Monday, February 4, 2008

CW Network's Pursuit Of Youth Falters

The struggling CW had high hopes for its fall shows. Then the writers went on strike.

By Meg James, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 4, 2008
This was going to be the CW's breakthrough year.

The little TV network was full of promise five months ago on the eve of its second season. Advertisers and even curmudgeonly TV critics were gushing over its new fall shows. Buzz on the Internet was wild in anticipation of the much-hyped "Gossip Girl," a soapy drama about pampered prep school students in Manhattan.

But instead of catching fire, the CW's new crop of shows flickered in the ratings. Then came the strike by Hollywood writers, which halted the production of programs including CW's "Smallville" and "Supernatural."

"The strike is a threat to the entire broadcast television business but particularly so for the CW because they were struggling already," TV historian Tim Brooks said.

The CW could be a canary in the coal mine for the broadcast television industry. Declining viewership, shifts in consumer tastes, increased competition from video games, cable TV and the Internet, as well as the rising use of digital video recorders, are affecting ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. But they are hitting the CW harder.

The CW's challenge is to figure out how to quickly build a bigger audience of young viewers who are just as comfortable clicking on their computers to find entertainment as they are plopping down in front of a TV. It must also keep its advertising clients in the fold.

This season, the CW's ratings are down 21% among its target group of young adults aged 18 to 34 compared with the previous season. One reason is the rise of digital video recorders such as those from TiVo Inc. that allow viewers to watch programs on their own schedule, not the network's, and zip through commercials.

Ratings would increase by at least 8% if the CW was allowed to count people who recorded a show and watched it within seven days of its broadcast, according to a network analysis. However, advertisers refuse to pay for viewers who watch an episode that long after its airing.

Complicating matters, Nielsen Media Research doubled the number of homes with DVRs in its sample audience to 22% to better reflect the growing use of the technology. That sudden shift exacerbated the ratings decline for networks compared with last season. It also magnified the problem for the CW, which has a smaller and younger audience that is more inclined to use DVRs.

"It's been a bit of a rough year but we remain optimistic," said Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group, who oversees the CW. "There is extraordinary demand to reach this audience, but younger viewers are very fickle, elusive and they are difficult to measure."

CBS and Warner Bros. had been betting that their joint venture would staunch more than a decade's worth of losses. That was the strategy in 2006 when the two companies merged their competing programming services: UPN, owned by CBS, and the WB, owned by Time Warner Inc.

The two networks lost their owners a combined $2 billion during their 11-year life spans. (Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, converted its stake in the WB into a long-term programming agreement with the CW for its TV stations, including KTLA-TV Channel 5 in the Southland.)

The truce begat the CW, with the "C" standing for CBS and the "W" representing Warner Bros.

But the red ink hasn't stopped. The CW is expected to lose about $50 million this year, according to a person familiar with its finances. Its revenue is about $750 million.

CW executives have been reevaluating their strategy.

"The world is definitely changing," said Bill Morningstar, the CW's ad sales president. "This could force us to do a thorough self-examination and really look at how we launch our shows and conduct our business. Instead of running from the challenge or being scared of it, we need to embrace it."

The CW might have misfired by saving its new shows for a big fall rollout rather than unveiling them earlier. With no fresh programs during the summer, CW executives worry that they may have chased away some of last season's viewers, some of whom didn't bother to return in the fall.

"We need to keep our lights on in the summer," Morningstar said.

Dawn Ostroff, the CW's entertainment president, said: "That's a regret that we all have. It was so hard for us to get this network up and running, and we just didn't have the time or the manpower or the resources."

But the CW found it difficult to get attention for its shows in the fall when the major broadcasters were making a splash. That could have further depressed ratings.

Advertisers have been disappointed. In addition to "Gossip Girl," they had high hopes for "Reaper," about a 21-year-old slacker who suddenly discovered he was beholden to the devil, and "Aliens in America," a comedy about a Wisconsin family that is surprised and, at first, horrified when the foreign exchange student they invited into their home was a Muslim.

"Their shows are very good," said Shari Anne Brill, programming director for ad-buying firm Carat. "It almost seems like people don't know that they are there."

The CW executives concede that they must adapt to survive.

"We know we have to be nontraditional in everything we do to make it work, from our shows to our marketing and finding new, creative ways to work with advertisers," Ostroff said.

Hollywood's labor troubles are giving the CW another incentive to change. Instead of thinking of itself as a traditional broadcaster, the CW is considering cribbing from the cable TV play book.

The big broadcasters largely follow a September-through-May season and fill their schedules with different shows every night. In contrast, cable TV channels such as TNT or FX put all their chips behind two or three shows, rather than spread their bets across the table. They have no qualms about repeating episodes the same week.

The CW already has been experimenting by running its reality show "Crowned," a mother-daughter beauty pageant competition, twice a week, picking up more than a million additional viewers in the process. Last year, it ran two episodes a week of the reality show "Pussycat Dolls" and found its second airing attracted more viewers.

The strike has increased the CW's appetite for lower-cost reality shows. It has teed up a batch, including "Crowned", "Farmer Wants a Wife," a competition to match a farm boy with a city girl; and the latest installment of "Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious."

Greater reliance on reality programs would mark a fundamental shift. The primary reason Time Warner and Viacom Inc. launched the WB and UPN in the 1990s was to accumulate enough episodes of the shows they produced to sell reruns in syndication. But when younger audiences started favoring reality over scripted programs, the WB was caught flat-footed and lost ground.

Today, the CW's No. 1 show is Tyra Banks' contest, "America's Next Top Model."

Advertisers would like the CW to turn things around. They crave outlets, such as MTV, that deliver a concentrated pool of young consumers.

"You are not just throwing your message up and having it land somewhere in the ocean," said Michelle Marks, vice president for promotions at the 20th Century Fox film studio. "It's landing in a small lake."

Fox designed a series of commercials that ran on the CW one night in December to promote its film "27 Dresses" with Katherine Heigl. The reason, Marks said, is that young women who watch shows such as "Gossip Girl" see themselves as characters in a movie, and thus, go to the movies.

Lauren Radcliffe, director of branded entertainment for Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, said her company would promote its 7-Up soda in "America's Next Top Model," which returns later this month. Previously, the company's Sunkist drink was featured in the CW's "One Tree Hill."

"We've had a lot of success stories," Radcliffe said. "They have proven that they can be experts in engaging their audience. We are definitely rooting for them and their long-term success."

No comments: