The CW's Upcoming "Brand Refresh": 5 Past Mistakes the Network Should Learn From
The Hollywood Reporter recently reported that The CW is working on a slight brand refresh for the upcoming fall season. Apparently the network is looking to “reassess” and “recalibrate” its strategy in network president Mark Pedowitz’s first real fall at the helm of The CW's ship (Pedowitz took over in April 2011, but development for the 2011–2012 season was already well underway, meaning he didn’t have much control over what sort of pilots the CW had to choose from for the 2011–2012 season). Although The CW does not plan on shifting its focus away from a young, mostly female audience, this announcement, along with the scheduling of the new, sure-to-skew-male show Arrow on Wednesdays, suggests that Pedowitz and his team realize The CW needs some kind of change.
Let’s be honest: Since its creation in 2006 after the failure of The WB and UPN, The CW has been somewhat of a disaster. Despite online buzz at times and rabid fanbases for shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Supernatural, the last six years haven't been too kind. As Pedowitz prepares for this minor re-launch, I thought it might be instructive (and honestly, a bit amusing) to look back on some of the network's biggest missteps, so that it might learn from them in the future.
Note #1: First, it would be really easy to end this article right now simply by writing “Dawn Ostroff, LOL.” (Ostroff served as the network's president since its beginning, and left in May 2011.) Frankly, I don't think I'd be wrong in placing almost all the blame at Ostroff’s feet. But for the purposes of this story, I am going to ignore singling her out.*
* It’s totally all her fault, though.
Note #2: The CW is never going to be a ratings powerhouse. Are there things the network could have done to improve ratings between 2006 and 2012? Absolutely. However, The CW is never going to air shows that consistently appear at the top of any major Nielsen data table. The glorious WB never truly broke through that ratings barrier either. I promise this isn't going to be a rant about low ratings.
Now let's get to it, shall we?
Mistake #1: Narrowly targeting young women
I appreciate The CW’s stringent attempts to stick with a very specific demographic in its target audience. Sure, there was Smallville, and there's still Supernatural, but otherwise the programming has been largely female-centric. Almost all networks skew toward one gender or another, and even on broadcast, we can easily identify a certain kind of target “typical” viewer (ABC and older women, CBS and even older folks, FOX and young(ish) men, NBC and no one). On paper, The CW’s approach initially made a great deal of sense and still does to this day.
Unfortunately, The CW picked the worst time to appeal to super-young media consumers. Just as the network was coming to life, online streaming, DVR usage and legal (well, and illegal) downloading really kicked into another gear. Those changes in consumption habits have impacted all of television, but young people are especially likely to watch television content somewhere other than on an actual television at the time it airs live. The CW has constantly raved about its online streaming figures—without actually tell us what they are, of course—and its Plus-7 DVR ratings. These are strong indicators that the audience for many of the network's shows is actually larger than somewhere around 3 million viewers.
Nevertheless, no matter how high online streaming numbers are, the Nielsen ratings still matter and there, The CW continues to flounder. The network’s ratings decreased dramatically across the board in 2011-2012: Down 15 percent in total viewers, 22 percent among viewers in the 18-49 demo, and 20 percent in the 18-34 target demographic. The CW’s original idea made sense. Its executives’ apparent unwillingness to come up with a new idea once the media environment changed is confounding.
The decline of The CW’s ratings isn’t solely linked to the youth of the network’s audience. But I would suggest that its attachment to female viewers in particular has resulted in even bigger problems. From my perspective, it seems like The CW has not only failed to experiment outside its tight target demographic, but the network has also struggled to create the kind of programming it thinks those viewers actually want to watch. Once Gossip Girl (slightly) caught fire in 2007, The CW thought it'd found its template for (relative) success: soapy dramas about uber-rich white people.
Yet again, this is logical in theory. Every network tries to replicate the formula of its biggest shows. Unfortunately, The CW weirdly decided to follow Gossip Girl, a contemporary, zeitgeist-creating show, with reboots of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place, clear attempts to reconnect to a former cultural moment that no one, especially the young target audience, cared a thing about. Although the network was going after the “correct” and current zeitgeist with The Vampire Diaries (and to a lesser extent the now-canceled The Secret Circle), it was still chasing that feeling instead of trying to create it. The reason The WB garnered so much attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that it tapped into the psyches of that generation’s young people. The CW hasn’t really accomplished that.
Mistake #2: Incestuous relationships with talent
When I was younger, I always loved how The WB discovered talents and moved them from show to show before finding them a permanent starring gig. Scott Foley jumped from Dawson’s Creek to Felicity, Jason Behr shifted from Buffy to 7th Heaven to Dawson’s Creek to Roswell.
The CW, never one to pass up an opportunity to emulate an approach that worked better 15 years ago, has run this fostering of “homegrown” talent into the ground, to the point where I’m annoyed at times when I see casting notices because I know that the parts will just go to Katie Cassidy and Justin Hartley anyway. I appreciate The CW’s attempts at trying to turn certain performers into stars like The WB did way back when, but at a certain point, enough is enough.
Worst of all, this network inter-breeding has extended past on-screen performers and to writers and producers. Josh Schwartz’s Fake Empire is the most obnoxious example. Come fall, Schwartz’s production company will be in charge of four of The CW's 12 scripted shows (Gossip Girl, Hart of Dixie, The Carrie Diaries and Cult). Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Kevin Williamson has run or co-run three shows in six years (The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, and Hidden Palms). Former Smallville showrunners Brian Peterson and Kelly Souders were moved over to The Secret Circle in 2011-2012 and will now help run Beauty and the Beast. Their fellow Smallville alumni Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer were hired to right the sinking Melrose Place ship in 2009. Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder graduated from the Supernatural writers' room to become Ringer showrunners. Countless other writers, producers, and directors have bounced around from show to show as well.
There is nothing wrong with keeping some things in-house but The WB succeeded (again, relatively so) because executives had a knack for finding young talent—both in front of and behind the camera—that wasn’t necessarily buried at the bottom of a writing staff or a list of extras from an already in-progress show. By sticking with this incestuous approach, The CW has surely lost the opportunity to develop pilots, pick up shows, and probably even hear pitches from fresh talent. Instead, the network has kept the same people (those who know the basic CW approach) around, only further reinforcing the unfortunate amount of similarities between the shows the network puts all its weight behind.
Mistakes #3, 4 and 5: Ditching comedy, outsourcing Sunday nights, and wasting time on low-rent reality programming
These three items together signaled one thing to audiences and the rest of the television industry: “We give up. We are not a real network, and we know it.”
Removing comedy from the development process remains one of the dumbest decisions any network has made in the last five years. No, The WB and UPN didn’t light up the sky with their respective comedy slates either, but each had a couple solid performers (Reba and The Jamie Foxx Show, and What I Like About You on The WB; Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris, and All of Us on UPN), and more importantly, they both kept trying. Giving up one of the two major formats is hilariously misguided and it isn’t as if young girls hate laughing. Why couldn’t have The CW helped develop Awkward.? And we’ve seen how much more of The Game (which aired on The CW from 2006 to 2009, before jumping to BET in 2011) viewers wanted.
Leasing out Sunday nights to Media Rights Capital in 2008 was a shameless attempt to save some money while pretending to be dedicated to programming most days of the week. (Sundays on The CW now belong to random old movies and the occasional rerun.) I’m not even sure former NBC chiefs Ben Silverman and Jeff Zucker would have thought that was a good idea.
And just for fun, let's recall some of the memorable reality shows The CW has brought to our television and computer screens: Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants, Farmer Wants a Wife, 13: Fear is Real, Hitched or Ditched, High Society, Fly Girls, Shedding for the Wedding, Remodeled, and, of course, H8R.
Have there been worse reality shows somewhere on television over the past six years? Yes, in the depths of our cable dials. But few networks, particularly “major” networks, have such an embarrassing stable of past reality programming.
You might not remember some of these gems because they came and went very quickly after no one watched them. And yet, The CW continues to breathe life into shows like H8R as if these programs are satiating the target audience’s salivating interest in the worst television has to offer. It’s bad enough to produce and air these shows initially. It’s worse to keep doing it even though the audience clearly isn’t watching.
But again, it's this same flawed thinking has defined the CW for six years. Chasing the zeitgeist, keeping the same people around, getting rid of comedy, leasing Sundays, and airing crap like H8R signals giving up but also reflects a weird stubbornness and inflexibility. Thus far, The CW has very narrowly defined: 1.) What it wants to be and 2.) Who its audience is. It's also made a slew of missteps while trying to bring 1 and 2 together by attempting to replicate what it thought was The WB formula (pretty young white kids! Some of them have supernatural abilities!), with the only change being an increased emphasis on the 1 percent and a whole lot of Bing references. But there's more to it than that and while The CW has sunk, other networks like MTV and ABC Family have actually succeeded in bringing some decent, disparate, and young-skewing programs to the air.
So what should Mark Pedowitz do? Well, other than “Not all of this,” I think he knows that The CW needs to try to appeal to other demographics while still holding on to that coveted younger female group. Hart of Dixie did relatively well in a tough time slot after the DOA Gossip Girl this year, and it skews a bit older. So does Nikita, a show few thought would be renewed this past spring, but that will likely anchor Friday nights for at least two more seasons. The CW audience’s median age went from 35 to 37.1 this season, a clear sign that shifts are in place.
Plus, the network's slate of new shows should, theoretically, attract different groups. Arrow and Cult could bring in the men and Beauty and the Beast, Emily Owens, M.D. and The Carrie Diaries could skew a smidgen older. With Gossip Girl ending and 90210 likely on the way out as well, The CW’s stable of programs is being refreshed, and in a slightly different fashion.
That's a start. But moving forward, The CW must be more cognizant of its past failures. It needs to bring in some outside faces and creatives. It needs to have comedy. And it maybe even needs to return to Sunday nights. The good news is that I think Mark Pedowitz knows all of these things, and I would like to believe he is already working hard to make them a reality.
What do you think are some of The CW’s biggest mistakes? What cancellations still make you angry? And if you were in charge of rebranding the network, what new slogan would you give it (“Pretty White People?” “The CW, Brought to You by Bing”)?
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