The CW: Upfront About Its Ambition

By squarely targeting a youthful audience and embracing New Media, the network aims to be a lifestyle outlet, not merely an entertainment one

From the outside, last week's upfronts—the TV network's annual equivalent of a mating dance with advertisers—must have looked like one big party. At the NBC gathering, Jerry Seinfeld had 'em rolling in the aisles at Radio City Music Hall, yucking at the promos for Bee Movie, his upcoming animated flick, which will be airing this season on the Peacock Network (GE).

At ABC's (DIS) shindig, Mark Idelicato, the 12-year-old co-star of Ugly Betty, inexplicably took the stage in a tux and top hat to sing "One Singular Sensation" from A Chorus Line. So, yes, cheesy and nostalgic were in. But when advertisers left the week-long pitch session of "sure hits," the network that generated all the buzz was The CW, which frankly had little to sing about last year.

You remember The CW (O.K., maybe some of you don't). It's the merged remnants of two money-losing networks—Warner Bros.' (TWX) WB and CBS's (CBS) UPN—which opened up shop last September. In it's first season, it finished in sixth place (behind Spanish-language network Univision in total viewers). And while it lured a nice number of younger viewers, it still lost an estimated $3.8 million in its first three months, according to CBS financial documents.

But The CW may be on the verge of making its move. Coming out of New York, advertisers tell me they were ga-ga over at least three new CW shows.

MTV Redux?

In one, Reaper, a 20-year-old is a bounty hunter for the devil. Catty prep-school teens mix it up in Gossip Girl, while a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim exchange student descends on a Wisconsin town in Aliens in America.

Hey, I don't make this stuff up. But the shows are focused like a laser on the 18- to 34-year-old audience that The CW is chasing and that advertisers love.

With a little luck—read, a couple more decent scripts as good as the pilots—The CW could have some hits. "They're programming to their core audience of young adults," says Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of research for ad buyer Horizon Media. "They're trying to become the MTV of broadcast TV."

No doubt. And that ambition extends further than just the stuff that The CW intends to put on the air. In one of the freshest approaches from a network in years, The CW has also repositioned itself as a lifestyle outlet rather than just an outlet for couch potatoes. Viewers can create their own online avatars, becoming whatever bitchy posse member of Gossip Girl they prefer. Virtual Gossip Girl members can attend exclusive concerts and screenings online.

Digital Pitches

"These are the shows that will define us," says CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff. "They have attitude, and they're made for people who have other things going on in their life." Indeed, Ostroff and company may well be developing the first New Media broadcast network, one that looks as much outward at its audience as into its own development schedule.

One show, Online Nation, is an Internet version of America's Funniest Home Videos, featuring 30 minutes of user-generated content from online sites.

It's about time that someone in the TV world realized that folks don't live and die by the tube—especially those who don't yet have kids or a mortgage payment. Those should be CW people, and The CW is clearly making a play for them.

Ostroff says the network's marketing efforts will be heavily geared to online and digital pitches, including one campaign in which viewers will be able to text message their thoughts to billboards promoting the shows.

It will help, of course, if the shows are hot enough to keep the young and the restless from filtering off to DVDs or, worse yet, Fox (NWS). (The CW folks seem thrilled, by the way, that Fox seems to have gone mainstream, and older, with shows like American Idol and House.) To its credit, The CW has kept the shows that appeal to its 18- to 34-year-old core audience of mostly women: America's Next Top Model is back, as is Beauty and the Geek. Gone are Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven, Veronica Mars, and Reba, the one-time favorite of my over 34-year-old wife.

Beyond the Bubble

So far, advertisers seem to think The CW is onto something. Ad agency MediaVest has bought up all the available slots on The CW's new Sunday night show, CW Now, a supposedly hip, fast-paced news and entertainment show aimed at, big surprise, 18- to 34-year-olds. In keeping with the new TiVo-loving younger crowd, those slots won't be commercials but segments in which products from companies like Procter & Gamble, Kraft Foods, and Wal-Mart (WMT) will be stitched into the program. Score one for the advertisers—but I'm not sure I'm gonna love seeing stories that could end up looking like thinly disguised infomercials.

Granted, like CW Now, a lot of what the network is rolling out seems awfully experimental. Will folks warm to wall-to-wall product placements for a half-hour each Sunday, or grainy online stuff some guy in Des Moines put on YouTube? And will avatars bring folks to Gossip Girl? Who knows?

But I'm glad someone in NetworkLand is stepping out from their bubble and trying to figure it out. A few hit shows wouldn't hurt. And if the buzz is right, we're going to be hearing about the devil's bounty hunter, a Muslim in Wisconsin, and The CW this season.

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