Third season is key for broadcaster

Two years ago, stars and execs gathered on Warner Bros.’ Burbank backlot to celebrate the launch of the CW.

Gallons of confetti showered over the crowd, guests chugged Spartan-hued cocktails, Tyra probably talked about Tyra and the Blue Men Group hopped on stage to … wait, what were the Blue Men Group doing there anyway? No matter. The mood was meant to be festive, and everyone put on a good face as the lever was pulled — ceremonially launching the CW as the fifth broadcast network.

Yet it all felt a bit forced, and the smiles and cheers appeared to hide more panic and uncertainty.

Now, after two seasons, the net’s future is very much up in the air. It has farmed out its Sunday night to Media Rights Capital, it’s parting ways with top-rated wrestling franchise “Smackdown,” and will be counting on an update of “Beverly Hills, 90210” to provide some much-needed buzz.

It hasn’t been for lack of trying for CW, a network born out of the failure of weblets UPN and the WB. After a bumpy first transitional year, Dawn Ostroff and company developed a strong, critic-approved slate of series last season like “Reaper” and “Aliens in America,” as well as “Gossip Girl.”

But viewers still didn’t show up (although many seem to be watching “Gossip Girl” somewhere, just not on TVs hooked up to Nielsen meters).

With a much-talked about “90210” redux and another adaptation of a popular teen book series (“Surviving the Filthy Rich”), does this fall’s lineup rep the last, best hope for the CW — at least as we now know it?

Not helping matters: Sam Zell and his Tribune braintrust haven’t been effusive in their praise for the network. Zell’s crew is even starting to encroach on primetime, beginning with instigating the deal for MRC’s Sunday night programming block.

Tribune is the CW’s top affil, and although the netlet could fill that void (and already has in San Diego, where the CW lucked out and scored a VHF station after Tribune dumped the CW for Fox), it would rep a massive headache.

And although it was indeed time for CW to part ways with wrestling — it didn’t fit with the net’s core aud of young femmes — the grapplefest still gave some Nielsen heft to the netlet’s weekly averages.

The good news for the net: Despite all the talk, nothing’s going to happen in the immediate future. CBS owns a boatload of affils, after all, and needs to program them somehow. Plus, CW is already a lean, mean operation, and isn’t hemorrhaging money the way its predecessors were.

Meanwhile, CW’s new take on “90210” could open big, thanks to built-in awareness and nostalgic looky-loos (not to mention fans of Joe E. Tata, whose Nat character will still serve up wisdom and apple pie at the Peach Pit). And “Gossip Girl” may yet turn its buzz and pop culture status into actual ratings.

But if things are still looking dim come January, the pressure may build for co-owners Time-Warner and CBS to do something drastic. (Bringing the CW completely inside CBS? Informing affils that the network is going cable-only, save the CBS stations? Exec shuffles? “Girlicious” reunion?) Before they do, perhaps they ought to consider a few tweaks:

Blow up the brand. The name “CW” was concocted out of CBS and Warner Bros.’ first initials. Really. America’s top creative minds live in Hollywood, and that’s the best anyone could come up with? Young viewers aren’t flocking to destinations that scream Big Media these days. MySpace, Facebook and Google may be behemoths now, but they earned street cred by launching with scrappy, independent brands. A TV network geared toward that generation needs to do the same thing.

Change the way shows are programmed. No more scheduling as usual. How about a weeklong, 10-hour marathon of “Gossip Girl”? What about making “America’s Next Top Model” more immediate and interactive? How about some live shows, events or vignettes that tap into what’s going on at this very second?

Get music savvy. No, that doesn’t mean another “American Idol” rip-off. And while “Gossip Girl” boasts a cool soundtrack, it’s not a show about music. Take a cue from “Hannah Montana,” “High School Musical” and yes, that “Idol” show: It’s about music being a part of life, not just about people trying to be a part of music. The network could use a show that can be a springboard for a music phenomenon and spin off into several platforms — but all leading back to the CW.

Find some heart. In sexing things up with saucy shows like “Gossip” or going the irreverent route with shows like “Reaper,” CW hasn’t balanced things out with something a bit more earnest. The WB had “7th Heaven,” which quietly performed better than its sexier fare — but “Dawson’s Creek” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” packed a lot of emotion as well. Fox had “90210,” where the kids brought in a homeless veteran every Thanksgiving, or something like that. (Producers for the new “90210” have promised to cut the corn, but that’s what made the show so endearing.)

Where’s the drama that has viewers emotionally invested week after week? We’re talking orphans, or single moms, or troubled teens. Don’t think today’s Gen Y will stomach it? Check out what they’re watching on ABC Family, Nick and Disney.

Such shows, by the way, would help promote more “co-viewing” — getting teens and their parents in the same room — and please affils like Tribune, which would then be handed a few more older eyeballs for their 10 p.m. newscasts.

Get back into the comedy game. The young adults raised on Nick and Disney sitcoms are ready for something a bit more high-brow. Here’s a chance to be the network that owns the family comedy mantle — something ABC gave up long ago, and no one else picked up. You’d also again broaden out, adding a few more younger and older viewers to the mix. Meanwhile, where’s the irreverent, alternative comedy? The animation?

It’s hard not to feel sympathetic to the CW’s woes. The netlet launched right after programs started migrating online, changing forever how young viewers — CW’s aud — views their shows. What’s more, when the WB and UPN launched, the web was an infant, cable wasn’t producing much original fare, videogames were still mostly the domain of the geek set and cell phones were the size of a Subway hoagie — and weren’t yet a teen accessory.

These days, young viewers — juggling all those distractions, and more — don’t even know what a “broadcast network” is. If it really wants to the survive, CW — or whatever it rebrands as (even “SeeDub” would work) — needs to stop acting like one.

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