The CW Grows Up

The CW network, which officially launched in September 2006, is the love child of the UPN and WB networks.  Both these networks were born in the mid 90’s just after FOX began to gain popularity and proved that people were ready for programming choices beyond the big three (ABC, CBS and NBC).  The first shows on these two networks included the very popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer, StarTrek: Voyager, Dawson’s Creek, 7th Heaven and the long running Charmed.  This combination of shows appealed to a smaller fringe genre viewership, as well as the coveted 18 – 34 Nielson demographic.

Faced with mediocre numbers the two networks combined in 2006 to form The CW Television Network, which got its name by combining CBS with Warner Brothers.  The network officially debuted on September 20, 2006 with the two-hour premiere of America’s Next Top Model. The network had announced earlier in the year that they would pick up thirteen of the shows that had been running on the UPN and WB respectively.  Those shows, Gilmore Girls, Beauty and the Geek, 7th Heaven, One Tree Hill, Reba, Smallville and Supernatural  from the WB and America’s Next Top Model, Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, All of Us and WWE Smackdown from UPN formed the nucleus of CW’s programming.  These shows skewed heavily to the teen and young adult viewing demographic with many of the dramas focused on tales of teenage drinking, lust and angst.

Smallville and Supernatural, while cast with good looking actors intended to attract viewership based on their relative hotness, also appealed to the Science Fiction genre viewers.  The viewers attracted to these types of genre shows tend to be not only passionate about Sci-Fi/Fantasy programming but are loyal and vocal as well.  Smallville, based on DC Comics Superman, told the story Clark Kent’s teenage years before he discovered his alter ego, and lasted an incredible ten years before its series finale hit the air.  The success of this comic based genre show seemed to be a portent for future CW programming.

Despite a loyal viewership, the network struggled until the 2008-2009 television season when it added a few more series targeting younger female viewers.  Those shows Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and 90210 carried the network through to 2011 when the network’s top dog, Dawn Ostroff, was replaced by Mark Pedowitz.  Pedowitz announced that the network’s core content would not change under his leadership and he had the network stop referring to its targeted demographic as females 18 – 34 and begin referring to it as adults 18 – 34.

This one word would go on to change the types of shows that were produced for or purchased by the network.  The CW had long since dropped its comedy department and had opted to not renew their contract with WWE prior to Pedowitz’s arrival, focusing instead on dramas that were shown weeknights in prime time.  Pedowitz expanded the network’s drama offerings debuting Arrow (based on DC Comics’ Green Arrow character) in 2012.  This show proved to be the network’s third highest premiere ever (bested only by The Vampire Diaries and more recently The Flash) and pulled back some of the male 18-34 audience that had dropped away during the years of teen angst.

The strong debut by Arrow and the continued success of the long running Supernatural, both genre shows that appealed to both male and female viewers in and outside of the coveted 18-34 demographic, gave The Powers That Be at the network the incentive to program dramas that covered a broader range more mature range of topics.  Shows such as The Flash, iZombie, Jane the Virgin, The Originals, Reign, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The 100 have all debuted to relative success.  These newer shows focus on racier, more adult content and still appeal to that elusive Sci-Fi genre audience.  The 10 hours of weekly prime time programming (8:00 – 10:00 pm EST) are rounded out by the only two shows to have survived from the UPN/WB days, the reality show America’s Next Top Model  and Supernatural, a powerhouse for the network, which is just beginning its landmark eleventh season in production.

A quick scroll through Twitter or Tumblr will introduce you to the rabid fandoms that have formed in support of many of these shows.  There are debates, name calling, speculation and the trading of screen captures and gifs pulled from that week’s programming, as well as cries of anguish when a beloved character dies!  These fans watch repeats of their favorite CW shows on TNT, TBS and Netflix until they can recite favorite lines and character specific taglines with ease.  This type of fandom community is something that was only previously seen for more genre based shows like Star Trek and its sequels, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the lamented Firefly.  In addition to repeatedly watching the reruns looking for new angles and new theories, these fandoms attend conventions all across the world and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on merchandise.  Official CW authorized merchandise, as well as handcrafted art works and t-shirts featuring original artwork.

The CW picked the ball up from two failing networks, hired some franchise players, changed their game plan and was able to not only survive, but thrive through the recession blighted late 2000s to become, if not a household name, a well-known player in the network game.  Pedowitz’s insight, wisdom and innovation have placed The CW Network in prime position to make an end run around the faltering big three networks and win it all.  Proving to all that TV networks can succeed and cater to demographics other than Nielson’s benchmark 18-34 year old males.  Well done Mark Pedowitz and well done CW.  Let’s see what the next 10 years will bring!


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