Brand entrance

Execs race to put a face on the CW for its debut

With nine weeks to go before the May network upfront presentations, execs at the CW — the love child of UPN and the WB — are eagerly prepping for their coming-out party as a new network.

Trouble is, they’re not quite sure what their debutante will look like.

So far, UPN-turned-CW topper Dawn Ostroff and her team haven’t offered up many specifics regarding the new net’s brand, opting instead to focus on which viewers they’ll target (18- to 34-year-old trendsetters, she says).

So far, the most visible decision CW execs have made is ousting Will Toale in favor of Justin Hartley as star of “Aquaman.”

While its four drama pilots are already in production, netlet is far behind on picking up laffers. The netlet meets with advertisers this week to give a sneak peak of its development — but as of the middle of last week, it had only greenlit one comedy pilot, plus a “Girlfriends” spinoff.

Sure, Ostroff has the luxury of cherry-picking the best of both UPN and the WB. If she wanted to, the new net could launch with only returning skeins.

But showing off pre-sold brands such as “Smallville” and “America’s Next Top Model” only gets you so far. Ad buyers and journos want to get a sense of what the fledgling CW is all about.

“You can’t go to an upfront with the same exact programming,” says one top CW exec. “It’s important to inject some new blood into a lineup.”

Producing buzzworthy pilots in time for May won’t be easy, since the CW is behind its rivals in casting and staffing pilots. Ostroff concedes the handicap, but also notes that UPN was traditionally late, having picked up “Everybody Hates Chris” in the 11th hour last year.

But the CW’s vagueness only leaves Hollywood and Madison Avenue types wondering if the CW will be more like the WB, UPN or none of the above.

Endeavor partner Ari Greenburg argues that both the Frog and UPN had the most success when they embraced younger talent. He hopes the new net continues down that path.

“The thing that excites me most about the CW is the possibility of having a network that is writer-driven, where (tyro scribes) get a shot to do innovative programming and run their own shows from the start,” he says.

Overall, most industry types think the new net should resemble the WB of a few years ago, when advertisers shelled out huge premiums for skeins with small ratings but huge buzz among young teen girls (think “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Felicity”).

“The WB was making money hand over fist when they were taking advantage of that niche,” one rival webhead says.

There are signs the CW is using just such a strategy. Drama pilot “Palm Springs” comes from Kevin Williamson, creator of “Dawson’s Creek” — which put the WB on the map.

“It was fun to be at the WB (close to that net’s launch), and it will be fun to be part of a new network again,” Williamson says. “I’m the envy of my friends around town — ‘You’re lucky, you’re only one of four pilots,’ they say. But I’ll be interested to see how it all plays out — they already have so many shows.”

Another drama, “Split Decision,” comes from Aaron Spelling — whose shingle produced the Frog’s top hit, “7th Heaven,” as well as “Charmed.” And, of course, “Aquaman” was created by Miles Millar and Al Gough, the duo who made “Smallville” a staple for the WB.

Once the CW does determine its identity, Ostroff & Co. still have to get the word out to the masses.

It’s expected that much of the CW’s promo resources will be aimed at letting people know there’s a new network in town — with shows they already know and love. Parent companies Time Warner and CBS Corp. will help with everything from saturation spots on CBS Radio stations to a potential “Aquaman” trailer attached to summer tentpole “Superman Returns.”

“We have two big, big brothers who are focused on bolstering us and making us as big as they can,” Ostroff says.

Indeed, a supportive family might help with those awkward coming-out expectations.