The CW at the TCA press tour: TV’s unicorn won’t own its horn

The CW at the TCA press tour: TV’s unicorn won’t own its horn

The fifth network has strong content, but struggles to embrace it

The CW President Mark Pedowitz
The CW President Mark Pedowitz

The ritual of the network executive session lies at the heart of press tour: Although many journalists in the room can likely get access to showrunners or talent in the promotional buildup to an individual show’s debut, the ability for most reporters to ask questions directly of a network president is slim to none.

However, this ritual depends on there being something to ask them about, which was rather strikingly absent for The CW’s president Mark Pedowitz. It’s honestly a good sign, on some level: There are no substantial controversies that Pedowitz is being forced to answer for, and no dramatic overhaul of The CW to create any major lines of inquiry. The problems facing The CW are the problems that have always faced The CW: It can’t compete with its fellow broadcast networks, its business model keeps it from entirely emulating cable channels, and its young demographics are at the vanguard of new viewing platforms that the traditional measurements of television viewership don’t know how to count yet. And because those questions have all been asked and answered at previous tours, there really wasn’t a lot else for Pedowitz to address during the half-hour session.

And even with the questions he did get, one could have written many of Pedowitz’s answers in advance. He loved The Carrie Diaries creatively, but the digital presence that saved it after weak ratings in its first season weren’t enough to overcome its continued struggle to find an audience in season two. Star-Crossed fans might have sent 90 boxes of pasta, but their support wasn’t enough to overcome a weak audience. The Tomorrow People was strong creatively—or, at least, Pedowitz says this since Julie Plec and Greg Berlanti are intricate parts of The CW family—but it never garnered the viewership or the digital presence necessary to keep it on the air. Hart Of Dixie and Beauty And The Beast were both renewed despite signs—a move to Friday and a push to summer, respectively—indicating they were potentially doomed, and Pedowitz is hedging on whether this means they’re definitely entering their final seasons (even with Hart Of Dixie only getting a 10-episode order). In all, there wasn’t much for Pedowitz to comment on, and the answers received were exactly what you would expect, all things considered.

As a result, CW executive sessions tend to be about reading tea leaves, searching for those bits and pieces of what might happen in the future. The CW has long resisted an overall rebrand at every stage of its development. Pedowitz spoke of how he doesn’t want to commit too much to genre to avoid appearing as a niche network, yet they’re still planning another Supernatural spinoff after the failure of this year’s backdoor pilot. Pedowitz is skewing away from procedurals, but the midseason’s iZombie is structured as a procedural (although Pedowitz suggested it would be moving beyond that framework in subsequent seasons, much like Arrow). The network’s ratings are so low that it’ll never make a huge shift in identity, as it’s always going to need to hold its legacy while finding brief windows—like one-hour family comedy Jane The Virgin, featuring a primarily Latino cast—to explore other avenues to develop into .

Or, rather, a future “franchise.” If there was one large takeaway from Pedowitz’s comments, it’s that the scale of The CW has him imagining each of their shows as a launching pad for something more. It’s smart business sense: it may seem like basic logic, but you want to be able to take something successful and turn it into more things that are equally as successful. At the same time, though, there is something almost crude about taking a charming new series like Jane The Virgin and framing it as a new franchise, as opposed to a new show audiences can connect with, or that will deliver powerful storytelling. Pedowitz is very connected with his shows creatively, throwing out werewolf plot details in response to specific questions, and yet The CW has at times struggled to position itself as a creative nesting ground rather than a franchise incubator. It’s part of why a show like Arrow, which has grown creatively, will continue to fight against the perception it is “The CW’s superhero show,” and why a show like The Flash is likely to face the same challenge despite a strong pilot (which is much better than Fox’s Gotham, a show unlikely to face these barriers in the same way). Franchises can absolutely be creative, but it’s difficult to articulate that creativity within discussions of building new demographic beachheads that will help broaden their audience among both men and women.

The only place where The CW seems to be willing to actively foreground creativity is within its CW Seed platform, which it sees as an incubator for different comedy voices. Although Pedowitz was disappointed with how Backpackers—the first series to be moved to broadcast from CW Seed—performed in their Monday lineup, he continues to believe in the platform, and suggested following the panel he would “love” to move Brad Bell and Jane Espenson’s Husbands from the platform to the network if they can work the details. But specific details on the network’s comedy plans are rare, with tentative commitments to patience with Backpackers and Monday comedy block companion Seed and an expected pickup for another cycle of Whose Line Is It Anyway? with no other half-hour comedies officially in development.

It results in comedy development that is inherently opaque, with no ratings or pilot orders for us to definitively point to in order to predict their comedy future. The CW is opaque overall: they are heavily focused on online streaming and “digital presence” as metrics for success, but we have no idea what their standards are in those spaces, or how they weigh them relative to other factors. This is not entirely new in television, but it makes choices like the pickup of Beauty And The Beast—made profitable through some Canadian co-production deals—that much more unpredictable as subjective and uncertain evaluations of online engagement are counted. The CW’s audience skews young enough that we can say they care about Twitter chatter or mobile viewing more than your average network, but the fact is that nothing about The CW is like an average network, and it makes it the unicorn of the television ecosystem.

The question becomes at which point the unicorn owns its horn. By aiming for “narrow but not too narrow” and “young but not all young,” The CW is straddling the line between broadcast and cable, and fitting into neither. The panel for Jane The Virgin was one of the best they’ve had in recent years (with star Gina Rodriguez living up to her rising star reputation), and with The Flash represents what is likely the most critically-acclaimed fall lineup the network’s had in some time. It would have been a moment for the unicorn to stand proudly on the stage and announce it has a shiny new horn, one that is reshaping the face of The CW forever. Instead, it was largely a chance to tell us that they’re doing what they need to do to remain stable, committing to the status quo and resisting losing what they’ve got in the hopes of nonetheless breaking new ground for a network that still feels fledgling entering its ninth year.

Stray observations:

  • Pedowitz is open to the possibility of new DC properties beyond Arrow and The Flash, although Batman is off the table for the time being and he’s skeptical about whether he would be able to revive the idea of Wonder Woman on The CW with her entry into the DC Comics film universe.
  • The 100, which grew into itself during its freshman season, will get a 16-episode season two order to embrace its serial storytelling, which Pedowitz sees as a model for what the network is looking for.
  • One critic asked three questions about Beauty And The Beast during the executive session, which prompted Pedowitz to ask someone to get him a box set.
  • Supernatural is on the verge of tying 7th Heaven as the longest-running series in The WB, UPN or The CW’s history should it expand beyond its tenth season, which Pedowitz suggests he is open to. He did not suggest this was solely so that 7th Heaven would no longer hold the record.
  • For the Hart of Dixie fans, Rachel Bilson’s real-life pregnancy has the possibility of being worked into the series—Pedowitz did not reveal whether this was in part because they had used all their best pregnancy-concealment strategies with Jaime King’s pregnancy in season three. But I’m going to presume that’s what it is.
  • Wentworth Miller will be appearing in the fourth episode of The Flash’s season as Leonard Snart, also known as Captain Cold.
Filed Under: TV, The CW, TCA

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