The Magical Mystery of The CW (Analysis)
How long can it last on the promise of a bright, young business plan that's hard to believe?
It might sound harsh, but there’s very little fascination over The CW as a television network, other than how long it can last and how it can survive as essentially a content provider for streaming services.
And yet, both of those mysteries are, unto themselves, very fascinating. But as the network tries to get people to believe it is popular via “aggregation,” trying to figure out how that works can lead to aggravation.
The CW’s story doesn’t change much from season to season. Most of its shows are dismissed as lightweight and cheesy, at best guilty pleasures (Nikita, The Vampire Diaries). They allegedly play well as influencers of fashion and music -- especially to the network’s target demo of women 18-34 -- but make almost no splash with Nielsen, the traditional measuring service of viewers and, for all of its flaws, the bible for how to charge for advertising.
Former CW president Dawn Ostroff used to boast that despite low Nielsen ratings, the network was, in fact, huge with the young adult demo and thus immensely valuable. She was replaced by Mark Pedowitz, who essentially has reiterated the same line.
At least in his tenure, The CW has inked recent streaming deals with Netflix (worth a reported $1 billion in possible revenue) and Hulu (no figures given but reportedly much less -- and that’s if you really believe owners CBS and Warner Bros. will see that full billion).
Nevertheless, congratulations to The CW, first for keeping the lights on and, secondly, for fleecing Netflix (which seems to be printing money, a situation that of course people are watching closely). And yet, even if Netflix or Hulu weirdly went out of business, the money is probably in a lock box, so that’s a CW win, yes?
Apparently, but it hardly seems like a long-term solution for a network that media research firm SNL Kagan said was losing $50 million a year, according to The Wall Street Journal.
When Pedowitz came to the Television Critics Association press tour Monday to talk about last season and next, it wasn’t exactly a fist-pumping affair. In fact, one of his comments seemed to indicate the CW audience actually wants what the network isn’t giving it, which is troubling.
But to get the full impact of that, you need to hear what he said about the network’s recent performances. The first question was about Ringer, the show parent company CBS passed on and Pedowitz brought to his network with great hopes. It was canceled after one season.
“It was a combination of the complexity of the stories, and again, as the CW is an aggregation, it was not performing as well as we hoped on the digital online space and social media space,” Pedowitz said. Translation: Our audience didn’t get it, didn’t watch it and didn’t talk about it. The Sarah Michelle Gellar starrer was the network’s highest-profile show, by the way.
Another question was about L.A. Complex, a show that aired in season and tanked, then was brought to life this summer and tanked again. Was the network going to eventually show all the episodes? Yes, Pedowitz said. “We’re actually big fans of the show. The show actually does really well for us digitally and in the social media space.”
Except it’s not on the fall schedule. And if the Netflix and Hulu deals were supposed to give the shows in the digital world and social media space exposure and drive viewers back to the network, it doesn’t seem to be working (and, in the case of L.A. Complex, absolutely reiterates that they won’t).
Pedowitz repeatedly was pressed to explain, in essence, how everything adds up for The CW, since it has embraced and touted a model virtually no other network is using. His response: “We are aggregated across the board with a lot of viewers. The digital streaming numbers on our shows combined with Hulu and Netflix and CWTV.com and the app are astronomical. So we look at it vastly different. We can monitor or we can measure who’s watching us on digital, but it does not count with the Nielsen ratings. And Nielsen is trying to do the best they can. And us, the networks, the advertisers, the affiliates are all looking for an accurate measurement so that every person is counted who’s actually watching the show.”
That would be fantastic. Because “astronomical” is not a word normally associated with the number of people who view The CW anywhere on any platform. It might be true that more people in the session seemed to want to know what was happening with the storylines on Vampire Diaries, but a lot of others were scratching their heads about how exactly The CW was justifying its existence.
Pedowitz reports to a board (including Leslie Moonves and Nancy Tellem), and he was asked by The Hollywood Reporter in May what their goal is for him and The CW: “To make this a profitable operation and a vibrant operation. I think we'll get there over time. It's profitable for everyone involved, but as a stand-alone operation, it has a way to go.”
Which is, well, both contradictory and confusing.
On Monday, the financials didn’t get much clearer, but neither did the signs of progress. At one point, Pedowitz said the network successfully launched all three of its shows early last season. “And then, premiere week came and traction disappeared, and we were struggling somewhat throughout the rest of the season.”
That’s not technically a successful launch, then. In either case, The CW has changed course for next season, waiting until October to launch. “It reduces the amount of repeats in the fourth quarter to minimal. It also helps the first and second quarter with very limited repeats, which is one of the complaints that everyone had about The CW. So if we reduce the repeats and increase the amount of original programming, we give a reason for people to watch.”
Unless they’re watching in the digital arena, which means it doesn’t matter when you air them, according to CW logic. Beyond that, Pedowitz indicated earlier in his session that the board had told him that getting into the summer game was essential, a ploy not without its programming risks. “So it’s going to be a little bit tough for fall in terms of traction, but we will do what we need to do to make The CW work as a viable entity.”
So, what is that, exactly? This is not to gripe about the job Pedowitz is doing. It just might be that the job is impossible to do. He’s got a good reputation and helped get the streaming deals done. It might seem odd that a 59 year-old married man with no kids is running the uber-youth network. But programming isn’t about age; it’s about smarts and understanding the brand. The question might be, does anyone understand The CW and what it’s supposed to be?
This is where the aforementioned question of not giving CW viewers what they want comes into play. Pedowitz kept referring to shows that did poorly on the network as shows that did well in the digital and social media worlds, which quickly began to sound like some kind of magic talk. Asked to clarify how digital and live come together to, you know, make a hit series, Pedowitz said this: “The epiphany I had come December or January last year and part of this year was that The CW was an aggregation of all these things. Shows tend to play at any time, any place, and that’s why I wanted a rebranding of saying “TV Now!” with the broadcast side at the center of it all. But we’re realistic of where the audience is. So we want people to view the show. We want people to come there, and if they cannot view it within the live piece, then we want them to come eight hours later because that’s when we’ll make it available even on Hulu or on CWTV.com.”
A critic pointed out to Pedowitz that in the winter the network got surprisingly high ratings numbers for a Muppets special that aired randomly. Also, in the summer, the numbers were good for a special called The Batmobile. The critic wanted to know what lessons Pedowitz and The CW learned from a couple of oddball offerings surpassing the network’s regular series. Here’s what he said:
“We know the audience is there. We just have to provide for them what they want to watch live. That’s what you really learn from.”
There was no audible gasp, but maybe there should have been. Because that sounds shockingly like the viewers either want a lot more Muppets or something else entirely than The CW is giving them. Now, slowly: The available audience is there to watch live television -- television that gets a ratings number you can sell advertising off of -- but they only tune in for stuff that’s not actually regularly programmed. The rest of the time they’re watching it in this fantasy digital world that also has a social media component.
Does this not sound like a utopian network fantasy that might actually be -- what’s the word? -- bananas?
To his credit, the critic followed up with this question: “But what can you do with that? I mean, if you know people want Muppets on The CW, how can you give them Muppets?”
And Pedowitz responded with this: “There will be more Muppets over the holiday season. I can promise you that today.”
People laughed, even though that literal answer was either clueless to the point of the question asked, or dismissive.
Last question was called, and within a couple of minutes the session was over. Left unanswered, it seems, is this mystery: Is The CW on to a new business model of failure sold into streaming rights, or are we just waiting for the magic to fade and the lights to go off?