With the pickups of Gossip Girl, 90210, The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural for next year already announced, Smallville, Life Unexpected and One Tree Hill immediately catapult to being on the bubble simply by virtue of not already being renewed. Without a miracle of the walking on water or turning water into wine variety, there is no hope for Melrose Place to get an early renewal or a late renewal. Though someone could always try another reboot in 20 years.
In the simplest terms here's how I see it based on the ratings:
Smallville: it will get renewed
Life Unexpected: Could go either way, and with each week's ratings looking less likely
One Tree Hill: likely to be renewed.
One notion being bandied about and supported by the likes of E! Online's Watch With Kristin is that of Life Unexpected and One Tree Hill, the CW will only pick one.
That's a good approach for Kristin's audience. It is a very accessible way to frame it: one or the other, but not both. It may wind up being that simple, too, but I don't think the process of getting to the ultimate decision is so simple. I don't really buy the notion that those two shows are locked into a death match where only one will survive.
Though ratings matter, at the end of the day making money matters more, and there are factors outside of ratings.
Series that have been on longer are typically more expensive to make
Every time shows and contracts are renewed the people making the show want to make more money while the people buying the show want to hold expenses down. Typically it's going to be easier to keep production expenses down on a new show like Life Unexpected than it is on a show that would be in its 8th season if renewed, like One Tree Hill.
The same issues with expenses wind up mattering for Smallville too, which would enter a 10th season if renewed.
And it's complicated because:
The CW loses money, but its partners make money from the programming assets
I know, that sounds like corporate gibberish, and it is. As a broadcast network, the CW loses money. Lots of it. However, the CW's owners (CBS and Warner Bros) wind up making enough money from the shows through international distribution, syndication, and DVD revenue to offset the losses.
Smallville was the 9th best selling DVD of any TV show in 2009 and between that and the ratings, I'll be very surprised if it isn't ultimately renewed. In the first two weeks of release last summer, Smallville outpaced One Tree Hill by about 100,000 units (~260,000 vs. ~160,000). But 90210 didn't even sell enough units in its first week of release to make the list we see. It got renewed anyway, and I'd expect that is in part (in addition to relatively decent ratings for the CW) because of International licensing. At some point last year CBS said it makes $1 million per episode just in 90210's international licensing.
That CBS and Warner Bros only make money off the programs themselves rather than the networks means something else: they both want to have about the same amount of shows on the network. So it doesn't necessarily mean that if they don't renew One Tree Hill (produced by Warner Bros) the CW would have to pick up a new show by Warner Bros or that if they don't renew Life Unexpected (produced by CBS) the CW would have to pick up a new show by CBS, but it very probably means that. Since the two shows aren't produced by the same studio the either/or notion gets a bit trickier.
If programming assets are what makes $$ for CW's owners, how about more programming?
Because it starts its season earlier, the CW seems to run a ton of repeats with huge gaps of off time and then during those off times between America's Next Top Model completely burns of Wednesdays with reruns. Plus there's usually a rerun burned off on Friday nights. There's a lot of wiggle room for CW to have more programs.
I still expect One Tree Hill and Smallville to return. If Life Unexpected's ratings keep falling (and in fairness, last night it was against the Olympics) it's doomed but if it stabilizes or rebounds after the Olympics, I could certainly see it coming back. Even if One Tree Hill is renewed.