Since the CW is in the midst of its “headhunt,” I think it’s a good moment to reflect on the opportunities and challenges the network faces. The CW is a unique network; it’s a liminal network that does not garner the large audiences that ABC, NBC, CBS or even FOX enjoys. It is a network that has gone through many iterations. These iterations have been a move for survival, an adaptation of sorts. However, the adaptation has failed because the network has limited its vision by accepting major network television as it wasinstead of seeing network television as it could be.
How the CW Could Become “TV to Talk About”
Since the CW is in the midst of its “headhunt,” I think it’s a good moment to reflect on the opportunities and challenges the network faces. The CW is a unique network; it’s a liminal network that does not garner the large audiences that ABC, NBC, CBS or even FOX enjoys. It is a network that has gone through many iterations. These iterations have been a move for survival, an adaptation of sorts. However, the adaptation has failed because the network has limited its vision by accepting major network television as it was instead of seeing network television as it could be.
Leading or Following?
The CW is the new kid on the network block and as a result has suffered from a pseudo-follower syndrome. Being relatively new, even though it is the combination of older and smaller networks: UPN and theWB, the CW faces several challenges. The decline of overall network ratings, the limits of its demographic population, and its public brand and image are some of the major problems that the network must deal with, and these issues have become even more apparent over the last year and in the face of its departing president.
However, the CW also has opportunities that other networks don’t enjoy. As a relatively young network, it is not burdened by consumer expectations or prejudices that a network like NBC experiences. The CW also has the unique opportunity to experiment, because of its smallness, in a way that HBO and Showtime has done over the past decade or so. The CW could re-invent network television, if it took the opportunity, just as Fox did over two decades ago with shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, The X-Files and The Simpsons. And while I am not a fan of American Idol, the success of this show is a statement about Fox’s intuition about how network television consistently changes, how it has moved toward/returned to a game show model that holds touches of “reality.”
The CW needs this intuition too and rather than be slave to an outdated ratings system, take up the gauntlet of changing network television for the digital age. For too long, the network has been the poor sibling in the major network field. It has been ignored, or worse, been laughed at and about. In order to claim a space at the major network television table the CW should sharpen its intuition and understand what the challenges are and how to turn those challenges into opportunities.
The CW could be a leader and not a follower….if it chooses to be.
Challenge #1: Stuck in the Mud – Ratings and Chain locks
As Alice mentioned in her earlier articles, network ratings have been on a historical downtrend. The importance of ratings for television shows cannot be underestimated; they are the major reason that shows either survive or not. However, the advent of the internet, among other things, has pointed to the weakness in this archaic system. Ratings, in fact, are somewhat like the appendix – a vestigial organ that is evidence of prior use but unimportant. . . .unless it turns toxic. In other words, ratings are a historical part of television that may eventually lead to its death.
There are many reasons why this downward trend has occurred, which include:
Reason A: Technology (DVR, Internet TV, etc.), labor (longer work hours, working at home), and options (cable television, youtube, etc.) have contributed to the decline. The more options and the less time a viewer has to spend on television, the more selective that viewer will be.
Reason B: Heavy reliance on the traditional vision of the American family, i.e. the gathered members in one space sharing a meal or sharing a show. The distributed attentions of the American family dynamic can be seen as manifesting itself in the decline of primetime network television.
Reason C: Narrowed focus on “key” demographics. Here, the decline in ratings directly correlates to the limited attention of advertisers. The concept of disposable income drives a lot of advertising, and as a historical trend, that focus has often been on women in the domestic life phase, 18-49.
Reason D: Redundant storytelling and the absence of the serial viewer. The success of shows like LOST, NCIS, and CSI point to the reiterative nature of television. NCIS and CSI (and other procedurals) are part of television history. The “stand alone” nature of the procedural appeals to the “in and out” nature of television viewership. Networks cater to the departing viewer and make adjustments for a distracted audience. Series, or serials, like LOST, on the other hand, cater to the same type of audience that watched Dynasty, Dallas, and Knots Landing, except that LOST capitalized on the popularity of genre television.
Challenge #2: Women, Women, Women….and Some Men Too.
Television ratings that focus on the female demographic are inherently misogynistic. It may not seem so, since this demographic gets the most play and the most attention, but the focus on this demographic is a holdover from late 19th/early 20th century advertising prejudices that saw the middle class woman as a stay at home mother who had assistance with the kids and who had all the time in the world to spend her husband’s hard earned money. Mail order catalogs and Macy’s would not exist without this demographic, but as cable has learned and taken advantage of, the demographic of those with disposable income has changed drastically. To focus mainly on this demographic is to cut off other populations that have just as much, if not more, disposable income and are willing to spend it.
Challenge #3: Reality Television and the 1970s – Let’s move into the 80s
The boom of “reality” television mimics many other booms in cultural interest. As hinted at earlier, most reality television is actually the game show genre in disguise. Shows like American Idol, Survivor, and The Bachelor carry echoes of previous shows such as The Gong Show or The Dating Game. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1970s when I’m watching television…even a show like Supernatural can’t escape its history in Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazard. But as many of us know, that era of television quickly dissipated into a decade long affair with primetime soap operas and family sitcoms. Again, television viewership and patronage is a reiterative process. What is new is really just revised.
Challenge #4: Franchising Writers and Ideas (The Shonda Rhimes/CSI Problem)
Television networks often bet on lightning. They hope it hits twice in one spot. I call this the Shonda Rhimes/CSI Problem, ala her influence at ABC because of the success of Grey’s Anatomy and CSI’s multiple versions of the same storyline. The CW imitates this process with someone like Kevin Williamson, who has delivered The Vampire Diaries (and let us not for Dawson’s Creek). The franchise is a network’s tie to the old studio system when it comes to writers – stables of writers to count on like jockeys in a race. The benefit of this system is dependability; the disadvantage of this system is redundancy and an almost anti-inventive attitude. Unfortunately, networks are often hamstrung by Standards and Practices, old ratings systems, and advertising revenue and are thus forced to rely more on what has delivered more than on what can deliver.
There are other challenges that the CW, as well as the other networks, must contend with as it imagines what will work and what cannot. But there are opportunities to be had, and if I could pretend to be at all intuitive, I’d point to the following:
If ratings are a key to advertising, the problem with the old model is the emphasis on more buyers rather than loyal buyers. Major networks have one benefit that the CW does not – brand loyalty. Many viewers will watch shows because they watch networks, which means brand loyalty, for television at least. And brand loyalty revolves around getting viewers to give a show a chance because of its connection to a network, to a history, to a promise. So the question for the CW: How to build brand loyalty?
The key to brand loyalty is multifold. It involves seducing a hardcore fan, not the occasional viewer. The more a network can tie viewers to a type of programming, rather than an hour of programming, then the more overall viewership the network can garner over a period of time.
The CW has tried this, but the focus on the limited population of the young female viewer has detracted from its ratings. So there are several options:
1. “TV to Talk About” is an empty logo. It doesn’t really say anything nor does it accurately capture what programming the CW produces and presents. So the CW either changes its brand name to more correctly reflect the audience and purpose of its programming or it starts to re-envision its programming.
If the CW stays with its current course, which places a strong emphasis on the young female viewer, then perhaps a new logo could be something that attracts that viewer:
“The CW: Not your parent’s network”
“You know you wanna watch….the CW: Guilty Pleasure Television”
or something that represents and capitalizes on the type of programming that the CW airs. Otherwise, the other option is to:
2. Re-envision programming. The CW’s reliance on the female demographic is legendary and what limits its vision to a great degree. The type of programming that it produces, right now, does not provide large audiences but nor does it provide “quality” programming that would garner critical acclaim. I suspect this may be a result of the strong influence of the “Lifetime” network crowd, but perhaps it’s a failed attempt at seeing a marketshare that didn’t deliver as it was supposed to.
Even The Vampire Diaries, which has gained a lot of media coverage, targets an audience less than that of a USA Network or FX show. This is an opportunity for the network to look at what works in major network television, cable television, and digital storytelling and begin a predicative arc rather than a redundant one. Some possibilities include:
News Programs – With the exception of Fox, each network has a news program. News programs are cheap to produce, but more than that, they often provide a lynchpin hour that programming can be designed around.
Genre television – Genre brings the hardcore fan, as evidenced by Smallville and Supernatural. Even The Vampire Diaries taps into this type of audience. Hardcore fans can buoy a network during lean times – something NBC has suffered for a long time.
Family Sitcoms – The sitcom is a way to attract the family viewer and since children are staying up longer and are more technologically advanced than their parents, the sitcom can be a way to bridge that divide. Sitcoms also have the advantage of the procedural – it can cater to the “in and out” viewer and the older viewer, who can also buoy a network during lean times.
Scripted Drama – If television is cyclical, then the return of the primetime soap is just around the corner. Scripted drama is also the key to the Emmy, which rocketed cable networks into the network game. Mad Men, to be honest, is just Dallas for the 21st century.
The Shortened Season – The law of supply and demand. One of the boldest moves a major network could make is to look at cable for inspiration. Because the content of major networks is controlled by FCC regulations, it is difficult to imitate the innovation of storytelling. However, that is not the only reason that cable is successful. HBO, Showtime, Bravo, USA Network, and AMC take advantage of structure as well. The shortened season can entice viewers, and if staggered, shows can benefit from being “exchanged” out. Of course this would require busting the “sweeps” tyranny of the advertising system. A bold move for a new network to make, if it chose to.
Mini Series – Again, this may be a way to compromise between full season orders and shortened seasons. To my mind, at least, this is a genre that will more than likely find renewal at some point in the near future, if historical trends play out.
In the end, the opportunities for a major minor network such as the CW are immense. Every challenge is a chance to explore the risks of venture capitalism. Intuition is simply looking at what is there and imagining what could be there. The CW can take advantage of these challenges, moreso than any other network. Because it is small, it can be experimental.
As it looks for its new leader, let us hope that it can imagine itself as simply more than an echo of a network. The CW could be a leader in the new age of television.
Perhaps the CW can finally fulfill the promise of its logo: “TV to Talk About.”