The main job a television network has is to draw viewers and achieve good ratings. It has always been this way, as long as there has been television and the networks that appear on it. Despite all the things that have changed about the business over the past 75 years, that has been the constant, that a TV network is all about getting eyes on its programming.
Except, of course, when it’s not. Take, for instance, The CW.
Now, I am not here to suggest that ratings and the number of viewers are not the prime directives of the newest broadcast network. The reason I’m not here to do that is because I don’t have to. It’s already been done by people actually connected to the network itself. Not only has CW president Mark Pedowitz suggested that ratings and live viewings of his programming aren’t that important to him, but also Les Moonves, one of its owners, who went so far as to suggest that the programs it broadcasts bring in the revenue, rather than the network that shows them.
But let’s back up a step and clarify what, exactly, The CW is and isn’t. It is the fifth broadcast network, established exactly 10 years ago when the CBS-owned UPN and the Time Warner-owned WB networks merged to form The CW. It specifically targets young adult viewers, especially young women in the 18-34 age demographic. It offers original programming two hours each weeknight, as well as a single hour during those afternoons, and a five-hour Saturday morning animation block. The total of 20 hours is by far the least amount of any of the five networks, and is generally why it is often dismissed as something of an afterthought, especially when considered in relation to the numbers of viewers drawn by, say, CBS. Last year, in fact, CBS averaged 10.91 million viewers per show, while The CW’s average was 1.98 million. No, those aren’t typos, those really are the numbers.
The thing is, though, that judging purely on that discrepancy alone isn’t entirely fair because the goals of a CBS are entirely different from its sister network. The CW is not the same kind of broadcast network as the others, for the simple reason that, as mentioned above, it doesn’t rely on the same factors that are so important to ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. Ratings are secondary to the introduction of shows that will eventually be watched across multiple platforms. These same shows that appear on the network are not, like those of other networks, provided by a myriad of suppliers and production entities. The CW only shows programming created by one of its two owners — it has never aired anything from 20th Century Fox TV, NBCUniversal or ABC Studios— thereby bringing in more revenue than is lost by the network. Because of that, the standard comparisons of revenue and operating income don’t carry the same weight since, unlike the others, that’s not the network’s raison d’être.
See, while the other nets are in the business of making money off their live viewership, The CW was created as a vessel for first-run domestic broadcast, for the purposes of creating programming ripe for syndication and, thus, a much more profitable second-run deal. It takes 88 episodes of a show to achieve that number, and The CW was created with the singular purpose of getting the shows of its parent companies to the qualifying numbers. While the new output deal the network has signed with Netflix lowers that number to a single season for streaming purposes, that doesn’t change the requirements needed for broadcast on local affiliates, cable networks and other over-the-air entities.
A perfect example is Supernatural, a show entering its 12th season and which has been around so long, it premiered before The CW even existed. It is, in fact, the last vestige of The WB, the only show remaining from that obsolete network. The talk now is that the show will probably end with its 300th episode, an astounding number that would make it one of the most prolific and successful hour-long dramas in history. It is syndicated all over the world (including here on TNT) and an ongoing cash cow for its creators and the production company behind it: Warner Bros. TV. But it wouldn’t have lasted more than one season, perhaps two, on any other network, simply because its viewer numbers and ratings weren’t high enough. Even last year, in its 11th season on the air, it was the 158th ranked show in average viewers, with just 2.275 million per week, and scored just a 1.0 rating.
For the sake of comparison, the CBS drama Limitless debuted last year as one of the top ten most-watched new shows, finished as the 38th most-watched show overall, with an average of 9.8 million viewers each week and a solid rating of 2.2, and was promptly canceled. If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate the difference between the two, it’s tough to find a better example to satisfy you.
With that in mind, we need to look at the network’s lineup in an entirely different manner from how we look at those of the others. It’s one thing to program with the goal of a ratings behemoth, it’s another to do so looking for cult hits that will fetch a solid price in the secondary market. To wit, the network’s synergistic relationship with DC Comics that has produced three original shows and a fourth that has moved from CBS. Starting in 2012 with Arrow, the network began a partnership with its in-house comic book company that has scored solid ratings with its target demographic, and kickstarted a trend of superhero television that either has you overjoyed or incredibly frustrated.
Either way, the arrival of Arrow four years ago was a very important one for the network, not only because of the precedent it set but also because of its continued relationship with the show’s creator, Greg Berlanti. The show was an instant hit with viewers and made a star out of Stephen Amell. It also led to the creation, after two successful years, of The Flash, which quickly became the network’s most-watched show, with an average of more than 4.2 million viewers per week. The combined success of those two shows led to a third, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, which actually drew more viewers last year in its first season than Arrow did in its fourth, 3.1 million to 2.9 million.
On the surface, that 10.2 million combined viewers doesn’t sound so impressive, especially when you consider that re-runs of The Big Bang Theory — sorry, sorry, encore presentations — garnered the exact same number and was the 33rd ranked show on TV. But, again, with different goals come different definitions of success. It’s partly for this reason why it was a no brainer to shift Supergirl from CBS to The CW. The freshman adventure hour started off strongly for the Tiffany Network, eventually leveling off to 9.8 million viewers per week (39th highest), and a 2.4 rating (27th), both of which would be enormous on The CW. Since that network’s budgets and capacities are proportionally smaller, the show will be somewhat scaled down, but if it retains just half of its viewership, it will instantly become the network’s most-watched show. And by a good margin.
Thinking of it another way, if even just a third of the viewership travels from one channel to another, it will still be the second-most watched show. This, from an hour-long drama that wasn’t strong enough for CBS to keep.
So, starting next week, four nights each week will have at least one hour dedicated to a DC superhero. Season Two of Supergirl on Mondays, Season Three of The Flash on Tuesdays, Season Five of Arrow on Wednesdays, and Season Two of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Thursdays. It’s a veritable extravaganza of superheroics, and all on the same, smallish network. The thing about these shows, as well, is they even though they are, on the surface, meant for fanboys, they are actually strong with the network’s target audience, young women, as well. The combination of sexy male stars and strong female ones is a perfect one for the demographic, but of course they are just the gateways to get people in the door. Without well-developed characters, strong and appealing serialized storytelling, pulse-pounding action and just enough romance to keep everyone on their toes, they wouldn’t stick around. Numbers suggest that they do, and that they aren’t going anywhere.
This coming season should be especially interesting because of the shows being paired with the superhero shows (all of which are at least co-created by Berlanti), as well as the fifth night of programming, which has an appeal all its own. Supergirl serves as the lead-in for the third season of Jane the Virgin, giving Monday a decidedly feminist bent. The Flash is followed by No Tomorrow, a dramedy about a young woman who is told by a man that the apocalypse is coming and that she should live her life to the fullest while she still can. After Arrow on Wednesday night is the adaptation of the 2000 sci-fi thriller Frequency, starring Peyton List as a young detective who talks to her long-dead father through a Ham radio. Supernatural follows Legends on Thursdays, while Fridays will see the eighth and final season of The Vampire Diaries leading in to one of the most original and exciting shows the network has ever produced, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which enters its second season on a new night.
The new deal signed with Netflix could also end up bringing lots of new viewers to the new seasons of each show. There is a history of such actions, most famously with Breaking Bad, which exploded in popularity after its first three seasons started streaming on the service, thereby giving viewers a chance to catch up and then start watching it on its network, AMC. Likewise, now that Arrow is appearing several times each day on TNT, it could do for that show what syndication did for TBBT, which went from a solid performer to the most-watched scripted show on television. Being conservative, there’s no reason why a million new viewers could start watching each show this season, which would only add to the potential profits generated from those all-important second-run sales.
Once the calendar turns to 2017, five other shows will debut, four of them returning from last year, including the third season of another DC Comics adaptation, iZombie, as well as the fourth seasons of Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals, the post-apocalyptic YA drama The 100 and the period epic Reign. Joining them will be yet another Berlanti show, the nourish take on the Archie comic book series, Riverdale.
The network’s relationship with Berlanti is, obviously, the most important one they have, but they are also tight with Julie Plec, who is behind The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, as well as the limited series Containment, which was the rare show canceled after just one season (the only show that was on the 2015-16 fall schedule that isn’t returning is America’s Next Top Model, which ended after 23 cycles but is making a comeback on VH1). She also has the conspiracy thriller Rise in development at the network, alongside several other shows all designed for, yes, this particular younger audience. Adaptations of the films The Lost Boys and The Notebook are both on the docket, as is a younger reimagining of the classic 80s soap opera Dynasty. Other projects include one about a young woman whose terminal cancer is cured, forcing her to face the decisions she made when she thought she was dying, at least a couple shows dealing with murder mysteries, and a new paranormal show from Diaries co-creator, and legendary writer of young adult fare, Kevin Williamson.
In short, if you like the current material, there’s lots more where that came from.
One big change from years past comes on the streaming side, where CW shows are no longer available on Hulu. While episodes won’t appear on Netflix until eight days after the season finale (at which point, the entire season will be watchable), in-season streaming rights stick with the network’s website and apps. It created its CW Seed digital platform in 2013, in preparation for the day when it would separate from Hulu (which did not make advertising revenue available to the network the way it does for ABC, NBC and Fox). That time has come, as the network has rolled out its app on Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, Chromecast and Amazon Fire, and will be amping up marketing efforts to direct audiences to the new destinations.
Clearly, The CW does its business unlike any other network. Indeed, perhaps differently from the way any other network has ever done it, but it’s because of that strategy that it seems to work so well. No other network has such a seamless feel to its programming, which is obviously by design. It allows for the taking of chances — exhibit A being Arrow, which was a genuine risk four years back, and exhibit B being Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, perhaps the freshest and most original show to debut on broadcast television in years — that other networks are too big or too beholden to ratings and numbers to try.
The CW has no such restrictions, which makes its operation almost refreshing, and quite a bit of fun to watch, regardless of your age.
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