The party that marked the halfway point of CBS, Showtime, and The CW’s time at the Television Critics Association summer press tour provided a fitting look at the changing face of the third of those networks: The stars of Reign sharing a lounge area with Whose Line Is It Anyway? veterans Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, all parties involved looking on in wonder (and providing running commentary) as disparate ingredients and volatile chemicals combined on a caterer’s cart to create fresh ice cream. It was weird. It seemed vaguely unseemly. But following the summer success of The CW’s Whose Line and its second season renewal, it could be what the network looks like for the next few years.
Whose Line Is It Anyway? is technically embedded into The CW’s DNA via president Mark Pedowitz, as his time at ABC overlapped with that network’s Whose Line revamp. But as Pedowitz told the members of the TCA, he sees the improv series as one that has a history with viewers inside and outside The CW’s target demographic. For their first serious entrance into the comedic realm, Pedowitz and his team wisely chose a show remembered fondly by young Vampire Diaries devotees as well as the parents who watched the antics of Stiles, Mochrie, and crew with them. It’s a bridge the network hasn’t previously offered, one whose presence and legacy has been sustained by The CW’s greatest ally, the Internet, in its absence from the airwaves.
And eventually The CW will need to pursue avenues like the ones Whose Line opens, because it won’t always be able to spin such large portions of its development slate out of preexisting properties. Of the shows it’s presenting today, only one—the medieval epic Reign—isn’t a spinoff or a remake. (The other two: The Originals, featuring the continuing adventures of Vampire Diaries antihero Klaus, and The Tomorrow People, based on the cult British import from the 1970s of the same name.) The major announcements of Pedowitz’s session had similar roots: the Flash’s return to series TV through the Arrow universe and an extension of Supernatural. At least the Flash comes from a well of ideas that The CW can mine as often as its non-CBS parent, Warner Bros., will allow. There’s a Black Canary origin story headed to Arrow as well, and the network wants to stay in the DC superhero business badly enough to put its Wonder Woman pilot, Amazon, on hold until it gets the concept right. “It’s an iconic DC character and we’re not going to put it on if it doesn’t work,” Pedowitz told the TCA.
And what works for The CW is never going to be what works for the rest of network television. It placed an emphasis on Internet viewing—and the types of shows that appeal to the Internet—before any of its larger, old-guard counterparts, and it still makes plenty of money for CBS and Warner through agreements with Netflix and other streaming services. Nielsen ratings still factor into the network’s decision-making, though—in addition to additional sources that track streaming and on-demand viewership—and during his exec session, Pedowitz expressed awareness of the ratings challenges facing The CW’s new shows. He needed no prompting from reporters to bring up The Originals’ biggest Tuesday-night challenger, ABC’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., acknowledging that the Vampire Diaries spinoff faces an uphill battle to win the live-viewing allegiances of genre fans. Of course, that’s ignoring the bigger obstacle standing in the way of Originals and S.H.I.E.L.D.: The most popular show on broadcast TV, CBS’ NCIS.
By some metrics—maybe its own, if Pedowitz’s pipe-dream alternate Nielsens ever get beyond the “work in progress” stage—The CW could be the targeted, narrow-casting network of the future. But that future has to take into account the aging of the network’s original audience, the audience that’s since filled the younger end of the 18 to 34 spectrum in the seven years since The CW’s launch, and older viewers who want to blow off some steam with a tawdry vampire romance or the story of Mary, Queen of Scots with a Gossip Girl injection. Increasingly, the network’s audience will resemble that party tableau mentioned up top: Kids fascinated by the flash and magic, older viewers simply trying to figure out what they’re watching. Somehow, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie’s in-the-moment riffing will factor into it all.