Why Can’t The CW Draw 8 Million Viewers?  That’s kind of like asking why can’t the Cubs win the World Series.  There are plenty of reasons, but chances are it boils down to management and a bad stigma.

How so?  There’s no more glaring example than the recent premiere of The Game on BET.  The Game was a sitcom that got its start on the now defunct UPN network.  It was moved to The CW network which was created via a merger of UPN and The WB in 2006.  The Game always sat on UPN’s and The CW’s bubble. It was lowly regarded, rarely promoted, and quietly shuffled around the lineup until it ended up on Friday nights in it’s third season. Few knew it was on Friday nights because few knew that it even existed. It wasn’t until this show catering to blacks appeared in syndication on a heavy black audience network, BET, that people started watching. The reruns became so popular that BET brought it back from the dead, where it was killed by the CW almost two years ago.

The Game had its fourth season premiere on Tuesday evening and managed to draw a whopping 7.7 million viewers. Out of those viewers, it scored a 3.6 in the coveted 18-49 demo. No show on The CW comes close to either of those numbers. In its final days on The CW The Game was drawing under 2 million and about a .8 in the 18-49 demo. What in the world changed in two years to boost this show’s popularity so high?

This isn’t the first time a network series has been brought back from the dead because it found popularity in cable syndication. The most memorable recent example is Family Guy, which was mistreated and eventually cancelled by Fox. It got much of the same treatment as The Game. In its second season it was shuffled all over the lineup, used as midseason and summer filler, and then eventually cancelled altogether in 2002. Family Guy then started airing on TBS and other local stations.It found a huge following and also got a big boost in DVD sales.The show came back in 2005 and to this day it remains one of Fox’s stronger programs in terms of demo ratings.

The difference is, The CW didn’t take back The Game. BET, which along with TBS is a basic cable network, took it on instead. This is a cable network that has no other original scripted programming other than the also new Let’s Stay Together, which made a strong debut, 4.4 million viewers along with The Game.4.4 million viewers is still larger than any rating The CW has received this year.The Game has become BET’s success story and CW’s failure.

So, should The CW have kept The Game? No, definitely no. There is an obvious reason why the show failed on The CW. Their audience wasn’t compatible with it. This is definitely the case of a decent show floundering on the wrong network. It does happen.  JAG got its start on NBC, but didn’t find success until it went to CBS after NBC cancelled it. Of course that’s gone on to spurn the spinoff series NCIS for CBS, which is a top rated show. The question becomes that if a show like The Game couldn’t draw 7.7 million on The CW, can any show?So far none has.How does this floundering netlet achieve such heights?

Look at The CW now. Its highest rated show is The Vampire Diaries and that draws roughly 3.5 million viewers average. The highest that show ever drew was 4.9 million and that was with the heavily promoted series premiere. The Vampire Diaries is often touted as a CW “hit” series. The highest rated program ever for The CW was an episode of America’s Next Top Model and that was only 6.4 million. Of course ANTM draws amazing demo ratings, especially in the lucrative 18-34 women bracket. So does The Vampire Diaries. I can tell you right now though, they don’t draw 3.6 in 18-49. Not one CW show this season has broken the 4 million viewer mark or hit 3.0 or higher in 18-49.

That’s the problem though.  The CW so far has decided it be best to do a “laser focus” strategy and focus their programming on that most lucrative 18-34 women demo.  This has limited their brand, their scope, and their reputation.  It’s certainly limited their appeal.  This type of “laser focus” though is very common in cable broadcasting.  So why does it work for cable and not The CW?  It boils down to the obstacles of being a network.

In fairness, The CW has the burden of offering a lot more original programming. While BET has two shows right now, The CW has ten. They can only afford to heavily market a couple of shows and those tend to be the newer ones.  The CW has an advantage over cable in that they don’t have to program 24/7. Their obligation is 10 primetime hours, and a few hours in the afternoon. The local affiliates take care of the rest. The CW has some big affiliate issues though. Their largest affiliate network, Tribune Entertainment, is still in bankruptcy and has stopped branding their stations as “CW” stations. Another large owner, Pappas Telecasting, filed bankruptcy in 2008, citing The CW’s low ratings for its woes. Since then many of their CW stations have been sold and two even closed. To this day, The CW only has 95% coverage, which means it doesn’t exist in 5% of the television markets out there. BET doesn’t have to worry about whether local affiliates promote their stations or decide to pre-empt their programming, an issue that plagues The CW constantly.

Clearly, The CW’s main weakness is it cannot compete against the other networks. It tries, it spectacularly fails. Their schedule of original programming mirrors exactly what the big four networks do and in the summer and winter break the network goes dark, only showing reruns. It is often forgetten in the eyes of a viewer. CW shows often get a higher ratings boost than other networks percentage wise when DVR ratings are factored in.  That means that people are interested in these programs but they don’t take priority over other offerings in live viewing.

What’s interesting though is cable programs don’t seem to be having a lot of problems drawing viewers and several cable shows are managing to outdraw network shows. Cable often thrives by airing shows opposite of traditional network schedules. The Game aired Tuesday at 10pm, a time that is weak for broadcast television and Fox and The CW don’t even air programs in that timeslot. Two networks were also airing repeats. Seasons for cable shows are often shorter (13 episodes usually), aired in the summer, or aired in a “mini-season” format, meaning they air seven to ten episodes at a time, go away for a few months, and then come back with another block. Cable stations often repeat their original broadcasts within a week after airing, several repeat them on the same night.  Those repeated viewings on the same night count in the overall ratings of a cable program.

So what should The CW do? Be more network or be more cable? How can it be the perfect hybrid and draw at least as many viewers as fourth place NBC? In it’s current structure, it can’t. The CW is half owned by a bigger broadcast network (CBS) and the other half owner produces shows that it sells to those bigger networks (Warner Brothers). The notion has always been, even in the days of UPN and The WB, that this “niche” network exists to produce alternative programming (aka cheap stuff for young people) that doesn’t necessarily have a wide appeal, but enough of one where the corporate parent(s) can make money on the open market in syndication and DVD sales. In the meantime, they provide original programming to affiliates that have something to sell advertising space for. These shows were never intended to compete with the big guns, just compliment. That right there prevents The CW, just like its predecessors, from ever competing. Or, it prevents it as long as they follow a traditional broadcast schedule and business model.

The traditional broadcast business model hurts them cost wise.  Development and programming costs really sink The CW. The pilot process is a very expensive one and the CW keeps taking on usually two to three new scripted shows a year, and at least twice that in producing pilots. While The CW has had big successes with Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries, they’ve had more failures.  Expensive failures.  Their shows also produce 22 episodes a season usually, meaning The CW is paying higher license fees over the course of a season than cable stations.  The CW is not recouping those losses in advertising sales.  The ratings are not high enough.

Also, as TV shows age, they get more expensive. Considering America’s Next Top Model is in its 8th year (15th cycle), Smallville is in season 10, One Tree Hill season eight, Supernatural season six, and a few others are approaching those marks, finding ways to aggressively fund new shows and support their current ones has become a huge challenge.  That all but eliminates the marketing budget. Smallville and Supernatural both generate great revenue internationally, in syndication, and with DVD sales, but The CW sees none of that. This is Smallville’s last year and The CW will have to go through an expensive process to replace it, an issue they’ll also have to face with their other aging shows within the next few years.

Cable stations’ big advantage is they get subscription revenue. Of course they get much lower ad revenue than the broadcast networks, however they usually earn close if not equal to what The CW does. Networks are trying to recover from declining ad revenue by asking for a share of the retransmission fees their local affiliates earn as contracts expire.  This has not happened without a fight though and they aren’t exactly collecting much yet. Losing this revenue is often crippling the local affiliate, many who are struggling to afford syndicated programming for their off prime time schedules.  Why?  Because ad revenues are down, because viewers are down, because viewers are going to the internet, cable, and DVDs. It’s a vicious cycle.

However, these are woes being faced by all broadcast networks right now, not just The CW.  When it’s hard for a big network like ABC or NBC to make money, imagine how it is for a network like The CW.

Bottom line, it’s impossible for The CW to thrive in the current model under it’s current structure, especially with all the competing factors. The question is do they even want to go through the trouble to get 8 million viewers?  Rumor has it The CW will be under new leadership next season.  What happens if the new person comes in and sets that viewership goal?  Is it possible?  That depends on the dedication of the corporate parents. If just getting by while those corporate owners expand their lucrative video vaults yet take losses on the network makes everyone happy, then viewership numbers will not change.  They will never reach 8 million viewers but no one really cares.  History records that this is indeed the strategy.  As long as CBS is one of the owners, The CW will never be able to take the other networks head on since CBS would be part of the competition. This was the same situation that stunted UPN.Warner Brothers (or at least their corporate parent Time Warner) has a much bigger presence in cable and if anything I see them trying to build their giant successes with their cable stations rather than make a run of this niche network.Not that they’ll bail anytime soon.The affiliate agreements were for ten years and The CW is only in its fifth season.

The Game’s numbers aren’t going to stay that high either. They’ll settle down after a few weeks (it’s second showing though was 5.5 million viewers). Chances are looking very good it’ll stay much higher than any number it drew on The CW. It’s always rewarding to see the right show finally meet up with the right network and I hope The Game will continue the long and healthy run it’s always deserved.  As for The CW, this could be a golden “make it or break it” time for them and so far the strategy seems like “make it.”  The odds are overwhelmingly against them long term, but they will continue to exist for a little while as long as they still have something to offer.  People do like their shows, just not 8 million live US viewers.  Let’s just hope that the next success becomes their own and not somebody else’s.

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One Comment

  1. Hmmmm… I hope some of CW’s new pilots will do well. Of course, I’m rooting for the paranormal/sci-fi ones.


    Though I’m curious: why would someone who has written for Lost and Heroes want to produce for a small-time network?

    And Samuel L Jackson, really? *raises a few eyebrows* Though not too keen on Hawkshaw really. I’ve actually read enough of Sherlock Holmes to realise the writing is fine though a tad long-winded but the character is too much like some wish-fulfillment character.

    And since I don’t care for Glee(the performers are obviously talented but not my kind of music), I don’t care for Prickly Spheres either.

    I do know there’s one with the zombie horde… not sure where it’s in the list.

    Edit: Oh wait, they already ordered the pilots and I want to shoot myself. Bleah… the plots sound boring.


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