If you’re one of my 11 regular readers, you know that I am very interested in exploring the position and meaning of network strategy and branding. I understand that a lot of people are turned off by any sort of in-depth discussion of a television network’s “brand” and how they cultivate it, but it is one of the ways I like to look at things. Plus, putting things in a network-wide context is much easier to do when you haven’t seen any of the pilots. So over the next week or so, I’ll be dropping in on each of the five broadcast networks (and maybe even a few cable networks) to discuss where they are, where they are headed and what is at stake this season.
As the network with arguably one of the most anticipated fall series debuting tonight in Ringer, I figured it was best to take a look at everyone’s favorite punching bag, The CW.
New series: Ringer, The Secret Circle, Hart of Dixie, H8er
Returning series: 90210, Gossip Girl, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, Nikita, One Tree Hill and America’s Next Top Model
Low ratings, borderline-inept decision-making and a whole lot of pretty white girls doing pretty white girl things. That’s basically been The CW’s MO since its inception in 2006, but in its sixth fall season is there any possibility that things could change?
Well, maybe. Sort of. But probably not.
The good news is that The CW is under new leadership. Dawn Ostroff is out, Mark Pedowitz is in. Pedowtiz is a well-liked guy in the industry and he’s done a nice job of saying a lot of “right” things since taking over the job from the beleaguered Ostroff. He’s gone on the record in support for bringing back comedies to the CW and is also open to more procedural-like stories that could help bring the ratings up (could). Pedowitz is obviously in a challenging spot, but much like a sports team that improves dramatically once a terrible coach is removed from the equation, I think the network could turn around without Ostroff around. She wasn’t awful, but was so unwilling to try new things programing-wise and that is certainly part of the reason The CW is in the spot they are in today.
Ostroff’s typical choices mean good and bad things for The CW this season. Under Ostroff’s reign, The CW became this incestuous pot of sameness that viewers couldn’t escape. It wasn’t enough to make a half-dozen soapy young adult melodramas, they all have to be produced by Josh Schwartz! It’s not enough to take on one 1990s FOX hit (902010), they had to bring you two (sorry, Melrose Place 2.0). It seemed like every season, The CW was not only trying to create the same kind of program, they were doing so with the same kind of people. Listen, Josh Schwartz is awesome. And staying in business with successful producers or trying to produce remakes and spin-offs are trends that exist across television. The CW is not alone in this.
The problem is that CBS has the luxury of spinning of NCIS because it just happens to be the most popular scripted series on the air, their schedule has other variations in it and the audience has shown a willingness to watch these things. The CW has not ever been in that kind of a position. None of their series will ever be a legitimate hit, but even using their secret formula for success, it’s not like Gossip Girl or 90210 were killing it so much that the world needed a prequel to the former and a remake of the latter’s spiritual cousin. And when you’re only airing seven or eight series a year, adding more of the same just seems like a ridiculously stupid idea – especially when your target audience allegedly has no attention span to begin with.
And so although Pedowitz is saying all the right things about branching out, something the network desperately needs to do as soon as possible, The CW’s new batch of programs follows the same kind of programming logic that has hampered them from improving their stature. The Secret Circle comes from the same author and same producers as The Vampire Diaries. Hart of Dixie is yet another Josh Schwartz project, starring the former Life Unexpected lead. Even Ringer shares connections to the network’s past, in the cast (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kris Polaha) and in the production team (Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder both wrote for Supernatural). Ostroff’s process clearly had an impact on what kind of pilots were picked up by The CW. And of course, Dixie is paired with Gossip Girl and Secret Circle is paired with The Vampire Diaries. Same, same, same. It always takes a development cycle or even two before the new person in charge is really able to shape the ideology and culture at a network so I don’t really blame Pedowitz, but the observation had to be made nonetheless.
Thankfully for The CW, dipping into the similarity pool yielded better results this development season than usual. Despite my reservations towards the actual logic, Secret Circle, Hart of Dixie and Ringer at least had the decency of building their series around recognizable lead actresses that should theoretically be appealing to the audience. We all know how much the network has been emphasizing Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to television and whether or not that strategy will pay off remains to be seen, but SMG is still a nice get for the network. Rachel Bilson is a warm, entertaining television talent and Britt Robertson should be able to overcome the failure of Life Unexpected fairly easily. The incestuous casting and decision-making is still annoying, but these ladies are a nice example of what happens when it goes right. It should stop anyway, though.
Moreover, the premises of these series help them stand out somewhat against the typical CW noise. Secret Circle deserves all the TVD comparisons it gets, but I imagine the series will look and feel at least marginally different. Ringer and Hart of Dixie are two series that don’t really fit in with the predictable CW template, as the latter appears to be a nice WB throwback and the former looks like something else entirely. Reviews for both series aren’t anywhere near glowing, but the glimmers of dissimilarity are at least positive signs for The CW’s overall development process.
The problem is that none of it really matters if we’re talking about the whole television landscape. The CW is always going to get trounced in the ratings and they’ve done such a poor job of trying to produce a series that appeals to more than just one narrow target that the audience is now trained to respond to all CW products with a specific response (usually a groan). Smallville pulled in a nice chunk of male viewers, but that’s all gone now. Supernatural is mostly powered by female viewership. I understand the thought process behind targeting young females, but it doesn’t seem to be working and ABC Family and even MTV are doing a better job of creating appealing content for that demographic anyway.
So I’m wondering: Is it time for The CW to change directions, ever so slightly? Despite their insistence that everyone loves SMG, most of her biggest fans are outside The CW target demo. If Ringer has a lot of success, it will be because people over 25 watch. And like I said, Hart of Dixie looks and feels like a series that would have aired on The WB in like 1999, when those same people who love SMG were watching that network. Perhaps The CW should shift their target age up a half-decade or more? There’s definitely an audience out there for the kind of programs the WB provided in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s and they aren’t really be served anywhere else. Arguably, those people are also more “trained” to watch television in a consistent, legal fashion, which would help the network raise its overall numbers.* This isn’t much of a brand shift, but one that would obviously be useful, I think.
*I know that The CW likes to tout the success of their series using whatever insider quantitative figures they use, but at a certain point, doesn’t the embarrassment get to somebody? It has to, right?
This season could be a sign of things to come for The CW. The winds of change should be blowing, if ever so slightly. Of course, Ringer could ride its negative reviews straight into Hellcats ratings hell and Hart of Dixie could garner similar unfortunate numbers thanks to its nightly connection with the hilariously low-rated Gossip Girl. But no matter what happens, The CW needs to do something different and soon. I have hope that this is the year.
- I refuse to believe that this is the final season of One Tree Hill. Its continued existence is so brightly reflective of the kind of thought-process The CW leads with. It needs to go away.
- The Nikita/Supernatural Friday combo makes sense with the departure of Smallville, but I can’t help but think that Nikita deserved another shot on a non-Friday night to make it happen. I guess the good news is that it will probably never be cancelled now since it is on Fridays where any number is a good number for The CW. Its ratings might even go up.
- Like I said, the reviews for Ringer are not good, but I have a feeling that people are going to tune in, at least in the first few weeks. I don’t think it gets a higher premiere rating than The Vampire Diaries did in 2009, but it might come close. Secret Circle will be fine on Thursdays, but I’m worried about Hart of Dixie. Bilson isn’t the known quantity that SMG is and Gossip Girl is such a ratings blackhole. I need my Bilson fix, television viewers. Don’t screw this up.