Young CW Still Striving for Popularity

Draws Desirable Crowd, but Affiliate Provides for Possible Cancellation

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NEW YORK ( -- Spotted: a young, sexy TV network desperately strutting its stuff.
Teen Soaps: Network promotes '90210' in an effort to stay afloat.
Teen Soaps: Network promotes '90210' in an effort to stay afloat. Credit: The CW

That not-so-blind item is, of course, referencing the CW, which hopes it is about to see a turnaround in its fortunes. It's promoting the heck out of "Gossip Girl" and a remake of "Beverly Hills, 90210," even as media buyers and a prominent affiliate make preparations in case a cancellation is in its future.

Tribune's 'backup plans'
The CW enjoyed a heady first week of its fall season, but it has navigated some rough waters. Executives at Tribune Co., which operates 13 CW affiliates, said in a recent conference call with lenders that they had developed "very solid backup plans" in case the CW doesn't fare well this season and have started to downplay the CW brand in some markets, promoting local TV station brands instead. Should the CW's hopes dim, "we believe that we can put on better programming with other people's money and a more profitable business model," said Randy Michaels, Tribune's chief operating officer.

Other smoke signals: CW has turned over its Sunday nights to a third-party programmer and has taken several weeks to replace Bill Morningstar, its longtime head of ad sales.

Since its September 2006 launch, the CW has tried to position itself as a great way to reach the unreachable: savvy teens and 20-somethings who are experts at avoiding the ad messages that support free programs sent via broadcast TV. The CW has rolled out a series of innovations, namely "content wraps," or ads that emulate entertainment programs, and 10-second ads called "cwickies." It also has plans for "cwingers," short-form content that aims to lure viewers from TV to the web and back again. And in the season premiere of "Gossip Girl," Vitaminwater was featured prominently as the sponsor of an exclusive party attended by many of the characters. Its name was mentioned several times, and one character even asked for a specific flavor. The company's ad also got prominent placement during one of the ad breaks.
'Gossip Girl'
'Gossip Girl' Credit: The CW

Advertisers like having the CW on hand because it gives them leverage in dealing with Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS. And of course, there's that hip youth factor. "People are still pulling for them because of the younger demographic that they attract," said Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. "Even though the numbers are a little smaller, we are hoping to build upon that."

Multiple-media consumers
Unfortunately, many of the CW's target viewers are immersed in other media, so its innovations didn't necessarily translate into ratings increases last season. The network even stopped streaming "Gossip Girl" episodes online last season to drive viewers to watch it instead on TV.

The CW has spent the past several months retrenching. It had to work through a "complicated" first season, said Dawn Ostroff, president-entertainment, when it was saddled with shows from two shuttered networks then faced last season's writers strike. The hodgepodge schedule diluted what would make the network more distinctive, she said.

Now, said John Maatta, CW's chief operating officer, "we're going to have a laser-like focus" on speaking to young women. Dropping WWE wrestling from last season allows CW to run a schedule that has strong female appeal Monday through Friday, he said. Still, "these businesses take time." He also said the network is poised to announce a replacement for Mr. Morningstar.

This season has started with a sunny burst. The season premiere of "Gossip Girl," which aired on Labor Day, reached 3.4 million viewers -- the show's second-highest total. It also notched its best ratings among adults 18 to 34, women 18 to 34 and adults 18 to 49, the network said. A two-hour series premiere of "90210" reached an average of 4.9 million viewers.
Corporate support
The network's corporate parents, CBS Corp. and Time Warner's Warner Bros., seem inclined to keep the operation going. "We support the network, believe in it and are committed to its future," read a letter sent to CW staffers from CBS's Leslie Moonves and Nancy Tellem and Warner Bros.' Barry Meyer and Bruce Rosenblum. Speaking to investors earlier this year, Mr. Moonves, CBS's CEO, acknowledged disappointing ratings but said: "The losses are relatively minor for a company like ours or a company like Time Warner, and it helps our TV stations. Plus we syndicate the content as well on the back end, so you look at it in its totality, and it's a very different equation than it may appear."

As for Tribune, the company wants "CW to succeed," said spokesman Gary Weitman, and is "very pleased" with the early performance of "Gossip Girl" and "90210." "We are hopeful it portends great things for the full season."
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