Like any 10-year-old racing toward adolescence, the WB has endured its fair share of growing pains.
The Frog has had to say goodbye to several of its signature series in the past few years, including the hit skein that put it on the map, “Dawson’s Creek.”
Net also has continued to face increasing cable competition as well as the aging of its charter young adult audience, and is still working to crack the comedy and reality arenas.
As a result, WB execs — who’d been accustomed to consistent growth — saw their ratings drop last year. Even though the net is already on the road to recovery, it still failed to wow audiences out of the gate this fall with its new offerings, including critical darling “Jack & Bobby.”
“It really boils down to finding the next generation of shows to replace the earlier stalwarts we built the network on,” says WB chairman Garth Ancier.
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But as the net enters its second decade, there’s still plenty of hop left in this Frog. For starters, the WB has managed to replenish its pipeline several times through the years, most recently with “Everwood” and sophomore hit “One Tree Hill.”
The WB’s overall mission hasn’t changed: creating buzzworthy series for the net’s core youth audience.
That’s a tall order to begin with. But the WB has to find a way continually to attract new young viewers and hold on to its aging fans, all while striving to remain relevant.
Where Fox decided to age up, the WB is content with keeping its focus squarely on the lucrative teen and young-adult demo.
“This network has been a No. 1 destination for people 12-34 for most of its entire life. … And we will always want that 12-34 audience in our tent,” says WB Entertainment prexy David Janollari, who joined the web last summer. “The ways in which we will attract them and keep them is with more unique shows.”
The WB has had more than its share of distinctive fare in the past 10 years. After stumbling out of the gate in 1995 with a mix of not-so-well received comedies, the Frog found its footing with high-class dramas. Beyond “Dawson’s Creek” — the net’s first big phenom — the WB won over critics with skeins such as “Felicity,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and, later, “Smallville.”
While it was probably too saccharine for jaded reviewers, family drama “7th Heaven” scored big with audiences after a slow start.
That’s not to say there haven’t been misses of late. Anyone remember “Tarzan,” which under a slew of publicity launched in 2003 but quickly faded? Or “Birds of Prey”?
“Part of the secret to our success was identifying unique visionaries to execute a number of incredible tentpole shows, one-of-a-kind breakout hits for them,” Janollari says. “It was pretty much a phenomenal accomplishment, not only putting on ‘7th Heaven’ but ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ galvanizing that young audience.”
Creating hit programming was just one of several challenges network founder Jamie Kellner and his team encountered when launching the WB. They spent the first several years after the launch solidifying the net’s distribution, chasing profitability and figuring out new ways to showcase its wares (through repurposing and other means).
And much like their earlier experience launching Fox, Kellner and Ancier had to fight for respect in the creative community. That included winning over the WB’s sister studio. It’s no accident that most of WB’s early hits (“7th Heaven,” “Dawson’s,” “Felicity”) didn’t come from Warner Bros. TV.
“They beat all the odds and established the fifth network,” Janollari says. “Jamie and Garth and Bruce (Rosenblum) and Barry (Meyer) and Susanne (Daniels) and Jordan (Levin) built something really strong and admirable and some would say miraculous. They not only built a network that works but thrives.”
Most of those startup issues have been resolved or addressed through the years. The WB boasts a solid station lineup, has hit profitability and now works hand in hand with the folks at WBTV.
“The one thing the WB has achieved is that there’s a great brand there,” Ancier says. “We have a leg up, particularly with women, in that age range. Other networks have other strengths. We have this core demo.”
With most of those early behind-the-scenes issues ironed out, the next 10 years will be focused even more on what appears onscreen. “I’ve stepped in here inheriting a job at a network that is working,” Janollari says. “I’m excited to see where I can help take this network over the next wave. Look at ‘Dawson,’ ‘Felicity,’ ‘Buffy,’ they’re all one of a kind, all completely unique and original visions. What I have to do in my job is look for the next original voice.”
Ancier agrees: “It’s still about the test of the head programmer to see a writer, see an idea, a piece of casting and say this is a great show and for the rest of us to support his vision and get that show on the air.”