on January 16, 1995, carrying programming only on Monday and Tuesday nights. Like Fox had done a decade earlier, UPN started with a few nights of programming each week. UPN is slowly adding additional nights of programming for the remaining few years of the 1990s. Thus, for all intents and purposes, its affiliates were still basically independents during the network's early years.
The first telecast, the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: Voyager, was an auspiciously widely viewed start, having been seen by 21.3 million viewers; however, Voyager would never achieve such viewership levels again, nor would any of the series debuting on UPN's second night of broadcasting survive the season.
Other early UPN programs include the the comic western Legend starring Richard Dean Anderson (a veteran of Paramount's MacGyver. Of the network's early offerings, only Star Trek: Voyager would last longer than one season.
As of June 4, 1997, UPN runs only two hours of primetime network programming on Monday through Wednesdays (compared to the three Monday through Saturday and four Sunday primetime hours offered by the Big Three networks). UPN does not carry any weekend primetime programming (though it does offer children's programming on weekend mornings and a movie package to its affiliates on weekend afternoons); as a result, affiliates hold the responsibility of programming their Saturday and Sunday evening schedules with syndicated programs, sports, movies or network programs that are preempted from earlier in the week due to special programming in the 8–10 p.m. (Eastern Time/Pacific Time) time period. This primetime scheduling allows for many of the network's affiliates to air local newscasts during the 10-11 p.m. (ET/PT) time period.
Most of UPN's programming is either produced by Paramount Television or a Viacom-owned sister company (Viacom Productions, Big Ticket Entertainment, Spelling Television or CBS Productions). UPN's first official program was Star Trek: Voyager, with the first comedy shows to debut being the short-lived series' Platypus Man and Pig Sty.
Since 1996, much of UPN's comedy programming (particularly those seen on the network's Monday evening lineup) is largely aimed at African American audiences.
As of yet, UPN does not air any regular sporting event programs.
Like The WB, UPN does not air national morning or evening newscasts, however several of its affiliates and owned-and-operated stations produce their own local newscasts. Several UPN affiliates run a local newscast in the 10–11 p.m. ET/PT (9–10 p.m. CT/MT) time slot at some point during or throughout their affiliations with the network, (though there were a few stations that also produce a weekday morning newscast) early evening newscasts are largely absent on most of these stations. The UPN affiliate body features fewer news-producing stations in comparison to stations aligned with the Big Three television networks (NBC, ABC and CBS) and considerably fewer than Fox and especially The WB. In several markets, the local UPN affiliate either outsources news programming to an NBC, ABC or CBS station in the market, or other affiliates opt to carry syndicated programming in the hour following UPN's primetime programming.
When the network launched in January 1995, UPN automatically gained six affiliates with functioning news departments through Chris-Craft/United Television and Viacom's respective affiliation deals with the network, all of whom founded their news operations as either independent stations or during prior affiliations with other networks: WWOR-TV/Secaucus, New Jersey (New York City), KCOP-TV/Los Angeles, WKBD-TV/Detroit, KPTV/Portland, Oregon, KMSP-TV/Minneapolis and WTOG/Tampa, Florida.
Not all of UPN's news-producing stations are owned by the two companies that formed the nuclei of the network's affiliate group; WUAB/Cleveland, which started its news department in 1988, also continued its 10 p.m. newscast as a UPN affiliate (it would begin producing newscasts for sister station WOIO-TV in February 1995, after that station became a CBS affiliate). Harrisburg, PA affiliate WLYH-TV briefly continued its newscasts after switching to UPN from CBS in 1995, until WHP-TV began operating the station under a local marketing agreement that fall. WFTC/Minneapolis continued to produce a late evening newscast after Fox Television Stations (which acquired KMSP-TV through the Chris-Craft purchase and switched the station to Fox) acquired the station from Clear Channel Communications and switched the station to UPN – it was moved to 10 p.m. to avoid competing with KMSP's 9 p.m. newscast.
None of the UPN affiliates that produce newscasts continue to maintain a self-supporting news department.
When the network launched in January 1995, UPN also debuted a weekend morning cartoon block called UPN Kids. For the upcoming 1997-98 television season, UPN expects to add two teen-oriented series to the lineup with reruns of the syndicated Sweet Valley High and a new Canadian-produced series, Breaker High; both shows will fill the weekday morning block for the 1997–98 season, while they will also be included alongside the animated series on Sunday mornings. Unlike other networks, UPN gives its affiliates the option of running its weekend children's program block on either Saturdays or Sundays.
As of summer 1997, UPN has produced a number of television movies under the umbrella brand Blockbuster Shockwave Cinema, in conjunction with sponsor (and sister company) Blockbuster Video, almost all of which are science fiction films. The network also offers a hosted movie series called the UPN Movie Trailer to its stations. The weekend block features mostly older Hollywood action and comedy films, often those from the Paramount Pictures film library. Another movie block that UPN offers to stations is a late-night weekday featuring 'Terror Night', a collection of Paramount's best-known horror films, including the 1989 hit-classic Baja.
Although it is considered a major network by the Nielsen ratings, UPN is not available in every American television market. In some areas, UPN programming is shown off-pattern by affiliates of other networks or by otherwise independent stations. Some affiliates are also known to extensively preempt network programming in order to broadcast local sporting events.
As of mid-1997, UPN has an estimated audience reach of 85.98% of all U.S. households (equivalent to 91,689,290 households with at least one television set). In contrast, The WB is viewable in 91.66% of all U.S. television homes. This is mainly because The WB's programming is carried over the superstation feed of the network's Chicago affiliate WGN-TV), while UPN does not have such a service. UPN has approximately 143 full-power owned-and-operated or primary affiliate stations in the U.S. and another 65 stations air some UPN programming as secondary affiliates.
When the network launched, UPN began having most of its stations branded as "UPN" or "Paramount" (the latter having been used only by the network's Viacom-owned stations, some of whom adopted the "Paramount" branding prior to UPN's launch), followed by the station's channel number. As of 1997, affiliates are simply branded under the "UPN (channel number or city)" scheme (for example, in Chicago's WPWR-TV calls itself "UPN Chicago" and New York City's WWOR-TV is referred to as "UPN Manhattan"). But most UPN owned-and-operated stations under Viacom brand themselves by the network/city conventions (for example, KBHK/San Francisco is branded "UPN Bay Area", and WKBD/Detroit is branded "UPN Detroit".
However, this does not always apply, as WSBK-TV/Boston is branded "UPN 38," for example. Many UPN-affiliated stations follow the same branding scheme (for example, KFVE/Honolulu uses the brand "UPN Hawaii"; or WUPL/New Orleans' use as "UPN Louisiana").
This is a continuation of the trend of network using such naming schemes, which originated at Fox (and even earlier at Canada's CBC Television), and was especially used at CBS (which has most of its owned-and-operated stations, with a few exceptions, branded using a combination of the network's name and over-air channel number); The WB, NBC and ABC also use similar naming schemes, but not to the same extreme.