CW's channel confusion

The CW, television's new broadcast network, is set to launch this fall in more than 93 percent of the United States--the most ever for a prime-time startup. But the big question is: Will anybody be watching?

Formed by the merger of the soon-to-be-defunct WB and UPN networks, the September 20 launch of the CW will leave former UPN viewers in 60 percent of the country looking for their favorite shows on channels that previously carried the WB.

Conversely, about 28 percent of past WB viewers will have to switch to stations that were once UPN affiliates. In still other cases, audiences will have to tune into a station that was neither a UPN nor a WB affiliate before.

The risk is that loyal UPN and WB viewers will become confused and give up on such shows as 7th Heaven, Everybody Hates Chris, Gilmore Girls, and America's Next Top Model.

"We have a very tall order," CW Entertainment president Dawn Ostroff said Monday as she delivered her network's first presentation to the annual summer gathering of TV critics in Pasadena, California. "We need to communicate to all of these viewers a new network, and in many cases a new channel, to find their favorite shows."

All but two of the 14 prime-time series the CW plans to roll out in the fall--Girlfriends spin-off The Game and family thriller Runaway--are holdovers from the WB and UPN.

Ostroff sought to strike an upbeat tone, predicting that the CW would ultimately draw higher ratings than either of the two individual networks it is replacing by following the same strategy of targeting younger viewers than the four major networks--ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

Specifically, the CW is going after viewers aged 18 to 34--as opposed to the 18-to-49 demographic considered the advertising sweet spot for the Big Four broadcasters. The hope is that a single network can be more successful than two in building that younger audience.

"Now that these series are no longer competing against each other for the same viewers, there's no question that they will perform better together than they did apart," Ostroff said.

As a joint venture between UPN parent company CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc., which controls the WB, the new network also ensures a distribution outlet for the TV production studios owned by both companies.

Ostroff defended the network's decision to stick with its designation as the CW (the "C" stands for CBS and the "W" comes from Warner Bros.). Research showed the hurriedly devised name had caught on quickly with potential viewers, she said, even though many critics found it awkward or confusing.

"It would have cost us tens of millions of dollars to ever get that kind of brand recognition if we had started over," she said.

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