Thursday, October 4, 2012

Guest Essay- Merrill Barr asks: Is The CW about to take control of the television landscape?

The year was 1987 and the television landscape was dominated by three major broadcasting networks, CBS, ABC and NBC. Seeing an opportunity to take hold of a specific niche of the viewing public, young viewers to be precise, media mogul Rupert Murdoch took an investment $325 million to launch what is now known simply as FOX.  Through forward thinking innovation in programming like edgy sitcoms (Married… With Children), barrier breaking sketch shows (In Living Color), animated sitcoms in prime time (The Simpsons), young lead characters (21 Jump Street), reality television (COPS), prime time soap-operas (Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place), dark science fiction (The X-Files) and a first down line during NFL games, FOX has since become the biggest name on the Nielsen charts every season (American Idol).  

Twenty five years later the television landscape is in a state of flux. As the younger viewers that made FOX the juggernaut it is are starting to move out of the 18-49 bracket, the new generation now has a plethora of programming to watch outside of the broadcast landscape. FX, Showtime, SyFy, USA, HBO, MTV, TNT, Discovery, TBS have made it impossible for the “Big 4” to maintain the large numbers they once commanded. But one broadcast network has begun to show signs of the forward thinking process that made FOX a giant.  In 2005 Viacom owned UPN and Warner Brothers owned WB announced the merging of their resources to create a new network now known as The CW. Many called the move psychotic (they said this about FOX, too) and a sad attempt to save two networks many considered dead. And like its predecessor, many considered The CW to be DOA. 

But what The CW has seen, and what the “Big 4” are going to learn in five to ten years, The CW is the most forward thinking network of our time.  When the network launched they didn’t just sit aside and retain the hit programming of UPN and The WB (Smallville, Veronica Mars, One Tree Hill, Gilmore Girls, Supernatural) they immediately took to the development slate and made calculated risks on a wide variety of programming all with one commonality, they skewed young.  While some of these gambles ultimately failed (Runaways, Reaper, Hidden Palms), some paid off in a big way (The Vampire Diaries, 90210, Melrose Place, Gossip Girl, Nikita). The CW found a market that has long been forgotten since Buffy the Vampire Slayer left the airways. 

The market of A class, B shows, shows that contain some of the best story telling on television but are disguised as B level programs to attract younger viewers. It was the combined effort of these news shows and letting the already existing shows like Smallville and Supernatural thrive with nearly full creative freedom that turned The CW into a major source of true quality programming. But on the traditional scale (Nielsen) the network is still DOA. So how are they about to overtake the market?  It’s because The CW has begun to take the old model and burn it to the ground. Unlike the “big 4,” The CW takes heavy cult fandom and external viewing sources like Netflix and Hulu very seriously. Last year the network signed a deal that would make all their programming available to Netflix up to one season behind the currently airing one and Hulu would be available up to the next day of a new episode. 

CW has seen that young viewers haven’t stopped watching television; they just stopped watching it on television. And instead of fighting the shift, that have embraced it with open arms.  In addition to that, at the most recent upfront the network announced what might be the most forward thinking idea since the invention of the first down line, CWD (CW Digital Studios). The main goal of CWD is to create web exclusive content with a big focus on sitcom programming. The CW doesn't hate comedies; they just knew their audience was never going to watch them live. They have found a way to have their cake and eat it too. With companies like Netflix and Hulu stepping into the original programming arena, now is the time for the broadcast networks to strike back with new ideas. 

I love CBS. I love FOX. I like NBC, I tolerate ABC and I dig the hell out of basic cable.  But of every network imaginable, The CW is the only one that has chosen to fly under the radar and let the major players duke it out for dominance while they wait for an opening that will change the game forever.

Merrill Barr

Merrill Barr is a frequent analyzer and reviewer of television for both blogs and podcasts. A former contributor to, he currently runs the podcasts OSNAP, Operation: Nikita and Celluloid Spotlight for He can be found on twitter (@sonic43), Facebook ( and Tumblr ( He can also be contacted via email at


Erlend Lunde Holbek said...

Whenever a new CW show comes along, it's marketed to look generic and boring. Which of them aren't?

Merrill Barr said...

Only looking at the list of former and current programs they produced post-merger: Nikita, Reaper, Vampire Diaries, Arrow, 90210, Melrose Place. I'd be considering to include Supernatural as well since that only ran one season on The WB before the merger.

sosgemini said...

No credit to TyTy for keeping the network afloat during the rough times?

Glenn Dunks said...

I like Hart of Dixie purely because it's so generic, but at the same time the sort of show that other networks don't make because it's not grungy or hip enough.


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