CW chief Mark Pedowitz began this year planning for the possibility of writers strike disrupting the network’s 2020-21 season launch plans. All of the preparation to order a few extra unscripted series and to make opportunistic off-network acquisitions turned out to be invaluable when the curveball of the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March.
In the latest episode of Variety podcast “Strictly Business,” Pedowitz discusses the decision to delay the bulk of CW’s fall launch schedule until January. In a wide-ranging interview, the chairman-CEO of CW also reflects on the decision to move aggressively into ad-supported streaming nearly a decade ago, and what the end of CW’s Netflix output deal means for the company’s digital strategy.
“A couple of people thought we were being optimistic about January. I think we did the right thing,” Pedowitz told Variety. “We had to keep going for our affiliates and advertisers and viewers who need fresh programming. Going down to nothing but repeats would be the wrong message to send out.”
Among the acquisitions was the buzzy “Stargirl,” from the DC Universe streaming service that has been overshadowed by the launch of HBO Max, the streaming platform from CW co-parent WarnerMedia. Season one episodes are airing at present on CW and DC Universe while season two will be exclusive to CW.
A big question for CW this season is how the network will fare in the first new season since the end of its longstanding output deal with Netflix. The CW has benefitted from the “Netflix effect” of boosting ratings for active series through viewership of older seasons on Netflix. Pedowitz cites drama series “All American” as an example of a show that proved a “massive hit” through digital plays despite its more modest linear audience.
Now, CW is reclaiming “stacking rights” to its new series — namely the right to have all episodes available on its website to allow for binge viewing (with commercials) via its CWTV.com. Previously, CW could only offer viewers the five most recent episodes — a “rolling five” in streaming lexicon — per the terms of its Netflix deal.
CW got a taste of life after Netflix this past season with “Batwoman” and “Nancy Drew,” which were the first new shows to fall outside of the Netflix pact. Pedowitz said he was encouraged by the viewership stats so far. He notes that with ViacomCBS’ PlutoTV and NBCUniversal’s newly launched Peacock, the landscape in free streaming is getting crowded.
“We’ve been in the AVOD business for a long time. We were able to enjoying having premium content all to ourselves. But that that world has changed, you have real competition now,” Pedowitz said.
Older CW series will remain available on Netflix for some time. New shows will eventually migrate to HBO Max, which opened for business on May 27. For the long-term health of CW series, “a lot of it depends on how HBO Max works,” Pedowitz said. “I’m confident that they’ll get there.”
Pedowitz joined CW in April 2011 after nearly 20 years as a top business and production executive at ABC and Disney. His nearly 10-year tenure at CW makes him the longest-serving of the current crop of broadcast network chiefs.
Pedowitz said he feels the passage of time with the series finale back in January of “Arrow” — the DC Comics adaptation that put CW on the path to superhero success back in 2012 — and the upcoming swan song for the Winchester brothers of “Supernatural” after 15 seasons.
“I’m going to be sad to see it go,” said Pedowitz of “Supernatural.” The CW chief expects the show hopes the show can launch its final seven-episode run in the fall. The plan for the series to wind up its run last spring had to be revamped when production in Vancouver was shut down in March by the pandemic.
“Supernatural” still has to film its final two episodes, but Pedowitz is cautiously confident that will happen in time for the durable fantasy drama to go out with extra-special fanfare starting in September or October.
“We’re going to take the negative of what happened and turn it into a positive. We plan to make an event out of it,” Pedowitz said.
“Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.