If you were going to create a TV network that catered to the modern TV fan, it would be a network that aired lots of heavily serialized shows that were addictive and engrossing once you got into them. It would be a network that cared less about immediate Nielsen ratings and more about DVR plays and (even better) digital streaming. It would be a network that wouldn’t cancel long-running shows out of nowhere and would, instead, announce that a show was ending, but only after a shortened final season designed to wrap up its plotlines. Such a network would also feature a frequent focus on genre fare, because the modern TV fan likes that sort of thing. Maybe it would air longtime Internet favorite Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in its television debut, coming up on October 9th.
Here’s the thing: That network exists. It’s called The CW. It does all of the things above, right down to Dr. Horrible (coming on October 9th). And nobody watches it.
Now, let’s be fair. The CW has done a lot of this to itself. It’s a network that has never had any idea of how to sell itself to people, and it spent so long chasing an ultra-specific demographic (18-34-year-old women) that it may have run itself into an inescapable death spiral. If you were to make an argument that the network will almost certainly be the first of the “big five” to die—and sooner, rather than later—no one would argue with you. The CW regularly loses to Univision and several cable channels. It’s not on the same level as the four major networks, and if you’ve ever spent time jeering about how far NBC has fallen, well, most of its shows look like ratings kings compared to even The CW’s hits. Parks & Recreation, for instance, would be the highest-rated show on The CW by a fair margin. The CW is starting from a very weak position, both in terms of ratings and in terms of “buzz,” whatever that means.
But The CW has plenty of good, addictive shows! The Vampire Diaries is one of TV’s most ruthlessly plotted shows, tossing out more plot twists per act than many shows dole out in full seasons. The L.A. Complex is a smart soap, with a great sense of humor—in its universe, Paul F. Tompkins is a late-night talk show host. Nikita boasts a sizable cult of fans who say it’s got some of the best action storytelling on TV. (I wouldn’t know, having not seen it since early in season one.) Supernatural hasn’t been at its best in the past couple of seasons, but it was strong, genre TV before that. And even in terms of pleasantly vapid stuff, something like Hart Of Dixie is a fair step up over the dross on a lot of other networks. The CW seems to be judged entirely on the basis of Gossip Girl by a lot of TV fans, and it probably always will be. But it’s been trying to take steps beyond that image in the last couple of years, thanks to the success of Vampire Diaries, and it’s doing as good a job of rebranding itself as could be expected, given the constraints placed upon it.
Plus, network head Mark Pedowitz, during his executive session at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, said that the network doesn’t rely on the Nielsens for renewals. He referred to the network as “an aggregation,” its numbers for renewal determined by some formula combining the various digital platforms the network’s shows stream on with what Pedowitz kept referring to as a presence in the “social media space.” In other words, Ringer wasn’t just canceled because its ratings were bad; it was canceled because you didn’t tweet about it enough. (Seriously, Pedowitz cited its underperformance in the aforementioned “social media space” as a reason for the heavily-hyped Sarah Michelle Gellar series disappearing with barely a peep.)
That commitment to changing various things about how TV does business even extends to how the show handles long-time “hits” that are leaving the air. Gossip Girl was once the lynchpin of The CW’s schedule, even if its ratings never reflected the level of importance the network placed upon it. Now, however, its ratings have crumbled and left it in dire straits. Instead of outright canceling the series, however, the network is bringing it back for 10 final episodes in the fall, designed to close off the storylines and bring closure for fans. It’s difficult to imagine The CW’s sister network, CBS, doing such a thing for a long-running hit. (It let CSI: Miami go without so much as a “see you later!”) It’s hard to imagine any network doing so, outside of rare circumstances where an outside production studio cuts the network such a great deal to get the show in question to 100 episodes that the network can’t refuse. (See also: Chuck and Fringe.) But The CW has done this twice in two seasons, first with One Tree Hill (which had arguably already had a worthy series finale), now with Gossip Girl. And Pedowitz said he would continue to do such a thing. The perpetually on-the-bubble Supernatural? It would likely get a stretch of episodes to wrap up its stories, if Pedowitz had his way.
Yet it’s hard not to keep coming back to the fact that very, very few people watch The CW. For as much as the network tries to get its series on various digital streaming platforms, it’s as reluctant to release numbers for how many people watch its series there as the sites themselves are for their own original programming, perhaps because it knows there is not yet a viable business model based on such a platform and it is unlikely one will pop up in the next couple of years. That would be fine if The CW could hang on for a decade or so, but it is not immediately apparent that will be the case.
In the 2008 presidential election, a perception took hold among many in the left-leaning blogosphere that the John McCain campaign was running to win the weekly news cycle, to do well with Mark Halperin and Matt Drudge, while the Barack Obama campaign was playing a long game, designed to build toward something longer term than simply trying to keep the endlessly refreshing news cycle fed with a stream of new content. Now, it’s difficult to say that McCain’s campaign really was doomed by this and not, say, his bizarre handling of the 2008 economic crisis, but the campaign certainly did seem to be chasing after headlines more than substantive political gains, especially before the financial crisis took hold.
In its own way, The CW reminds me of that theory of the McCain campaign. The network has always seemed more addicted to buzz and “presence” than it has to building a substantive business model that can exist going forward. It would rather have an Entertainment Weekly cover than it would have a top 10 series in the Nielsens. That continues to be true under Pedowitz, who actually has the right idea for how to build a network in the digital age—lots and lots of online presence, with a strong eye toward making a show available in as many places as it can be—but is simply several years ahead of his time. If ABC is stuck in 1999, then The CW seems to be trapped in 2022, when everything you could ever want is instantly streamable, if you’re willing to pay the right price for it. The problem with this is that The CW only exists as a corporate entity by the skin of its teeth, and its shows continue to hack and slash at budget. (The vast majority of them are shot in Canada, and the look of its new pilots—even the solid Arrow—is very, very cheap.)
At times, The CW seems to be trying to become the televised equivalent of Buzzfeed. It gives the TV fans of the world—or, more precisely, the predominantly young, predominantly white TV fans of the Internet—exactly what they say they want, yet it continues to be ignored by traditional measures. Which leads to the network talking about how great its shows do on Twitter because, hey, what else is there to measure with that will make The CW look like it’s going business that’s going gangbusters? Backed into a corner of its own making, The CW seems to have forgotten that the business it’s in, for a little while at least, is controlled by very traditional models that won’t crumble for a while and even then will only crumble slowly. For The CW, 2022 may as well be 100 years away, rather than just a decade.