The CW: A Network With Identity Issues

In late November, The CW had announced that it was cancelling Emily Owens M.D., after giving full season orders to fellow freshman series Arrow and Beauty and the Beast. The announcement itself didn’t come as much as a surprise, given that Emily Owens wasn’t doing particularly well in the ratings and wasn’t particularly well-received by critics. I myself didn’t make much of the pilot, and for some odd reason, found myself continuing to watch it. The writing wasn’t anything spectacular but sometimes you need some lighter fare amidst heavy drama and not wanting to delve deep into laugh-out-loud comedy (not to mention the onslaught of comedy that was on at the same time?) What honestly struck me about the announcement was reading the comments on the entertainment news websites (EW, TVLine). There were the usual comments, ranging from “Saw it coming, can’t believe it took them this long” to “That sucks! I liked the show!” But then there were a few comments that were along the lines of “What is this show? Never heard of it. Oh right, that’s because it’s on The CW”, which particularly struck me as interesting. Now, I’ve expressed my frustrations with The CW several times over the years, namely when it comes to Nikita, but it’s comments like that that make you realize there’s a bigger issue at hand.

The CW, as a network, is a peculiar case. It is a smaller network, but is included amongst the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX), as opposed to the cable networks (USA, FX, TNT, ABC Family). It is seen as a niche market network, similar to ABC Family, mostly appealing to the 18-34 demo (one could even argue that the demo is more around 18-24). It’s position in the network TV landscape causes it to not be taken seriously by many because it is almost always last in the ratings. On the rare occasion that a CW show actually beats one of the other networks’ shows in the demo, the other show is seen as being in trouble. So how exactly did the network find themselves in this predicament?

When the network launched in the fall of 2006, it was the product of the networks, UPN and The WB, merging, based on a deal between CBS Corporation (which owned UPN) and Warner Brothers Entertainment (which owned The WB). Both of those former networks tended to appeal to the younger female audience, as evidenced by shows like Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, Felicity, Veronica Mars, and One Tree Hill. But shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, Smallville, and Roswell attempted to lure in other viewers beyond teenage girls. When the 2 networks merged, The CW became a mish-mash of TV shows from both networks, while keeping its core demographic intact. It was the following TV season, in the fall of 2007, that The CW really started to make a name (however small) for itself, with the premiere of Gossip Girl. The show became a hit for the network, a guilty pleasure for some, and a huge target for the Parents’ Television Council for its depiction of teens and their underage drinking and sex.

To this avid TV viewer, with Gossip Girl being such a huge hit, the network seemingly over-relied on the show as a selling point. From that point on, the network became known as a place for TV shows about hot young people with their hot young people problems, as evidenced by shows that both succeeded (the 90210 reboot) and failed (the Melrose Place reboot, The Beautiful Life). When The Vampire Diaries got picked up, it still fit into that category but got the added bonus of being a known entity and cashing in on the teenage vampire craze caused by Twilight – further establishing the network’s demographic, but not really bringing in other viewers. Any other shows that wasn’t already part of the roster, which attempted to be more than just about attractive people hooking up, like Privileged and Life Unexpected, for the most part didn’t see past a first season. So for shows like Hart of Dixie and especially Nikita to be on the air right now, and not being the stereotypical CW show, in their respective 2nd and 3rd seasons is certainly a feat.

Let us not forget the glaring area of The CW’s schedule that is reality TV. The CW has one slightly stable reality show in America’s Next Top Model, brought on from the former UPN days, but has yet to find another reality TV series winner. For what it’s worth, even for a reality show, ANTM still manages to fit the CW mold.

So we come back to what issues The CW faces in becoming a viable network that can be taken seriously by all. Programming is certainly the biggest issue. Where the network is now, is not all that different from when UPN and The WB existed; on the one hand, they have very teenage fare and on the other hand, they have genre fare. The shows that play very well with the teenage crowd (GG, 90210, TVD, the upcoming Carrie Diaries) is what is making the network money. The more genre or non-teen oriented shows (Supernatural, Nikita) is what generally gets better reviews from critics/journalists, but struggle in the ratings. Lucky for the network, they have a bonafide hit in Arrow, which appeals to teens (the marketing dept. certainly knew what they were doing advertising a shirtless Stephen Amell), fanboys/girls, and critics alike. However, not every show gets the luxury of being a known entity and it is seemingly more difficult to find a show that meets every need.

Another big issue The CW has is its scheduling. As a whole, what’s working for them this season is that they held off premiering their shows until October, allowing for there to be less breaks between episodes during the run of the season. However, how the network schedules their shows and what shows get paired up has been a problem. If you look at the past few years, you’ll notice that the only show that has stayed in its time slot is TVD; everything else has changed time slots, same day or otherwise. There’s something to be said about having anchored shows, by which you build your schedule around. That also leads to another problem in that The CW only has 10 hours of original programming a week (2 hours, Monday to Friday), which does make it increasingly difficult. All of this does relate back to the kind of shows that they have which determines how the schedule looks like. Hardcore TV fans will follow their favourite shows anywhere, but the issue is with the casual TV viewer, who could watch one show and might stick around to watch the next show if it is complimentary to the first show. Hart of Dixie, as of right now, is paired with Emily Owens, which works well together. Given the cancellation of Emily Owens, that slot will go to new show Cult in the new year, leading to a big WTF? pairing. Don’t even get me going again on the choice to pair ANTM with Nikita

With the end of Gossip Girl and maybe (hopefully? wishful thinking…) 90210, it’s about time the network truly attempts to revamp their programming or at the very least, their marketing. There is certainly no shame in being the network that has shows the other networks don’t. At the same time though, no one wants to be seen as a joke. The CW really has to get down and really consider what they want to be known as, as a network. On top of that though, the marketing and PR departments have to really make a push and work on getting more exposure for all the shows, not just the ones that are big hits or what they hope will be a big hit (yes, I’m talking about the onslaught of promotion for The Carrie Diaries during the series finale of Gossip Girl). Obviously every network has their own set of issues, but The CW doesn’t have the same clout as the Big4 broadcast networks, and it’s time that they make a serious name for itself.

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