On the CW, Everything Old is New Again

The CW will have to do more than recycle shows from the old networks if it wants to grab that all-important 18- to 34-year-old demographic

For a new television network, the CW sure has plenty of returning shows. Remember the cute kids and their minister dad from the WB's 7th Heaven? It's right where it used to be on Monday night. Same for the UPN wrestling staple Friday Night Smackdown! or Gilmore Girls from WB, or the UPN reality hit America's Next Top Model.

The CW, which started lighting up the little screen Sept. 20, may just have the toughest job in show business this year. The network, with six nights of programming, combined two of the TV world's sickest networks in recent years, Time Warner's (TWX) WB and the UPN from CBS (CBS), and will reach roughly 93% percent of the country. The network's success is further complicated because it flipped many TV stations, sending some 63% of the folks who used to watch Veronica Mars on a UPN affiliate off to a new local station.. A quarter of the WB's former viewers were affected by the change. "We knew it would be too much to give folks new nights, new stations, and then hit them with new shows," says Dawn Ostroff, the CW's president of entertainment.


  Will that be enough to create a money-minting ratings machine out of two networks launched 90 days apart in 1995 that went on to lose nearly $2 billion in their decade on the air? (See BusinessWeek.com, 1/30/06, "The WB: Over the Hill at 11?".) Hard to tell. Ostroff says both networks were on an upswing last year, at least with the younger viewers, but both the WB and UPN lost both money and total viewers in 2005.

To stop the bleeding, at the outset the new CW will look a lot trimmer: 250 or so folks were cut from the new networks. And Ostroff says the shows she picked—she calls them her "dream team"—were the best of the combined lineups, ranked No. 1 or No. 2 among younger viewers. By midseason and through next year, she says, new shows will start to hit the schedule.

Still, the fast-fracturing TV landscape will make the launch of a new network a tough go. Increasingly, the 18- to 34-year-old viewers the new network hopes to target are headed to YouTube for their entertainment (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/22/06, "A New Fox Network with a Twist"). And the new CW will have an awful yesterday look about it. In all, 12 of the 14 shows the CW will air on its six nights of broadcasts (Saturday is dark) have already appeared on either the WB or UPN—and one of those, the Sunday night comedy The Game, is a spinoff of Girlfriends, the show it follows on that night.


  Familiar, yes. But does familiar make for better? Not likely, figures Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of Horizon Media, a marketing and advertising company. Adgate says the combined network may get a bump of perhaps 10% above the ratings of a single network. "If the shows were that good people would have found them in the first place," he says.

Still, TV advertisers, eager to keep alive a network that hopes to hit that younger audience they crave, have welcomed the CW with a better-than-expected $640 million in advertising commitments, or roughly 85% of the its available spots. That's because the network has cleverly constructed nights of the week designed to appeal to key audience groups. The Sunday night block of comedies like Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris is designed to lure African-American viewers; Thursday night is dedicated to sci-fi shows, Smallville and Supernatural, that appeal to teens, while women are being pitched to on Tuesday night with Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars.

The network brass have also done their best to get out the word that a new network is in town, spending lavishly for a promotional tour featuring giant signs and star appearances at the shopping malls where their audience tends to hang out. And they have hit the Web, mimicking the MySpace experience with a social-networking site called CW Lounge on the network Web site. Viewers can chat with stars and will have the opportunity to submit their own videos to the site.


  And to keep folks from using their TiVos to zap through commercials, the new network is offering two-minute "content wraps" (get it? CW) that will air throughout the show. The wraps use advertising to create a story line that runs throughout the evening. On opening night, Clairol Herbal Essences will sponsor hairstyle tips during America's Next Top Model.

Ostroff puts a positive spin on what looks like a mad dash to keep the TV audience on their sofas (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/11/06, "Are DVRs Killing Network TV?"). She says surveys CW executives conducted show that innovation and interactivity are key to reaching the coveted 18 to 24 demographic. "While other networks have to readjust to some of that, we're starting out fresh and can integrate it into what we do," she says. Ostroff says it may take a few months, but predicts the CW's ratings will grow this year. Of course, a few new hit shows wouldn't hurt.

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