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The CW Looks to the Future as Its Parent Companies Evolve

It’s been more than 13 years since netlets The WB and UPN joined forces to form The CW network. The joint venture between Warner Bros. and CBS continues to hum along as a broadcast home for fare from both companies’ in-house TV studios, such as upcoming series “Batwoman” and “Nancy Drew.” But as each owner faces ownership and management transition, insiders at The CW wonder how much longer they’ll report to two corporate parents.

A CW co-ownership re-examination isn’t exactly the top priority right now at WarnerMedia or CBS Corp., given the more pressing issues facing the two companies. But after they complete their dramatic evolutions — WarnerMedia under new parent AT&T and CBS in an expected re-merger with Viacom — the fate of The CW is expected to eventually be on the table.

Internal speculation has been on two scenarios that would see one of the co-owners finding the right price to buy the other one out and taking sole ownership of The CW. One possibility has WarnerMedia, which has found much success with DC Comics-branded series like “The Flash” and “Arrow,” deciding it wants full control of a broadcast network (something that CBS already has). WarnerMedia plans to use The CW as an incubator for its HBO Max streaming service, just as CW off-network fare like “Riverdale” has been an audience driver for Netflix, and may want to align it closer to its HBO and Turner networks. In that scenario, CBS — which owns several CW stations — could remain as a key affiliate partner.

On the flip side, Viacom-CBS may decide that having two broadcast networks gives it more leverage in a world where bigger is better, particularly given how the younger demographics of The CW balance out CBS’ older audience. If WarnerMedia continues to trim its channel businesses, CBS could buy out its partner.

Insiders warn that such an ownership shift might not happen for several years. Although its corporate parents often bump heads on other issues — AT&T’s DirecTV is in a carriage spat with CBS’ owned television stations — the CW partnership has been fairly smooth, with both sides reaping benefits. “The model is working for both parent companies,” CW president Mark Pedowitz tells Variety. “For each of the parent companies, it’s a little different. But they’ve both come to the conclusion that The CW, because of the strength of the broadcast channel and the strength of its digital, has become imperative.”

Yet in Hollywood, joint ventures rarely last forever. CBS recently bought out Lionsgate to take full control of the Pop TV network. USA Network was once co-owned by Viacom and MCA, but is now solely a part of NBCUniversal. Viacom acquired HBO’s 50% stake of Comedy Central in 2003 for $1.23 billion. Disney took full control of Hulu, once jointly operated with 21st Century Fox, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal.

The CW has gone through several strategic transformations since its 2006 launch. At the start of the decade, its future was in doubt as ratings dipped and the network bled money. Then came landmark streaming deals with Netflix and Hulu in 2011 — pouring licensing dollars into The CW while also exposing its programming to a young, streaming audience. A 2016 renewal with Netflix was even more lucrative.

“The 2011 Netflix-Hulu deal was historic,” Pedowitz says. “It gave us time to put our strategy together. I’m forever thankful for that.”

Warner Bros. TV and CBS TV Studios have since done well producing for streaming outlets and now have their own. Moving forward, just as The CW currently populates Netflix with its hit shows, CBS and Warner Bros. hope to do the same with their streamers. Because Warner Bros. and CBS opted not to renew The CW’s deal with Netflix, future CW shows will go to HBO Max and CBS All Access — depending on which company’s studio is behind the program. 

That means new series “Nancy Drew,” from CBS TV Studios, will have its second run on CBS All Access. And the DC Comics-inspired “Batwoman” and “Archie”-universe adjacent “Katy Keene,” both of which are from Warner Bros. TV, will head to HBO Max.

It’s a risky gambit for The CW, which has benefited from Netflix audiences seeking out original episodes on the network after bingeing a show’s previous season via the streamer. “It was a beneficial relationship for both parties,” Pedowitz says.

Now with all new shows going forward, The CW will have rights to the series’ complete stack of episodes to stream on its CWTV.com and CW Seed websites all season long (and up until a month before the next season’s launch). The network’s streaming sites are ad-supported, and Pedowitz believes those ad dollars will make up for some of the money it’s no longer getting from Netflix. 

“It means we’re in further control of our destiny and controlling our in-season rights,” he says. “Now we have to learn how to bring viewers who might have watched our shows on Netflix to come to The CW. 

“It’s a great transitional challenge,” he adds. “I think we’re all up to it. … We’re a far healthier place now than we were 10 years ago.” 

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