Network survives first season

It’s crunch time for the CW.

The lovechild of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. has survived its first season, a little battered but still kicking. It didn’t turn a profit in its first season (contrary to what its leaders had boldly predicted), but it also didn’t suffer the sort of wholesale viewer rejection that some believed was a very real possibility.

That’s largely because the net deliberately avoided serving up much new programming during season one, focusing its energies on getting auds to tune in their old WB and UPN faves on CW. It worked well enough: Ratings for the new net were about the same as what either the WB or UPN had been averaging.

“Last year was a year for viewers to find a new network and for us to find ourselves,” says CW Entertainment prexy Dawn Ostroff.

Next season promises to be tougher.

The CW is desperately looking for its “Dawson’s Creek” — a buzzworthy show that can help put it on the map as its own entity.

THE STRATEGY

With “Gilmore Girls” and “7th Heaven” both goners, it’s a sure bet CW will launch at least two dramas in the fall. Unless the net chooses to move its Monday comedy block, the new blood will likely be paired with reality skeins on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thursdays should stay stable at 8, with “Smallville” leading into either the returning “Supernatural” or a new skein.

Biggest scheduling dilemma for CW execs is what to do about Sunday nights. With “Heaven” closed for good, net has no incumbent players on a night that has seriously underperformed.

Monday’s comedy block will have an opening or two, with “All of Us” dead and “Girlfriends” not yet renewed.

It’s possible CW will shift some laffers to Sunday, giving the idea of comedy on the night another try following last fall’s short-lived foray into weekend laffers.

And while “America’s Top Model” and “Beauty and the Geek” have traditionally spelled each other, CW could opt to put both on in the fall. Reality has performed very well for the net this season, so it makes sense for it to load up on the genre.

THE PLAYERS

Biggest buzzmaker for the CW next fall will be “Gossip Girl,” the sudsy hour about rich kids in New York from “The OC” creator Josh Schwartz. It’s hyper-targeted toward the net’s young female audience, but broad enough to be CW’s first potential breakout hit.

“We could definitely use a home run,” Ostroff says, calling “Gossip” a show that’s “more than just a typical soap.”

Another pilot long considered a favorite to land a slot on the sked is the Kevin Smith-helmed “Reaper.” It’s a combination horror/comedy hour about a man who ends up chasing souls for Satan.

And don’t count out the untitled South Africa-set family drama based on the Blighty format “Wild at Heart.” It could be the sort of family fare the net needs on Sundays.

On the comedy front, “Hell on Earth” — about a mean girl who gets a second chance at life — sounds like a contender. Execs also have high hopes for “Dash 4 Cash,” a laffer about a fake reality show.

CW is also developing a slew of real reality shows. Mother-daughter beauty pageant “Crowned” is a fall contender, while dating show “Farmer Takes a Wife” could air midseason.

Then there’s “CW Now,” a sort of “Entertainment Tonight” for the See-Dub generation. It could be used to fill some holes midseason or perhaps in the summer.

THE QUESTION MARKS

“Veronica Mars” keeps going on and off the bubble, at least according to the Internet. In truth, it’s hard to understand why the net would give such a clear underperformer another shot. If “Mars” rises from the dead, it’s a sign CW is playing it safe.

Frosh laffer “The Game” is technically a question mark, though Ostroff has been clear that she considers the show a success. As for “Girlfriends,” it should be back if the net can make financial sense of it.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Media coverage of the CW hasn’t been kind, with national mags like Newsweek taking shots at the net’s failure to wow.

Fact is, given the tough terrain for the Big Four veteran nets — all of whom saw some of their biggest hits suffer notable ratings losses this season — it’s actually kind of impressive that CW didn’t collapse upon premiere.

Ostroff also didn’t really have much time to develop new shows last year. Emerging with two modest success stories — “The Game” and reality show “Pussycat Dolls Present” — should count for something.

Exec knows there won’t be any excuses this time next year if the CW hasn’t found at least one hit to call its own.

“This is the season for us to establish our identity a little further, to extend the brand,” Ostroff admits. “We need to find a show that’s going to get our young audience excited.”

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