In 2011, digital licensing deals with Netflix and Hulu rescued the CW from what was likely a path to extinction. The network had been losing money, and its parent companies — CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. — were growing impatient. The CW had been an early beneficiary of the spending on high-end TV content that has rained down on Hollywood’s largest studios during the past half-decade.
When it came time to renew those pacts this year, the decisions made by all of the players spoke volumes about how the SVOD business has evolved — and how the CW has reinvented itself with the help of a few superheroes and some plucky young women.
On July 5, Netflix and the CW unveiled a new agreement that is game changing for both sides. Netflix decided to step up its spending on the CW’s scripted-series slate, in exchange for collapsing the wait time for new seasons of each series to just eight days after a show wraps on the network. That compares to as much as four months or more under the previous deal. Netflix’s commitment could total up to well past the $1 billion mark, depending on the volume and longevity of the CW scripted series during the deal’s five-year lifespan.
Hulu, on the other hand, had struck an initial deal with the CW for next-day access to in-season episodes, but limited to the five most recent episodes. When renewal talks came around, Hulu pushed for a deal that would include all in-season episodes, an example of “stacking” rights that would likely have cost the CW its Netflix-library deal entirely.
The degree to which Hulu sought to stay in the CW business is subject to interpretation. But the pushback against the mere “rolling five” episodes underscores how much Hulu’s game plan has changed in the past five years.
The company jointly owned by Fox, Disney, and NBCUniversal is emphasizing its subscription product rather than the free, ad-supported service that existed when the original CW-Hulu deal was first made. Hulu’s paying customers want to have bingeable access to all available episodes, not a dim sum sampling of the last five bites.
Netflix, meanwhile, is said to have considered the option of offering a few in-season episodes for each show in addition to carrying past seasons in full. But that wouldn’t have come cheaply. Netflix found victory in chopping down significantly on the wait time for new seasons to land in full on the service.
For the CW, the decision to forgo an in-season licensing deal with an outside SVOD platform is a bet that it can do as well or better by funneling all of that viewing through its own ad-supported CWTV.com website and CW-branded app. In 2011, the CW needed the ubiquity of keeping its brand name shows in front of its youthful audience on Hulu, as well as on its home website. Five years on, the CW has more buzzy hits in its arsenal. The network is banking on fans of “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Crazy Ex Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin” and others being able to search their way to CWTV.com, which will be the only authorized purveyor of in-season episodes, also on a rolling five basis.
Then as now, the deal-making process involved careful choreography between the needs of the CW, its parent studios, and Netflix, with CBS Corp. chief licensing officer Scott Koondel and Warner Bros. Domestic TV Distribution president Ken Werner leading the charge.
It’s understood that the CW carved out options in the Netflix deal for turning its network feed into an OTT service should the need arise to replace any broadcast affiliates. That’s a level of flexibility that the CW didn’t have under its old SVOD deals — and something it may not need now that it has set long-term affiliate renewals with its core local station partners, Tribune Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group. CW also gains new flexibility to work with OTT distributors such as Roku.
Koondel praised his counterparts at Netflix for their willingness to rewrite the business template in a way that worked well for both sides. “They were completely unselfish in their approach to this deal,” he said. “They realized that what’s good for the CW will be good for them, too.”