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The CW at 10: How the Network Found Its Footing With Superheroes & Strong Women

In early 2013, CW executives convened for a post-mortem on the quick demise of “Emily Owens, M.D.” Together, CW president Mark Pedowitz and core members of his team pored over ratings, reviews, and other data that had been gathered in an effort to figure out why the drama series didn’t resonate with its audience.

After a long and candid discussion, the group reached what Pedowitz now calls “the ‘Emily Owens’ moment.” It forced them to come to grips with what the CW should and shouldn’t be doing with its precious programming dollars.

“Emily Owens, M.D.” starred Mamie Gummer as a recent med school grad navigating her internship at a large hospital. It had a case-of-the-week-format, and it was taken off life support after 13 episodes.

“I thought it was a pretty good show — down the middle, but well done,” Pedowitz says. “What we learned the hard way was, nobody was coming to us for a procedural.”

Joining “Emily Owens” on the schedule that fall was another new drama, “Arrow,” based on DC Comics’ “Green Arrow” franchise. “Arrow” opened to the CW’s best numbers in three years, and built slowly but surely throughout the season.

By the time the network team reviewed its 2012-13 season performance, the road ahead was pretty clear. In plotting the course for the future, Pedowitz and company were mindful of what had traditionally moved the needle for the CW’s predecessors, the WB Network and UPN.

“When we took a deep look at what had made UPN successful, and the WB successful, it was high-concept and genre [shows],” Pedowitz says. “‘Star Trek’ worked on UPN. ‘Smallville’ worked on the WB. You take a hard look at that and say, ‘OK, this works here.’ And you start moving in that direction with your development.”

The honing of the CW’s focus has brightened the picture for the network as it marks its 10th birthday Sept. 20. The CW’s emphasis on properties drawn from the DC library, and such unconventional comedies as “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” has helped it compete in the multiplatform universe where brand-name titles thrive.

But it was the dawn of the digital era that shored up the CW’s future as a business for parent companies CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. In 2011, the year Pedowitz took the reins, the CW
set innovative output deals with Netflix and Hulu that provided the revenue and distribution boost that had eluded its predecessor nets. 

Finally, as the CW came out of its infancy, the infrastructure was in place to allow a young-adult-targeted network to survive in the broadcast big leagues.

“We’re a hybrid,” Pedowitz says. “We’re rooted in broadcast, but we’re also very rooted in the digital world. We’re a very unique premise in TV, and because of that we look at things differently.”

ORIGIN STORY

CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. surprised the TV business in January 2006 by unveiling a stealth plan to merge their money-losing rival nets into a single, jointly owned entity. The CW took its moniker from the first letter of each parent company’s name. Dawn Ostroff, formerly of UPN, was named head of programming, while John Maatta, formerly of WB, ran the business side.

The CW in its debut season was a hodgepodge of WB and UPN shows (with a few exceptions; notably, the Mara Brock Akil comedy “The Game,” which ran for four seasons on the CW and five more on BET). “Gossip Girl,” the CW’s first homegrown hit, arrived in the 2007-08 season.

By all accounts, the partnership between CBS and Warner Bros. on the CW has been strong. Both sides brought unique resources to the table. And in many ways, running the CW has been a learning experience that has pointed to the future of the network TV business.

The biggest benefit for CBS and Warner Bros. is having the CW serve as a launch pad for shows that make money through international sales and syndication, which now includes the windfall of digital licensing. Advertising sales are a big part of the revenue picture, but not the biggest.

“The CW is the case in point where the back end is more important than the front end,” says CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves. “When we started this joint venture, CBS came at it from the perspective of running a network, and the Warner Bros. guys came at it from the perspective of running a production company. That meant slight differences in how it should be treated as a programming service. As it ended up, they were more right than we were. The front end is still important — it’s still hundreds of millions of dollars in [advertising] revenue — but the amount of money you can make selling programming in secondary markets is becoming more important.”

Warner Bros. chairman/CEO Kevin Tsujihara calls the CW “a really important strategic outlet for us.”

The rise of the DC shows on the CW, which will include “Supergirl” as of this season, has been a crucial part of the studio’s long-term plan to mine more material from the DC vault.

The immediacy of TV, compared to feature films, offers a chance to see what characters resonate with lovers of the genre. And the crossover episodes among the shows are always crowd-pleasers.

“Having a lot of the DC shows on the CW has allowed us the flexibility to cross-pollinate within the shows. That’s exciting and important for us,” Tsujihara says. “From a strategic perspective for Warner Bros., it doesn’t get much more important than DC.”

THE TURNING POINT

The success of “Gossip Girl,” which ended its six-season run in 2012, set the tone for the CW as a magnet for teenaged girls and 20-something women. That made sense at the outset, when the fledgling net was building its identity. But by the time Pedowitz was recruited to succeed Ostroff in the spring of 2011, the tight focus on women had become confining for the network. There was even talk in the industry that CBS and Warners might pull the plug.

Moonves and Tsujihara maintain that a shutdown was never seriously considered. But Pedowitz had some heavy lifting to do after he joined.

“They said, ‘We know we have something here, but we know we’re not getting anywhere,’ ” Pedowitz says.

Aided by development executive VP Thom Sherman and marketing/digital executive VP Rick Haskins, Pedowitz gradually reshaped the network’s profile. The decision to go for a broader slice of the 18-49 demographic, and to bring men into the fold (cue those superheroes), has certainly opened up the playing field.

Pedowitz’s faith in the talents of “Emily Owens”-creator Jennie Snyder Urman yielded the popular telenovela adaptation “Jane the Virgin.” Greg Berlanti and his able team — including Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, Ali Adler, and Sarah Schechter  — are masters of the DC universe.

And the success of those shows and more has become a calling card for more prominent talents.

“We have the strongest Monday-Friday lineup we’ve ever had,” Pedowitz says.

At the same time, the network’s most important broadcast affiliates — those owned by Tribune Media and Sinclair Broadcast Group — have recently signed long-term renewal deals. CBS now owns eight CW affiliate stations, and those have seen significant improvements in ratings and revenue in the past few years.

From Moonves’ perspective, the CW’s maturation as a business was perfectly timed to help CBS and Warner Bros. take advantage of the global appetite for high-end content.

“Since we hit that turning point, the shows have become stronger, and the rationale for us keeping it has become stronger and stronger,” he says.

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