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Are these the best of times for The CW?

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February 14th, 2009

The CW's Dawn Ostroff

Dwarfed by the internet mania over the Dollhouse premiere, Variety snuck in a piece of glowing praise for the CW:

After jettisoning the popular but brand-busting wrestling franchise "Friday Night Smackdown" and then cutting loose its ratings-challenged Sunday lineup that was outsourced to indie producers, the young network can focus on its core assets Monday through Thursday.

And on these nights it has zeroed in on dramatic storytelling geared toward an urban, young-female audience, with shows like "Gossip Girl," "America's Next Top Model" and "90210" helping forge an identity.

Sure, there's room for improvement in various timeslots across the week, but the move away from wrestling and comedy is a smart start. And for the first time in its three-year history, you get the sense that CW is closer to flourishing than folding.

After then covering some highlights and lowlights, Variety concludes:

Despite so-so overall ratings, CW finds itself perhaps in its strongest position to date.

There are a lot of ways to slice and dice the article. But when you throw in that "perhaps" modifying the somewhat ambiguous by nature "position", it's sort of hedging.

It is true that the CW has made gains in women 18-34, and if you take the season comparisons and start them at September 1 instead of later in the month when the Nielsen season officially began, it even has gains among the broader 18-34 demographic. But are those gains enough to offset losses among the wider 18-49 demographic? The CW PR folks would say "we're not focused on the 18-49 demographic!" and I don't blame them for saying that.

But we have to use whatever data we have available to triangulate and arrive at a conclusion around this: is CW generating more advertising revenue this year than last year? Our conclusion is no. So our conclusion is that the gains in 18-34 viewing aren't making up for lost revenue.

Making a change at a network is, as the CW would say something you build brick by brick. Rome wasn't built in a day. [Insert your favorite cliché here]. I actually agree with all of that but it's hard to arrive at the truth of things because realistically when it comes to the CW there are more questions than there are answers.

It's obvious managing partner CBS signed off on the change of focus, specifically Mondays through Wednesdays that target women 18-34. But what we lack, and will always lack is information about projections for year one, year two and year three. So it's not possible for us to know how CW is performing against any internal benchmarks or how happy CBS is with how things are going.

I have heard that the people at Warner Brothers, for example are very happy with how much they are making on 90210 even though from eyeballing it, it has been a ratings disappointment even by CW's target standards. But Warner Bros making money and the CW making money are somewhat different animals. Though especially since CBS has managed the partnership, having Warner Bros happy about anything may well be a good thing politically.

Sunday nights definitely worked out disastrously, but I'm not as much of a hardass about that that as Bill is. Bill doesn't think the media have raked the CW over the coals enough about it. I'm not aligned with Bill on that because we both agreed revenue-wise, selling the bandwidth probably was the way to go.

Let's say I own a 20,000 seat arena, and I rent it to you for 13 nights and you are to pay me $750,000 per night for the rental. Then let's say you only ever sell 8,000 seats. Is it my fault or my problem that you couldn't sell out the arena? Then let's say that you decided NOT to pay me (it was reported that MRC was behind in its payments to the CW and that CW cancelled the contract early due to nonpayment), that definitely *is* my problem, and it's definitely a bad outcome.

So perhaps CW was unwise in hindsight about who it picked as a partner, but I don't know that it should be trashed for trying it out.

Still, I'm definitely not sure that the CW isn't closer to folding than flourishing. Co-parent CBS is in a world of hurt as a business right now and this is despite somewhat of a renaissance in terms of broadcast prime-time ratings. CBS chief Les Moonves will probably need to pull a Roger Goodell and announce he is taking a pay cut. If CBS winds up cutting its dividend, which is widely being reported it may need to do just to cover some debt bills that are coming due, it's obviously a very, very harsh time for CBS. Where does the CW and what we perceive to be its losses fit into that? Is it possible that the CW could really be flourishing at the same time one of its parents is strug-guh-ling so much? In that environment can CBS really continue to fund The CW?

So it seems highly unlikely that these are flourishing times for The CW. Still, I hope it is actually true. I hope the CW does flourish, that it is back next year, that there is more Gossip Girl (and Supernatural!) and I even hope Privileged gets renewed. Bill has it already cancelled, but I figure in the wacky world CW exists in, Privileged has to at least be on the bubble. In fact, if I had any sales chops at all, I'd be busy cutting a $200,000 sponsorship deal with the CW while Bill is on vacation and he would return to "TVbytheNumbers, brought to you by Gossip Girl (and Supernatural!)"

Sure, it's pure fantasy, but is it really any more fantastical than the notion that these could perhaps be the best of times for The CW? I doubt it, but it's kind of fun to think about.

 
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