Network faces winter reality check

In 1988, a writers strike helped steer viewers to the fledgling Fox network. Now, the 2007 scribe shutdown could give another upstart, the CW, a needed boost.

With a large slate of reality shows ready to bow, CW is well-positioned to weather the drought of scripted fare about to hit Hollywood. Just as the 1988 reruns on other broadcasters gave a boost to Fox’s then-new (and now 20-year franchises) “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops,” CW is counting on a flurry of new reality shows to take hold once scripted series go on hiatus (or into repeats).

What’s more, because CW scripted programs draw fewer eyeballs than those on the big networks, a strike could give auds an incentive to check out repeats of the weblet’s dramas and comedies. After all, it’s not a rerun if you never watched the show in the first place.

“I definitely think it can work in our favor,” says CW topper Dawn Ostroff, who’s still quick to express her belief that “a long strike is not good for anybody,” as well as her preference that scripted shows return ASAP.

That said, if a strike lingers, “People will have the opportunity to check out our programming,” Ostroff admits. “And because we do have a lot of reality, we’re going to have a lot of original programming on the air.”

But even if a deal is made and writers head back to work, the CW is poised to improve its fortunes this midseason.

After a near-death experience at the start of the fall, the weblet — the love child of Leslie Moonves and Barry Meyer born out of the ashes of the now-defunct UPN and WB networks — is starting to make a mild recovery.

Shows like “Gossip Girl” are slowly entering the pop culture zeitgeist — something the WB didn’t experience until several seasons in — and upcoming reality entries such as “Crowned” and “Farmer Wants a Wife” are creating the kind of buzz that CW will need to spread if it hopes to attract its fickle young-adult target audience.

“People are starting to sample some of our new shows,” Ostroff says.

As calm and hopeful as Ostroff sounds now, she could be forgiven for having experienced a mild panic attack back in September.

Despite generating critical acclaim for its new crop of contenders, early ratings for CW’s fall slate were as thin and undernourished as some of the contestants on “America’s Next Top Model.”

Part of the problem: CW, with young-skewing shows airing up against heavyweights on the Big Four, has been particularly hard hit by the growing number of viewers using DVRs. Early, disappointing ratings for shows such as “Gossip Girl” and “Reaper” turned out to be much higher among its core 18-34 aud — up as much as 20% in some cases — when Nielsen added all same-week DVR playback.

It didn’t help that with no original summer programming, the Green weblet was virtually dark last summer, running repeats that barely registered.

“In the beginning of the season, it was hard for us,” Ostroff concedes.

But once DVR data started flowing in, the numbers didn’t look so bad. And in the case of “Gossip Girl,” the show has also benefited by the boatloads of buzz its young cast has been stirring up, along with the fact that it’s been a top 10 staple on the iTunes music store since its debut — and TV’s top-rated new show among teens.

“We see a show that we think is gaining momentum,” Ostroff says. “Obviously it’s the right type of show for our network in terms of subject matter. Wherever you go, people are talking about the show.”

“Reaper” has also been holding its own in the ratings, while “Top Model” has remained mighty. Nobody’s popping the champagne corks over at the C-Dub, but execs are finally starting to see their obsessive focus on young adult viewers pay off.

Now the CW is betting it can build on its minor triumphs of the fall by balancing costly scripted series with a heavy dose of unscripted product.

Even before the strike threatened to shut off the supply of sitcoms and dramas, CW execs had been planning to power through the rest of the season with a schedule bursting at the seams with reality.

The parade of unscripted programming begins Dec. 12 with the premiere of “Crowned,” a mother-daughter beauty pageant that will get a cable-style saturation launch. In a bid to make sure viewers sample the show at a time when holiday distractions abound, the net plans to air each episode of the show no less than three times per week.

Also in the pipeline: A relationship show called “Farmer Wants a Wife,” as well as a second season of the music-themed “The Pussycat Dolls Present.”

The net’s biggest hits, “America’s Next Top Model,” and another reality success, “Beauty and the Geek,” will return with new cycles later in winter.

“It’s smart programming,” one industry observer says of CW’s strategy. “The top shows on the network are reality. So the logical thing to do is to invest in the genre that’s performing the best.”

The CW’s move to throw away the scripts and get a little more real finally fulfills a goal that went largely unchecked until the final days of the WB and UPN.

Young viewers flock to reality TV, but both weblets were late to the party. It wasn’t until UPN launched “America’s Next Top Model” and the WB found “Beauty and the Geek” that each finally found some reality traction.

Now, CW is finally jumping with both feet into the arena, preparing to launch a flurry of entries that are already finding buzz and could very well give the net several more hit titles.

“ ‘Crowned’ is a real shot that works for us,” Ostroff says. “And we’ve got more exciting things in development.”

But while some observers think CW might do well to go all-reality, all the time — aping the focus of Bravo or MTV — Ostroff isn’t ready to go there.

“I think a healthy balance is what we’re looking for,” Ostroff says.Despite some success stories this season, there are still some gaping holes in the CW’s sked — and some question marks about the net’s long-term viability.

The CW so far has struck out on Sunday nights, where family show “Life is Wild” and unconventional, fully-sponsored lifestyle mag “CW Now” are struggling in a sea of repeats.

And on Mondays, while sophomore sitcom “The Game” is doing well, newcomer “Aliens in America,” despite impressing critics, hasn’t been found by auds.

Then there are the bigger-picture problems.

From a financial point of view, it’s been a much more difficult haul for the CW than the founding companies expected — or, at least, what they publicly promised when announcing the launch in 2006.

Cherry-picking the best programming from the WB and UPN, the CW’s ratings were supposed to be higher than its predecessors. They’re not.

The owners also said they believed the CW would be profitable almost immediately. It hasn’t been.

But those shortcomings don’t mean the CW is in danger of going away.

As long as there are TV stations that need programming, there’s a need for the CW. (News Corp. hasn’t given up on MyNet, even though it draws less than half the aud of the CW.)

After all, 50% owner CBS still has a bevy of former UPN affils that are now CW affils; and strong Tribune-owned CW outlets that were once home to the WB still need a network in primetime as well.

The CW also gives the otherwise non-network aligned Warner Bros. TV an outlet for its shows (which, granted, it must share with CBS Paramount Network TV), and it gives the Eye’s reality machine another, younger-skewing outlet to play with.

What’s more, both Time Warner and CBS only have to shoulder half of the netlet’s losses — but as a trade-off, they control broadcast network primetime shelf space, which is still a valuable commodity (and perhaps even more so in this fragmented marketplace).

With such an incomplete report card, it’s difficult to determine where the CW should be focusing most of its development energies.

More sudsy dramas? Quirky hour-long comedies like “Reaper”? Lots and lots of reality fare?

Hedging its bets, the CW has developed a little something of everything for 2008.

“There’s a really good balance of shows in development with a lot of different ideas,” Ostroff says. “We have to be prepared to go every which way.”

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