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Last week, MTV’s hit comedy Awkward. returned for its second season and The CW announced its fall premiere dates. Those two completely unrelated events tell two very different stories involving the same TV audience, the story of a success from a cable channel, and what many perceive as the beginning of the end for the smallest “major” broadcast network.
The Birth, the Youth and the Disappointments.
The CW was launched in 2006 as the result of the merger between the struggling UPN and WB networks owned by CBS and Warner Brothers respectively. At the time, the obvious goal (for the parent companies) was to combine their forces to obtain better ratings in the teenager and young adult demographic, but there were certainly also high hopes of creating programs that would be a revenue stream for their TV studios (WB) and an asset for their TV stations (CBS). Needless to say, the ratings part never happened, and despite recent improvements (see further down), the jury is still out on the capacity for The CW to deliver on its programs.
Analysts mostly agree that the network’s programming choices are to blame for the latter. Over the years, under the leadership of Dawn Ostroff, The CW has turned its back on situation comedies and favored hour-long serialized dramas that have a very faithful (but small) core audience, and do not do well in syndication and repeated viewing in general. What’s more, the network has gradually leaned mostly toward the female half of its initially more mixed young adult audience, further restricting its reach. The Vampire Diaries, which averages a bit more than 3 million viewers per episode so far, is the only primetime show that can boast an “acceptable” audience by broadcast network standard, and even that is a stretch.
The New Breath
In April 2011, Mark Pedowitz replaced Dawn Ostroff at the helm of the network. The new president brought with him some new ideas, but maintained that The CW would not change its “core brand”, which he defined in an interview with the New York Times as programs that appeal to women between the ages of 18 and 34. Considering the fact that his network’s fall 2012 schedule includes new shows like Arrow (superhero drama) and Emily Owens, M.D. (medical drama) that have some obvious potential to break out of that demographic, I would say Mr. Pedowitz might have readjusted his views since then, which is a good thing for the network. In that same interview back in 2011, he also acknowledged the financial difficulties, “as a stand-alone network, there is a deficit,” he said, admitting implicitly that if The CW was not backed by its parent companies, it would be in dire trouble.
The Life-Saving Deals?
Six months after Mark Pedowitz’s arrival, The CW struck a deal with Netflix on the streaming of past seasons (never the running season) of its running and future scripted shows. The purported one billion dollar agreement covered the primetime line-up at the time (which included, Ringer, Hart of Dixie, The Secret Circle, The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, 90210, Supernatural, Nikita, One Tree Hill), and future shows produced for The CW up until the 2014 fall season.
The importance of that deal cannot be overstated as implied by CBS’s CEO Leslie Moonves who said, "It essentially makes The CW a profitable enterprise." A few weeks later, on the heels of that first foray into video streaming services, the network signed a less lucrative deal with Hulu covering the series running seasons.
Beyond the new revenue stream, these new agreements with video streaming services clearly show that The CW is no more relying only on its traditional network, but is acknowledging the fact that its viewers (teenagers and young adults) are very likely to use other content providers. Those viewers can now watch their favorite shows’ past seasons on Netflix and running seasons on Hulu, and that was arguably the first step in the right direction for the network. The second would be to resolutely try and widen its appeal both by including sitcoms, which can very well target women aged 18 to 34 (as seen with MTV’s Awkward. or Fox’s New Girl, etc.), and by breaking out of that narrow demographic altogether.
The reason why you will find many predictions on the gloomy future of The CW is simply because it seems its ratings are getting worse with every passing year, and it is natural to equate ratings with financial health. The connection is quickly made because ratings generally influence advertising revenues which remain the cornerstone of a network’s revenue stream. The broadcast networks upfront events (where networks sell ads upfront) occurred about two months ago and The CW largely held on to its market share, which shows that advertisers still believe the network allow them to reach teenagers and young adults. When coupled with the new “palpable” direction and the fact that CBS and Warner Brothers now seem to think their “project” is becoming profitable, I would take the opposite position and argue that The CW now has more chances than it had last year to outlive its forerunners (UPN and WB) and stick around for a lot longer.