Sophomore Slump at CW
Promising New Series Weak in Ratings
After the May upfronts, The CW coasted through the summer on positive buzz earned by a trio of promising new fall shows. After the rocky start of its 2006 launch, the network seemed poised to finally break out of the shadow of twin forebears UPN and The WB with a new slate that had critics excited and its 18-to-34 target demographic firmly in its sites.
Four weeks later, many in the industry are wondering: What happened?
It’s not so much that viewers have watched and rejected The CW’s new programs as that the network threw a party and few bothered to show up. Premieres ranged from average ("Gossip Girl") to stillborn ("Life Is Wild").
For the first few weeks of the season, the network’s target demo was down 23 percent from last year, back when The CW was still trying to explain to viewers where to find the channel.
"They just have not gotten any traction," said Bill Carroll, VP/director of programming at Katz Television Group. "It’s surprising at this stage of the game."
Part of the network’s rating worries have since been offset by early live-plus-seven data showing digital video recorder usage. Shows like "Gossip Girl," "Reaper," "Smallville" and "America’s Next Top Model" are gaining about 20 percent among adults 18 to 34 when DVR data is added to the tally. Plus, "Gossip" has ranked among the top shows sold on iTunes -- another reminder that The CW's youthful viewers (the network has the lowest median age) are more likely to watch their shows in non-traditional ways.
Also on the bright side: New drama "Reaper" and sitcom "Aliens in America" have shown some growth in their most recent airings.
"I can’t say we’re totally satisfied with the ratings, but we’re looking to see growth and we are seeing growth," said Dawn Ostroff, The CW’s entertainment president. "This was the big step for us in terms of original programming that’s right for our brand. We feel very patient and are very committed to these shows."
The CW’s plan is to try to build the audience for "Gossip" (which got a full-season pickup), "Reaper" and "Aliens" (which likely will get pickups soon), then supplement the slate with previously announced midseason reality fare.
"What I see on the air now between ‘Gossip,’ ‘Reaper’ and ‘Aliens’ are quality, and quality wins out," said John Maatta, The CW’s chief operating officer. "‘7th Heaven’ was dead last in all of television [when the show debuted on The WB in 1996]. If we had given it three months-and-out, it would have been a tragedy."
Still, you can’t plan a network’s future without analyzing the past. Consensus is The CW made at least one tactical misstep: not scheduling original content this summer (aside from the low-rated "Hidden Palms").
"We didn’t have any programming on toward the end of summer and, in hindsight, I would have liked to have done that differently," Ms. Ostroff said. "We had to get the network up and going in a short period of time, [and] we were very focused on the fall. If we can do original programming from a budgetary standpoint and creative standpoint, we would like to have more original programming on next summer."
The lack of summer originals cost the CW the modest ratings momentum it built during the regular season.
For The CW, launching its first original slate against the heavy marketing noisemakers of the major networks, it needed to ramp up viewership to help promote its shows on air.
Another question is whether The CW put enough marketing dollars behind its new shows to break through the clutter.
"The network needs to spend more and spend differently, because they lack the promotional platform of their own network," said John Rash, senior VP and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun.
"We spent an awful lot," Mr. Maatta countered. "We spent a lot by most standards. ... You’ve got to give things time."
Few CW executives would argue against a budget increase from parents CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. to become more competitive year-round, but nobody was willing to address the matter on the record.
Another possible issue, Mr. Rash said, is that The CW schedule tends to have programming that appeals to very different audience segments. Viewers who watch young-female-skewing "America’s Next Top Model" are different from the young men watching "Friday Night Smackdown," who are different from the sci-fi fans of "Supernatural" and "Smallville."
"The CW’s desired demographic is the hardest to break through to, and the network is still inconsistent," Mr. Rash said. "The universality is youth, but with distinctly different draws that make it hard to promote programs creating audience flow from one night to the other."
Ms. Ostroff disagrees the current schedule is too diverse, especially compared to predecessor UPN. "We are much more targeted than any of the other networks. They are much broader networks. [Our shows target] more or less the same demographic, just speaking to different sectors."
One aspect that could have an impact is The CW is running behind broadcast competitors in being available in high definition. It’s not yet available in HD on some systems, such as Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, or on national satellite service Dish Network.
"Around the country we have awful good HD penetration," said Mr. Maatta. "It’s important. We’ve got to be nationwide and we’re working on it."
From a station standpoint, Mr. Maatta said, the network still has a good-news story to tell. "This is the last best distribution system in broadcast TV that’s ever going to be created," he said. "We have really strong affiliates. There has not been a negative word from that constituency."
Gary Weitman, a representative of the Tribune station group which carries The CW, agreed.
"We are very pleased with The CW," Mr. Weitman said. "The demos in our markets are good and we're optimistic."
That the industry largely concurs that The CW's fundamentals are all in order is another positive sign. The network has the stations, the shows and the demo target. Now all The CW needs is their audience to actually tune in -- preferably in a traditional way that allows the network to readily monetize the viewership.
"They have done what they were supposed to do," Mr. Carroll said. "They made the transition, the shows they have really focused on the audience they're trying to reach. Their strength is exactly where they think it is -- younger women. If there's a segment that's under-served, that's it."