Station identification key to CW game plan
Viewers lured with local promo, NetIt's been eight months of planning, integrating, affiliate-wrangling, color-scheming and slogan-testing for what might be called television's first patchwork quilt network.
The CW network bows Wednesday night with the advantage of having established hits comprise the bulk of its schedule, including its opening-night program, a two-hour edition of "America's Next Top Model." But among the highest hurdles CW brass have faced in the run-up to the launch is the marketing dilemma of how to instruct viewers in more than 200 U.S. markets that some erstwhile WB Network and UPN shows have moved to a different channel.
"We're going through what every other network is going through, but we have an added layer of work and things to do," says Dawn Ostroff, the former UPN president who was tapped entertainment president at CW. "The thing that we're focusing on now is bringing the audience to the new network -- it sounds easy, but it really is quite a task. With every other network in existence, you have that base and you know where you left off last season, and so you kind of have an idea of where you're going to be this year. But being a new network, we really have no idea where we're going to be yet."
The CW was created in January by the fusion of WB and UPN into a single entity jointly owned by CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. The cherry-picking integration process has encompassed everything from shows to executives to local affiliate stations. That means that on a market-by-market basis, some UPN shows are bound for a former WB affiliate station and some WB hits will air on a former UPN affiliate.
According to CW's tally, 63% of viewers who were watching UPN are going to have to seek out a different channel to find "America's Next Top Model," "Everybody Hates Chris" and other UPN shows that made the transition to the CW, while 27% of viewers looking for "Smallville," "Gilmore Girls," "7th Heaven" and other WB tentpoles will be looking for them on a different channel as of Wednesday night. And to complicate things even further, in markets covering about 8% of all U.S. TV households, the CW will debut on stations that were not affiliated with either UPN or WB.
Rick Haskins, executive vp marketing and brand strategy at the CW, came on board in February from Lifetime to direct the efforts that would ensure that viewers knew what the CW was and where they could find it -- efforts that resulted in the lime green-themed advertising and "Free to Be" slogan that has turned up everywhere from buses to billboards to the CW's newly launched Web site (www.cwtv.com). And the vast majority of CW's program-oriented launch campaign had to be carefully tailored for individual markets depending on which shows were switching stations and which were staying put on a former UPN or WB affiliate.
"For example, in the markets where 'Top Model' was moving (stations), we had to send a very different message than (in markets) where it was staying" on a former UPN affiliate, Haskins says. "We've really been digging deep into the markets to communicate on a local level the name of the CW and the channel position and letting them know what shows were staying and what shows were moving."
In the months since CBS and Warner Bros. rocked the industry with the Jan. 24 announcement of the WB-UPN merger, Ostroff and John Maatta, the former WB chief operating officer who holds the same position at CW, have been busy coming up with plans for everything from the network's programming and schedule to the Web site and the overall look of the network to a unique form of advertising dubbed "content wraps." In fact, they had a plan in place by April regarding every element of the new network, and they've stuck to it.
"We had very few change orders," Ostroff says. "What everybody signed off on has been what we implemented. We did a great job of organizing as a team the priorities of what we needed to get done and when. Each week we had different goals. That's the only way we were able to pull this off."
The gist of the plan was that the CW would need to incorporate four characteristics -- innovation, participation, connectivity and community -- targeted around the adults 18-34 demo. As part of that plan, the CW executives knew it was crucial to create a highly interactive Web site that ideally would make viewers feel as if they were part of the network.
"Online is one of the most important things for the demo," Haskins says. "The timing of this network is so right; if this had happened a year ago, it would have been too soon because what was happening in the wireless and online space was just beginning to jell. It just seemed to happen at the right time to incorporate new media and old media together into a new brand. But we can't rest on our laurels. We'll be staying close to the demos so that we can always be ahead of what's next."
The site, which launched Sept. 11 and features a countdown to network launch, is focused on three distinct areas: programming, including videos and behind-the-scenes from the network's shows; the CW Lounge, a social networking area where fans can create their own communities and chat about the shows; and the CW Lab, which includes what Haskins calls a "mash maker" whereby viewers can easily create their own promos for the network's shows -- using popular music that the network has cleared -- that others can view online and could in turn could end up airing on the network.
Another part of the CW Lab is an initiative dubbed "Free to Be Famous," which launches Oct. 1. Through this, viewers can upload their own photos to create a 10- to 15-second montage set to music that also could end up airing on the network.
Ostroff hasn't had much time for sleeping during the past two weeks as the clock ticked down to Monday's CW launch party, which drew some 2,000 people to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, and Wednesday's on-air debut.
"I'm feeling a combination of anticipation about the network launch and thinking about things that need to get done," Ostroff says. "When you're laying in bed at night, it's the first quiet moment you have, when everything floods into your mind (about what still needs to be accomplished)."
It'll be another couple weeks until all of the CW employees are officially moved into one location in Burbank -- the scheduled move date is Oct. 3 -- which will cap off more than eight months of pouring their heart and soul into the birth of a network.
"When I look back, I can't believe we've gotten it all done," Ostroff says. "We're building a brand new network and going full-steam ahead -- and, by the way, while two other networks are still operating. But this is an amazing opportunity to be part of the launch of a new network. I'm very grateful for the chance to do this, and I feel like we're not going to let anybody down."