What if you had a network and nobody watched?

That's the question

UPN

executives are facing this year, as the network's

Nielsen

ratings have plunged to levels one expects from a cable channel, not from a free, over-the-air broadcaster. Crippled by bombs like

The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer

, a now-cancelled comedy reviled by critics and audiences alike, UPN's 1998-1999 primetime schedule is drawing fewer than 3 million viewers on any given night, down almost one-third from last year.

That's barely half as many viewers as the

WB

, UPN's closest network competitor, and the poor ratings are going straight to UPN's bottom line. Even the company's director of advertising sales admits that advertisers are likely to stay away in droves when the network tries to sell ads for its 1999-2000 season during the so-called "upfront" market in May. That could push the network's operating losses, which ran close to $200 million in 1998, even higher in 1999.

This depressing set of facts leads inexorably to another question: How much longer can UPN stay afloat?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is quite some time. For

Viacom

(VIA) - Get Report

and

Chris-Craft

(CCN)

, which are 50-50 partners in UPN, the potential upside to building a successful network is so much greater than the ongoing losses they're incurring that they have little reason to pull the plug now.

The gains would not come from the network itself, which is unlikely to become very profitable even if its ratings improve substantially, but rather from the effect a successful UPN would have on the local stations Viacom and Chris-Craft own and operate nationwide. Higher primetime ratings lead to higher ratings for local news and for shows throughout the day, a halo effect that can translate into tens of millions of dollars in extra advertising revenue in a major market like New York. As

CBS

(CBS) - Get Report

chief executive Mel Karmazin incessantly reminds investors, the real money in television these days is in owning and operating local stations, especially those in big markets.

Even more surprisingly, UPN's travails this season may actually have improved the network's long-term chance of survival. That's because the ratings free-fall has forced UPN, like an alcoholic who only looks to AA after he's wrapped his car around a tree, to finally develop a business plan that bears some relationship to the realities of the U.S. television industry these days.

Those realities, as UPN officials now admit, are the following: The viewing audience is irreversibly fragmented, and the fragmentation is getting worse. An attempt to build a broad network appealing to audiences of all ages, on the model of the original

Big Three

networks, is bound to fail. Only by picking a target audience, and focusing its shows and promotional efforts on that target, can a new network survive.

"We have learned our lesson," says Michael Mandelker, UPN's ad sales director, who joined the network from

NBC

last year. "Network erosion is a fact of life. There is nothing that anybody can do about it. It's going to continue."

So "UPN for UPS," a phrase UPN chairman Dean Valentine used last year to describe the middle-class, middle-aged

United Parcel Service

drivers he hoped to attract with middle-brow programming, is dead. Instead, the network will focus on shows that attract a young, male audience -- UPN for

ESPN

.

UPN "looked at cable networks like

USA

and

TBS

that are like mini-networks, and figured, 'why not?' It didn't work," says Ron Fredrick, who directs ad placement on networks for

J. Walter Thompson

, a New York-based ad agency. The new strategy "provides a focus. It helps position the broadcaster," he says.

"What we're trying to do for both for our affiliates, the ad community and Hollywood is give them a smaller target to hit," says Tom Nunan, UPN's president. The strategy, if it works, will make UPN a male counterpart to

Time Warner's

(TWX)

WB network, which has found success with programming that attracts younger, female viewers.

"Now we've given the creative community an idea of who we want to be," Mandelker says. "It's not lost on anybody that our most successful night is Wednesday night, because those shows are compatible." On Wednesday, UPN pairs

Star Trek: Voyager

, its most successful show, with

Seven Days

, another hour-long sci-fi drama.

Nunan says the network decided to program for young men after analyzing Nielsen data and discovering that young men were already disproportionately watching its non-primetime shows, which are heavy on syndicated fare like second-run

Seinfeld

and

Friends

episodes. UPN's strongest shows, including

Star Trek

,

Seven Days

and the recently introduced

Dilbert

, already skew toward a young male audience.

"Younger people are more prone to check out emerging networks," Nunan says.

In addition, young men watch less television than any other demographic group, so if UPN is able to attract them, it will be able to demand premium rates from advertisers. "They're the most elusive audience, young males," says Howard Nass, executive director for

TN Media

, a company that helps companies decide where to place their ads. "Advertisers want them."

But first, the network needs shows that men want to watch. To that end, Nunan says he's looking for programming that's "outrageous or dangerous." He points to

South Park

and

Ally McBeal

as recent shows that generated buzz and found an audience. "We'd love to have shows that create that kind of chatter at the water cooler," Nunan says.

That vision sounds suspiciously like the reality-based junk television that other networks, especially

Fox

(FOX) - Get Report

, have made a business of offering. But Nunan insists UPN will be different. Reality shows like

When Animals Attack

are "not particularly entertaining" and make advertisers "uncomfortable," he says.

Instead, Nunan points to programs like

Home Movies

, a half-hour animated comedy that UPN will begin airing in late April alongside

Dilbert

. The show, produced by the creators of

Dr. Katz

, an animated comedy that appears on the

Comedy Central

cable network, features a semi-functional family headed by a single mother. The show is a bit like

The Simpsons

, with a twist: Its cast improvises the episodes rather than reading from a script.

The improv leaves

Home Movies

uneven -- sometimes very funny, sometimes seeming as if the performers are desperate for something to say. If nothing else, the show definitely looks and sounds different than the average sitcom, or even the average animated sitcom. And in a six-network universe, anything that stands out is a plus.

The odds are against

Home Movies

becoming the break-out hit UPN needs. But for shareholders in Chris-Craft and Viacom, the show's mere existence offers a hint that UPN, after four years, has finally figured out what it wants to be.

And that's a start.