Spotted: a young, sexy TV network desperately strutting its stuff.
That not-so-blind item is, of course, referencing The CW, which hopes it is about to see a turnaround in its fortunes. The network is promoting the heck out of “Gossip Girl” and a remake of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” even as media buyers and a prominent affiliate make preparations in case a cancellation is in its future.
The CW enjoyed a heady first week of its fall season, but it has navigated some rough waters. Executives at Tribune Co., which operates 13 CW affiliates, said in a recent conference call with lenders that they had developed “very solid backup plans” in case the CW doesn’t fare well this season. They also have started to downplay The CW brand in some markets, promoting local TV station brands instead.
Should the CW’s hopes dim, “We believe that we can put on better programming with other people’s money and a more profitable business model,” said Randy Michaels, Tribune’s chief operating officer.
Other smoke signals: The CW has turned over its Sunday nights to a third-party programmer and has taken several weeks to replace Bill Morningstar, its longtime head of ad sales.
Since its September 2006 launch, the CW has tried to position itself as a great way to reach the unreachable: savvy teens and 20-somethings who are experts at avoiding the ad messages that support free programs sent via broadcast TV.
The CW has rolled out a series of innovations, including “content wraps,” or ads that emulate entertainment programs, and 10-second ads called “cwickies.” It also has plans for “cwingers,” short-form content that aims to lure viewers from TV to the Web and back again.
And in the season premiere of “Gossip Girl,” Vitaminwater was featured prominently as the sponsor of an exclusive party attended by many of the characters. Its name was mentioned several times, and one character even asked for a specific flavor. The company’s ad also got prominent placement during one of the commercial breaks.
Advertisers like having The CW around because it gives them leverage in dealing with Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS. And of course, there’s that hip youth factor.
“People are still pulling for them because of the younger demographic that they attract,” said Steve Kalb, senior VP/director of broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Mullen. “Even though the numbers are a little smaller, we are hoping to build upon that.”
Unfortunately, many of The CW’s target viewers are immersed in other media, so its innovations didn’t necessarily translate into ratings increases last season. The network even stopped streaming “Gossip Girl” episodes online when originals returned after the writers strike in an effort to drive viewers to watch it on TV.
The CW has spent the past several months retrenching. It had to work through a “complicated” first season, said Dawn Ostroff, entertainment president, when it was saddled with shows from two shuttered networks, then faced the 100-day writers strike. The hodgepodge schedule diluted what would make the network more distinctive, she said.
Now, said John Maatta, The CW’s chief operating officer, “We’re going to have a laser-like focus” on speaking to young women. Dropping WWE wrestling from last season allows the CW to run a schedule that has strong female appeal Monday through Friday, he said. Still, “These businesses take time.”
Mr. Maatta also said the network is poised to announce a replacement for Mr. Morningstar.
This season has started with a sunny burst. The season premiere of “Gossip Girl,” which aired on Labor Day, reached 3.4 million viewers—the show’s second-highest total. It also notched its best ratings among adults 18 to 34, women 18 to 34 and adults 18 to 49, the network said. The two-hour series premiere of “90210” one day later reached an average of 4.9 million viewers.
The network’s corporate parents, CBS Corp. and Time Warner’s Warner Bros., seem inclined to keep the operation going.
“We support the network, believe in it and are committed to its future,” read a letter sent to CW staffers from CBS’ Leslie Moonves and Nancy Tellem and Warner Bros.’ Barry Meyer and Bruce Rosenblum.
Speaking to investors earlier this year, Mr. Moonves, CBS’ CEO, acknowledged disappointing ratings but said: “The losses are relatively minor for a company like ours or a company like Time Warner, and it helps our TV stations. Plus we syndicate the content as well on the back end, so you look at it in its totality, and it’s a very different equation than it may appear.”
As for Tribune, the company wants The CW to succeed, said spokesman Gary Weitman, and is “very pleased” with the early performance of “Gossip Girl” and “90210.” “We are hopeful it portends great things for the full season.”