Is The CW This Season’s Most Successful Network?

Hellcats/Nikita/The Vampire Diaries/Gossip Girl (The CW)

Hellcats/Nikita/The Vampire Diaries/Gossip Girl (The CW)

The news for broadcast television networks is bleak: most new series are flopping. What everyone assumed were surefire hits from big name producers like J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer turned out to be of moderate interest to most viewers.

There are no breakout hits on par with last year’s ‘Glee‘ and ‘Modern Family‘.  Most returning series are declining week to week.

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CBS has gotten a lot of attention for being an exception to this rule, with a recent article in the New York Times pointing out that the Tiffany network is in first or second place virtually every single hour of primetime.

There is another network that is succeeding this television season: The CW.  Yes, the teen network. The network that fewer people watch than Univision. The network that is frequently assumed to be on the verge of disappearing, is actually showing the most growth of any broadcast network.  According to TV By the Numbers, season-to-date the CW is up 7.6%  in total viewers and 3.8% in the all important Adults 18-49.  By comparison, CBS is only up 3.5% and 1.6% respectively, while Fox is down -8.3% and -12.0%.

The CW has accomplished this feat while launching only two new shows: ‘Hellcats‘ and ‘Nikita‘.  Most of their other shows have been around for several seasons. ‘Smallville‘, which airs its 200th episode this Friday, is a full decade old and began its life on The CW’s predecessor, the WB.

Preview the 200th Episode of ‘Smallville:’

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Many of the show’s returning series are thriving in new time periods.  ‘Smallville’ and ‘Supernatural‘  are doing exceptionally well on the television wasteland of Friday nights, often beating the big four in certain demographics.

Pairing ‘90210‘ with ‘Gossip Girl‘ on Mondays created a night of wealthy, angst-ridden teens that serves as counterprogramming to the sitcoms, reality shows and procedurals on the other networks.

The network’s highest rated series, ‘Vampire Diaries,’ helped take down much hyped ABC freshman ‘My Generation‘ — a show about young adults that targeted the same audience as The CW.

Though ‘Hellcats’ seemed like a five-years-too-late ‘Bring It On‘ rip-off, it is doing a surprisingly good job of retaining viewers from its ‘America’s Next Top Model‘ lead-in.

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‘Nikita’ was one of the season’s best reviewed pilots. It has proven to be a solid performer by the network’s standards, though the network recently decided to retool the series to make the darker, more adult show a better match for the rest of the network’s lighter line-up.

‘90210’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ are among the top five most DVR’d shows, regularly improving  their live ratings by over 40%. Even the network’s lowest-rated series, the critically acclaimed ‘Life Unexpected‘ got a bump this week from a ‘One Tree Hill‘ crossover episode, earning its highest ratings so far this season. Thus it was rewarded with an order of two additional scripts.

In fact, many of the network’s shows have been growing throughout the season, while other networks’ series are declining every week, with longtime hits like ‘Law & Order: SVU‘ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ hitting record lows.

Watch a ‘Vampire Diaries’ Sneak Peek:

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Though still the lowest rated broadcast network by a large margin, the CW is clearly doing a lot of things right.

Like a cable network, it has a specific niche: programming that appeals to people, particularly women, between the ages of 18 and 34. Viewers know that a CW show will feature good looking actors in glamorous settings, perhaps with a supernatural element.

The only other broadcast network with such a firmly defined point-of-view is CBS, the land of crime procedurals and multi-camera comedies that are safe to watch with your grandmother. In fact, your grandmother probably watches their entire line-up.

It's no coincidence that both networks share a senior management team. The CW goes after all the group of people least likely to watch CBS: young people and hip people who live on the coasts. CBS Chairman Les Moonves pays close attention to the fledgling network. At last year's Paley Festival, 'Vampire Diaries' Executive Producer Kevin Williamson revealed that Moonves watched star Nina Dobrev's audition tape and proclaimed that she was the right actress for the role of Elena.

The CW also gives shows a chance to build an audience, and will rework premises that it believes in.   With the exception of last season’s DOA ‘The Beautiful Life‘ which garnered ratings so low that it made ‘Lone Star‘ look like a hit, the network lets shows air at least thirteen episodes before making a decision about their future, and is willing to revamp concepts that it likes.

The first season of ‘90210’ was a bore, but the CW brought in new writers and allowed it to develop into a fun guilty pleasure vehicle.  The network gave ‘Melrose Place‘ the same opportunity to transform itself when its initial noirish storylines proved unappealing, though in that case the reboot did not work.  It has also kept ‘Smallville’ and ‘One Tree Hill’ on the air for longer than its creators even imagined possible, allowing what started out as high school dramas to evolve into shows about adults, letting the characters grow up along with the audience.

The CW bases the majority of its series on pre-existing brands. 'Gossip Girl' and 'The Vampire Diaries' were both popular young adult novel series. (One cannot help wondering if the network would have been able to make the late, lamented 'Huge,' which was based on a series of novels from the same publisher, Alloy, into a success.) '90210' and 'Nikita' are remakes, while 'Smallville', obviously, is based on Superman. It's not the most creative strategy, but it is working.

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The CW still attracts a miniscule total audience, with most shows attracting about the same number of viewers as basic cable series. But it is a demographically desirable audience. The network is treading a path pioneered by Fox, of targeting young viewers then expanding its target audience. It remains to be seen whether it will ultimately be as successful, but the CW has shown that it can not be dismissed.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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