The CW Upfront: A Big Push for Women, Streaming and Superheroes

"The CW has evolved from a broadcast network to a digital-linear hybrid," network president Mark Pedowitz told ad buyers.
Mark Hill/The CW

The CW was not subtle in its messaging about its evolving business model during Thursday's relatively brief pitch at New York City Center. The last official meet-up of the broadcast upfronts, though focusing heavily on its young and easy-on-the-eyes talent, more closely resembled the digital newfronts in buzzwords.

"The CW has evolved from a broadcast network to a digital-linear hybrid," said network president Mark Pedowitz, following an introductory performance by Muse. "We have been at the leading edge every step of the way. We know our brand. We understand our target audience. And they watch wherever they are and we are."

Offering proof of that digital skew, exec vp national sales Rob Tuck told the crowd of media buyers that The CW is actually ending the season with ratings up in every demo, year-over-year, once all streaming is taken into account. (With only live-plus-7 tallies, the network is down 25 percent among adults 18-49.)

One specific example: Popular freshman Riverdale, which was not exactly a same-day success, added 125 percent to its linear debut once all other views were taken into account, according to Pedowitz.

Streaming stats peppered the presentation, but The CW was largely focused on its usual mix of two new fall shows (Valor and Dynasty) and two midseason entries (Life Sentence and Black Lightning).

Dynasty, a younger take on Aaron Spelling's classic primetime soap, seemed to play best with the crowd — many of whom started whooping before the trailer even played. But Dynasty may underscore a bigger trend emerging at the network, one that Jane the Virgin star Gina Rodriguez came onstage to illustrate. The network is aggressively courting women, compounding its female-fronted series in the last few years.

Here are the take-aways:

"Four at a Time" Is the Superhero Saturation Point
Earlier in the day, Pedowitz assured reporters on a call that the current volume of superhero-focused dramas on the network is at its peak. That's four returning series lined up for the fall and one new entry (Black Lightning) for midseason. (Another two comic book properties, iZombie and Riverdale, occupy real estate on The CW's lineup — but they are considered something of a different beast.) "We believe we have the best superhero programming anywhere," said the exec. "We'll never have more than four at one time, there'll be a rotation of some sort. And this programming will last as long as people watch it." Still, newcomer Black Lightning got a splashy intro at the end of the presentation as the network's first exclusively black ensemble of leads took the stage. (The drama starring Cress Williams was picked up to pilot after Fox passed and scored a series order despite filming only a short presentation.)

Superheroes Still Pay the Bills, Though
Pedowitz assured buyers that the four-part crossover between Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow is an annual affair, confirming that it will air again in November. The first stunt certainly seemed to work, with the exec offering that "last November's crossover gave The CW its most-watched week in six years."

The Future Is Female
Pedowitz did not gloss over the fact that this fall's two new entries, Valor and Dynasty, star women and target female viewers specifically. His push was echoed by Rodriguez, the de facto star of the network, who eloquently implores advertisers to maintain their support on a now-annual basis. "I am an artist, and I see the world through that lens," she said, emphasizing the fact that she stars in one of five female-fronted shows on the schedule and pointing to its other pushes for diversity. "We can learn about what we are not through art."

Streaming Has Doubled Since 2016
One last thing on streaming: "For the first time, The CW is the exclusive in-season home for all of our original shows," said Tuck, adding that initiated streams on the network's proprietary platform have increased more than 100 percent since a year ago. And it's not just starts. Streaming is up 111 percent in hours viewed.

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