CW builds for the future

Analysis: New shows are promising, but net needs to be more creative

“The Vampire Diaries” gave CW the big hit it needed last season, but the netlet still faces an uphill battle.

As the youngest-skewing broadcaster, its challenges in enticing viewers to watch TV the traditional way — as opposed to on their own timetables via DVRs, online, mobile phones, etc., — are more heightened.

But before CW figures a better way to monetize the viewers it knows are watching its popular shows, it needs to find more of them; after all, the TV biz still comes down to hit series.

Fortunately, the net has added two promising dramas — “Hellcats” and “Nikita” — which will air this fall in the timeslots behind its top shows. In success, they will allow corporate bosses CBS and Warner Bros. the luxury of taking more programming chances and exploring new ways of making CW, which still lacks much of an identity, seem more like a real network.

One thing that stands out regarding CW’s lineup this fall is that this is easily the most diverse, yet cohesive schedule in the net’s five seasons. After dropping Sunday and scaling back to a 10-hour primetime sked last year, it has zeroed in on five compatible pairs of hourlong shows across the weeknights.

Monday’s “90210” and “Gossip Girl” offer viewers a look at snotty, rich brats — on both coasts! Neither is exactly a hit, but they have always seemed like shows that might thrive by being paired together.

Tuesday’s lineup teams a vet (“One Tree Hill”) and a second-year show (“Life Unexpected”) that are more middle-America in sensibility.

“Hill,” the former WB series heading into its eighth season, is being sacrificed in a sense opposite Fox’s “Glee,” which also has a young target audience. But “Life,” which has been well-received by critics, represents a growth opportunity for the net (airing in the place of last year’s failed “Melrose Place” redux); it also stands out as the only scripted drama for young femmes in Tuesday’s 9 p.m. hour, and could pick up viewers from Fox, which transitions from its smash high-school musical comedy to a pair of new comedies at 9.

Wednesday finds longtime reality skein “America’s Next Top Model” leading into college cheerleading drama “Hellcats.” The likable newcomer exhibits a “Bring It On” vibe and appears to be the net’s best shot at solving a troubling time period.

Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and ABC’s “Modern Family” will provide tough competish for its target women 18-34 audience, but “Hellcats” should be able to carve out a decent-sized young femme aud.

On Thursday, “Vampire Diaries” — which often led its hour among females under 35 last season — will be followed by “Nikita,” a rather dark spy/assassin series. “Nikita” will be operating in an hour crowded with dramas for young women, including “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Fringe,” but it’s also one of the few CW dramas that could also bring in some men.

And Friday, “Smallville” returns for its 10th and final season, followed by “Supernatural,” which migrates from Thursday. The pairing worked before on Thursday, and should offer the net its best chance at attracting the night’s smallish available young-adult audience.

(Give CW credit for abandoning “Top Model” repeats in the Friday 9 p.m. hour, which it aired a year ago, for a first-run scripted show; if you’re gonna program just 10 hours a week, they should all count.)

The net’s fall rollout plan, which sees the Wednesday and Thursday lineups debut two weeks before the traditional premiere week, makes a lot of sense. The 8-10 p.m. hours that CW programs are more competitive than ever these days, and it must look for ways to cut through the clutter.

At least in the first half of September, when its major rivals are airing mostly repeats and the conclusions of summer reality series, CW may become a first or second choice for viewers. And if auds are hooked early, they may be more inclined to watch CW shows live, or at least same-night, which would help from a ratings and advertising perspective.

Looking ahead, if CW is going after a niche cable-like audience, it can’t continue to play by the broadcaster’s rule book. The slightly early premieres are one way of standing out, but CW must be even more creative. As a network without a news or sports division, and one that basically goes dark for three months in

the summer, some out-of-the-box thinking — and loosening of the corporate purse strings — is required to get new viewers to stop by for a visit.

For example, why not air a few episodes of “90210” or “Gossip Girl” in July and launch a summer tryout show behind it?

A reality show like the current “Plain Jane,” for example, should be doing better than the 0.4 rating it’s been averaging. But it debuted amid a sea of reruns in a summer season that has seen the CW struggle to average 1 million viewers and often finish behind 10 or more cable networks in the weekly rankings.

Elsewhere, CW may have abandoned comedy a few years back, but it should experiment in the half-hour format. Perhaps a “Degrassi”-type serialized show stripped across the weeknights for a summer run, or how about mixing and matching various half-hours (comedy, improv, newsmag, etc.,) in place of repeats in months like December and March.

Or how about experimenting with the telepic format? It’s assumed that the 12-34 crowd is too impatient to watch an old-school movie-of-the-week, but why not try something in shorter duration — perhaps with one of the network’s young stars serving as host?

Such a move would also help brand the network, as CW still seems more like a collection of shows than a bona fide network.

Bottom line

In “Hellcats” and “Nikita,” CW stands a decent shot at adding two long-term players to its roster. But if these shows don’t work, you wonder what ever will.

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