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How The CW went from near extinction to surprising success

The Flash (starring Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin) has been a big hit for The CW — and a perfect example of the network's strategy.
The Flash (starring Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin) has been a big hit for The CW — and a perfect example of the network's strategy.
The CW
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The CW might be the most vibrant, creative broadcast network going.

Its mixture of genre fare, weird teen soaps, and whatever you'd call Jane the Virgin has resurrected a channel that many TV commentators (including myself) had left for dead just a couple of years ago, when its ratings were redefining the idea of being in the basement and current network president Mark Pedowitz took over.

Granted, The CW only has to program 10 hours every week, which is less than any of its other four main competitors (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC). And because it's still a largely low-budget operation, Pedowitz can lean on good TV from other countries, acquiring series from the United Kingdom and Canada that will cross borders well. This has particularly worked for its unscripted content. For instance, The CW acquired a canceled British series called Penn & Teller: Fool Us and turned it into enough of a performer that it revived the show four years after it was initially canceled, for new episodes to air this summer.

But even with those caveats in mind, The CW is still a network that mostly avoids outright awful programming. It has shows I love, shows I like, and shows I'm indifferent toward, but it really doesn't have any shows worthy of outright hatred. And the series that comes the closest, its remake of Beauty and the Beast, is mostly a summer burn-off — and thus easy to ignore. No other broadcast network can say the same.

That speaks well to Pedowitz's nose for good programming. But it also speaks well to how the network is essentially revamping itself into a TV fan's dream.

Embracing broadcast, cable, and digital

The CW exists in a weird space between broadcast, cable, and digital. Though its business strategy is, ostensibly, that of a broadcast network in attempting to appeal to the most viewers possible and attract the most ad dollars it can, it also programs shows that will appeal to narrow but passionate niche audiences, like a cable network would. Even its biggest hits, like The Flash and Arrow, start from a core niche audience (comics fans, in this case) and then count every additional viewer as gravy.

Mark Pedowitz

Mark Pedowitz (The CW)

But it also has a strong digital component to its strategy, selling ads so that they'll appear both on shows when they traditionally air and on online streams. Yes, other networks have their own versions of this program, but The CW, with its younger audience, makes this much more of a centerpiece, even just in terms of Pedowitz explaining how his network stays alive economically.

To many who primarily consume TV online or via their DVRs, this sounds like pretty basic stuff. But it's taken other networks far longer to come around to this way of thinking. There was so much money in the old, ad-supported model that it occasionally seems as if the other four networks still hope that model will magically revive itself. Only The CW, backed into a corner by disastrous ratings for so many years, has really embraced that inevitability.

This means that this year, when the network took a big hit on its previously successful Thursdays (thanks to ABC's now-dominant lineup), it had enough improvements on other nights to weather the storm. Even three years ago, such a thing would have been a disaster. Instead, The CW renewed both of its Thursday shows and hoped for better things to come.

Whether all networks are heading toward that future — existing more as brands across a variety of potential viewing platforms — or this is just a Venn diagram intersection The CW is exploiting now that will eventually disappear remains to be seen. But TV fans nowadays thrive on having a variety of options for watching shows, and The CW offers them that.

Well, almost.

How Jane the Virgin shows the limits of this strategy

By far the most questions at a Pedowitz press conference I attended in January were about Jane the Virgin, the network's telenovela adaptation that landed on scads of critics' top 10 lists and scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy Series. Yet you wouldn't know the show even existed to look at its ratings, which need to be measured with a microscope.

In some ways, the network's treatment of the show has been, again, in keeping with what TV fans might want. It has remained in its Monday night timeslot (where it actually slightly outperforms what was there last year), and the network gave it an early pickup for a second season back in January (along with seven other shows). Pedowitz is betting that leaving the show where it is will eventually pay off in some sort of viewership, something that fans of other low-rated programs that kept getting yanked around the schedule might have loved to hear.

But Jane also exposes the limits of The CW's streaming strategy, and such things in general. Because of contractual realities, Pedowitz said, "The only way to fully catch up with Jane the Virgin at this time would be through digital rental." That would mean going to iTunes or Amazon and paying a per-episode rate to catch up on the show. Five episodes are available on Hulu, for instance, but those five episodes are the fourth, then the sixth through ninth. That's not exactly conducive to an era when people want to binge shows all at once.

And, yes, The CW is good about getting its programming on Netflix in a timely fashion in the offseason, with a deal that funnels a certain amount of money back into the network's coffers. But it's also impossible to sell advertising on Netflix, and when Jane won the Golden Globe for actress in a comedy, thus attracting lots of attention, there was no easy way to view its first few episodes, short of paying for them, or stumbling upon CW reruns. In an on-demand age, that's not ideal.

Pedowitz is aware of this, but it speaks to the struggles smaller networks like his — and, increasingly, larger networks — face in trying to navigate the new world of television. You can have all the good intentions in the world and a solid stable of programming, but the business strategies of television are still largely built for 1995, and they're evolving more slowly than someone like Pedowitz might like.

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