The CW: Looking In the Mirror for an Identity (Analysis)

Will the girls be gossiping about a change of direction?
Cliff Lipson/CBS

There's really no getting around this. It sure looks odd to see 50-something Mark Pedowitz as the face of The CW, this country's fifth broadcast network best known for catering to all things young and female.

And yet there he was on stage at the Television Critics Association press tour, being asked how in the hell he was going to find a way to think like a female in the 18-34 demo. Pedowitz -- who always seems to have "well-liked executive" before his name in any story -- said he's got a 26 year old niece who might be able to tap for advice. Beyond that? "I have an excellent development team that’s stayed in place that’s headed by Thom Sherman, who has actually done a lot of the development and production of all these pilots that you see this year and in prior years," Pedowitz said. "So I am very comfortable with that. I am in my fifties, and I do have my feminine side at this point. So I am perfectly comfortable with this. I’m perfectly comfortable with my staff handling it and Thom and his team doing it."

He might be the only one.

They both have their work cut out for them. It's not like The CW is printing money, most of its shows get beat by cable channels that have done a better job of attracting that core audience (hello MTV, hello ABC Family) and, institutionally, there has to be some belief that the young girl demo might be a tad bit limiting. Oh, and that "we don't make comedies at the CW" needs to be addressed (and abandoned, which Pedowitz seemed to agree with).

Nevermind the fact that for years the relevancy issue has been in play. Translation: Does the country need a fifth network -- and more specifically, does the CW need to exist at all? What Pedowitz seems to be tasked with, even if nobody is saying it out loud, is using his varied industry experience and acumen to make a go of The CW in some last-ditch effort to make it viable.

The CBS Corporation brought CBS, Showtime and CW (of which it owns half; Warner Bros. owns the other) to the television critics press tour and the first entities had a lot of success to talk about. CBS even gave a series it passed on, Ringer, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, to The CW, making the little sister channel instantly more interesting. At least for a bit.

The trouble with the blueprint for The CW is that it appears to everybody involved like a brilliant idea. Cater to the highly-coveted young women and give them "TV to talk about " with their social networks and such. With the initial success of Gossip Girl and America's Next Top Model, the dropping of comedy and the focus on really pretty young people, The CW kept talking about all the buzz and success it was having. Trouble is, that demo may have be talking about the network but they're not necessarily watching it, at least not in a timely manner. Vampire Diaries draws viewers and Ringer might as well (plus, at the very least, Nikita is fun escapism). Beyond that, One Tree Hill is entering its final season (that makes, what, 17 seasons?) and Supernatural did not exactly get a ringing endorsement from Pedowitz when asked if this, too, was its final season: "It is not intended to be the last season. We will see where the ratings go."

Yeah, ratings. You can market gloss all you want and tout all the buzz you want, but guess what advertisers want? Ratings.

Said Pedowitz: "That is a great frustration to us because The CW shows are so popular," he said. "You see them in all of your articles. You see them on the cover of magazines. You see them on the social networking sites. So the way we view our success sometimes, as much as we have to live with the Nielsen ratings, is along with other measurement, what’s being devoured in DVRs. For example, 90210's live women numbers doubled with live-plus-7. Unfortunately, we do not monetize live-plus-7. So we do know we are being viewed. We are frustrated about the measurement of the Nielsen situation, but, on the other hand, we found that our convergence strategy, which is our digital plan, has actually worked. We are getting monetizing (with) that. So we are getting our viewers to come in, and they are watching a full commercial load."

And yet, still not the answer. You can't resuscitate a network with the slogan "Unfortunately We Do Not Monetize Live Plus 7." It has no ring to it. 

Look, everybody wants the young female demo. Even CBS. When you can't get it in numbers large enough to pay the bills, perhaps a broader strategy is at hand. The CW has toyed with this niche idea since 2006 but hasn't really landed a blockbuster scripted series or even something like Jersey Shore on the reality side. Close? Sure, some years. But not with any volume or consistency, which is precisely why a man with gray hair just took charge of a network that needs to be more mature about its viability.


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