Network zeroes in on drama to find its identity

Its overall ratings may suggest otherwise, but it’s been a pretty good season for the CW network.

After jettisoning the popular but brand-busting wrestling franchise “Friday Night Smackdown” and then cutting loose its ratings-challenged Sunday lineup that was outsourced to indie producers, the young network can focus on its core assets Monday through Thursday.

And on these nights it has zeroed in on dramatic storytelling geared toward an urban, young-female audience, with shows like “Gossip Girl,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “90210″ helping forge an identity.

Sure, there’s room for improvement in various timeslots across the week, but the move away from wrestling and comedy is a smart start. And for the first time in its three-year history, you get the sense that CW is closer to flourishing than folding.

Although the loss of wrestling has resulted in a year-to-year loss of about 15% in broad categories like adults 18-49 and total viewers, CW is flat year-to-year in its target audience of adults 18-34, according to Nielsen.

And on a Monday-through-Thursday basis (which takes wrestling and comedy out of the mix), the net is up 7% in adults 18-34 and an impressive 18% in its core women 18-34 audience.

While it doesn’t pay much attention to 35-plus categories, one area for CW to address is its poor performance among teens. Monday through Thursday, the net is off 18% among the 12-17 crowd, and it could really use a show that is relevant to today’s teens (and, sorry, that isn’t “Gossip Girl.”).

Here’s a closer look at CW at midseason:

HIGHLIGHTS: The Monday tandem of “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill” has worked nicely despite some brutal competish of late. In the fall, CW stood as the No. 1 network on Mondays in women 18-34, and “Gossip Girl” shot up by 35% in adults 18-34 vs. its performance on Wednesdays a year ago.

And “One Tree Hill” has defied the odds by leaping by 21% in 18-34 in its sixth season.

“90210,” which came back to earth after its monster preem last September, has nicely improved the Tuesday 8 p.m. hour for CW, while “America’s Next Top Model” consistently wins its Wednesday hour in 18-34.

And Thursday has been a nice surprise, as “Smallville” remains one of the net’s top draws and “Supernatural” has actually grown some in 18-34 on a night when most other vets are fading.

On a percentage basis, CW has some of the shows with the largest jumps when all same-week DVR playback is included. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as every net is struggling to monetize such delayed viewing.

LOWLIGHTS: Sunday has been a bugaboo for CW since its inception, and the programming supplied by Media Rights Capital bombed from the outset. Ratings have improved since the net started running movies, but a rethink is clearly required.

This may be CW’s last hurrah in comedy, as “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game” have predictably struggled in their move to Friday, and the net no longer has a comedy development division. The night is off 50% in 18-34 from last year’s “Smackdown,” but don’t look for the net to address too many resources here until all of its other weeknights are clicking.

Lost behind fellow newbie “90210,” “Privileged” hasn’t clicked in the ratings. An off-putting title didn’t help, but it’s also a smaller kind of show that doesn’t mesh well with what’s working for the net.

MIDSEASON CHANGES: Rather than take a chance on a late-season reality newcomer, CW has opted to play it conservatively this spring. It ordered more episodes of its top series to minimize the number of repeats and is kicking off the second season of “Reaper,” which will play March through May in the tough Tuesday 8 p.m. slot opposite “American Idol.”

The “Reaper” skedding make sense, though, since it has more male appeal and could hold up reasonably well. And it allows “90210″ to get away from “Idol” at 9 p.m., although there it faces brutal competish for female eyeballs.

A LOOK AHEAD: Advertisers and affiliates seem to like the net’s approach to drama, so CW has smartly ordered more high-concept pilots. A spinoff of “Gossip Girl,” a new take on “Melrose Place” and a vampire drama are in the works.

Among current shows, “Privileged” deserves a relaunch, and vets “One Tree Hill,” “Smallville” and “Supernatural” could all return.

CW should brand its nights to help with marketing, and it should look at ways to use the letters “C” and “W” to connote something that resonates with its core aud.

And then there’s scheduling, and the net needs to continue to look for creative ways and timeframes to avoid the major nets’ big guns. It might consider, for example, running only returning dramas October through April and launching new shows June through September.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite so-so overall ratings, CW finds itself perhaps in its strongest position to date.

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