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The CW had a tremendous year, but it's still stuck well behind everybody else

There will never be a show as exciting to dream about as Legends of Tomorrow.
There will never be a show as exciting to dream about as Legends of Tomorrow.
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.

Attending any event that celebrates The CW is a deeply weird experience. Though the network is easily in fifth place behind ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC (and actually in sixth place behind Univision and sometimes behind several cable networks), it boasts incredibly passionate fans — fans who will line up outside of nearly any gathering of its stars, causing pandemonium as they try to catch a glimpse.

Such an occasion was the network's upfront presentation to advertisers — designed to convince them to purchase commercial time on its upcoming fall schedule. Even though the network had its best season ever in 2014-'15, the assembled ad buyers sat in stony silence through much of the presentation. A clip reel for The CW's acclaimed, comedic telenovela Jane the Virgin mostly fell flat (for shame, ad buyers!), while a live performance by rock band Of Monsters and Men felt a little incongruous.

Weirdly, The CW has the opposite problem of every other broadcast network. If those other networks have to convince ad buyers they're young and hip enough to attract viewers who aren't approaching senescence, The CW has to convince said ad buyers that its complicated business strategy — which is equal parts traditional broadcast, cable, and digital (see more here) — isn't some wild, fly-by-night operation. In short, it needs to convince Mom and Dad it's old enough to borrow the car.

And it just might be close to doing so.

For a look at the schedule and trailers for The CW's three new shows, click here. For my thoughts on what the network is up to, read on.

1) The CW is in the best shape of its life

The network posted its best ratings ever in 2014-'15, thanks to the arrival of its new hit The Flash, even as several of its former hits kept chugging along. And in January, it unprecedentedly renewed its entire fall lineup before later renewing midseason show iZombie. The CW only canceled first-season flop The Messengers and dramedy Hart of Dixie, which had run for four seasons. For a network that only programs 10 hours per week, that's a pretty great track record.

There were warning signs here and there. Thursday-night drama Reign (the world's greatest ever teen soap about Mary, Queen of Scots) struggled to hold its own against ABC's Shonda Rhimes–driven Thursday lineup, and Jane the Virgin never quite attained the breakout status it deserved. But The CW's overall programming slate was, far and away, the most consistent it had ever fielded, thanks to a combination of soaps and superheroes. And as if that weren't enough, the network took home its first ever major award, when Jane star Gina Rodriguez won the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical series.

The story of ABC's recent resurgence has earned far more press this upfronts season, but The CW is in the middle of a boom time, and it seems likely the network's luck will continue. CW head Mark Pedowitz has a knack for knowing when to stick with something safe and when to swing for the fences, and he has far more successes than failures to his name. That's a good position to be in as the network's former signature series, The Vampire Diaries, enters a seventh season that won't feature one of its core stars (Nina Dobrev).

2) But that's a problem for its complicated corporate structure

The CW was born in the fall of 2006, the child of a merger between the Paramount-owned (and thus CBS-owned) UPN and the Warner Brothers–owned The WB. CBS is the network's corporate parent — which is why it occasionally ends up airing hand-me-downs from CBS, like the one-season Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle Ringer — but CBS Television and Warner Bros. are, theoretically, supposed to provide equal amounts of programming to The CW's lineup, thus increasing their chances of getting shows into the lucrative syndication and streaming market.

However, this just hasn't happened for CBS-produced shows. The only show hailing from that company to make it to 100 episodes in the history of The CW was 90210, which sputtered out after five seasons. Other than that, the CBS Television shows produced for The CW have mostly been failures. Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' list of hits on The CW is long and illustrious, featuring Smallville, The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, and The Flash. And The CW is hugely dependent on the comic book superhero shows Warner Bros. gives it, makes it difficult to hang on to CBS shows.

Perhaps that's why Reign and Jane — both produced on the CBS side of things — received not entirely justified renewals in January. (Certainly Jane deserved one creatively, but it struggles in the ratings.) The greatest strategy for The CW's continued success very well may be a long string of superhero series — but putting a long string of superhero series on the air would mean relying completely on Warner Bros. programming and would thus be impossible.

3) Apparently ad buyers need to be convinced that diversity on TV is a good thing?

This has been a weird constant of this year's upfronts, where a network will get up on stage to talk about how its diverse programming is a good thing, from both a moral perspective and an economic one. That pitch makes a lot of sense if you're Fox and riding high on the hip-hop soap Empire. It also makes sense if you're ABC and have consciously branded yourself as a network that celebrates diversity. And it makes the most sense for Univision — explicitly aimed at a Spanish-language audience — to try to convince advertisers that it's in their best interests to court diverse viewers.

But The CW brought out Rodriguez to talk about why diverse representation is so important and why TV needs more actors of all races. It was a riff on things she's said many times before, and Rodriguez is one of TV's best diversity advocates right now. However, it was still a little strange that The CW stopped the show to deliver this presentation to advertisers, who had previously seemed a little cold toward the Jane clip reel.

Now, Jane is a low-rated show, so it's possible that it's just not on advertisers' radar, and The CW was simply attempting to boost its profile a bit. But it's still a Golden Globe–winning, critically acclaimed program that the network just loves; it shouldn't need to be sold again as if it were brand new. That there's still apparently some resistance to the show — and that many of the networks whose upfront presentations I attended emphasized the diversity theme as well — suggests there's real concern at a network level that no matter how much TV executives might see diversity as a good thing (or at least a hot trend), advertisers will take more convincing.

4) The CW continues to take big swings creatively

Then again, the network's huge support of Jane could just be part of The CW's daffy programming strategy. The network picked up three new shows, and all of them look varying degrees of hugely ambitious (occasionally on tiny budgets).

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the first TV series from viral video star Rachel Bloom, is basically a musical retelling of Felicity that the network inherited from its corporate cousin Showtime. (It will have to be expanded to an hourlong show and deal with some mild language issues, but Pedowitz suggested that it will otherwise remain largely the same as it was during its development at the pay cable network.) Going from a Showtime budget for the pilot to a CW budget for episode two should be an interesting challenge, but the show is certainly going to have novelty on its side.

Then there's Containment, one of those shows where you have no idea how it will last beyond season one, but you sort of want to see everybody try all the same. It deals with a deadly virus that causes part of Atlanta to be sealed off from the rest of the world. The virus's 100 percent fatality rate promises gore galore. The attractive cast promises kissing. That sounds like a CW recipe for success.

And finally, there's Legends of Tomorrow, which brings me to my fifth and final thought on The CW's new schedule...

5) Legends of Tomorrow is poised to be the greatest show in the history of television

But the best show The CW presented is its latest DC adaptation, Legends of Tomorrow, which looks absolutely whackadoodle perfect. By the time the trailer introduced the time-traveling man from South London named Rip Hunter, I was in — and that was before Brandon Routh (as the Atom) shrunk down to Ant-Man size and bopped around.

The show reunites many of the most fun recurring characters from The Flash and Arrow, and it's another show where I have no idea what season two could possibly look like. But come on. A time-traveling man named Rip Hunter. Legends of Tomorrow is going to be the best show ever made.

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