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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s unexpected season 3 renewal shows how TV’s rules are changing

It’s the lowest-rated show ever renewed by a broadcast network.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
It’s another renewal for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, something that would seem unthinkable to look at its ratings.
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.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW’s sparklingly brilliant musical antihero comedy, has received an early season three renewal from the network. Instead of having to bite its nails until May, the show was lumped in with six of The CW’s other shows in a January renewal announcement.

Here’s what’s interesting about this news, though: There’s no way to make an argument for renewing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend based on its performance. It’s the lowest-rated show on television, and, so far as I can tell, it’s the lowest-rated show ever to be renewed by a major broadcast network. Yes, ever.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was already low-rated when The CW renewed it for season two in January 2016, but that renewal was far less surprising. Lots and lots of freshman series with low ratings but critical acclaim have been renewed for a second season, typically because their networks hope that more time on the air will lead to an expanded audience. Sometimes it works, as when Cheers went from the lowest-rated show on TV in its first season (1982-’83) to a decade-defining hit that ran 11 seasons. Many times the show remains low-rated, and it’s canceled at the end of season two. (See: Sports Night, among many others.)

But as it kicked off its second season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend didn’t just post low ratings again; it actually lost viewership from an already low level. In season one, the show averaged 870,000 viewers per episode — one of only a few shows on the five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC) to average fewer than 1 million viewers. In season two, so far, it’s averaged 570,000 viewers. It’s also lost a tenth of a ratings point in the key 18-to 49-year-old demographic, going from 0.3 to 0.2. (All numbers courtesy of the terrific ratings site Spotted Ratings.)

So why did The CW renew it? Looking at the three answers to that question — yes, there are three of them — reveals how the TV business is changing. The long-struggling CW used to be an outlier among the five broadcast networks in terms of doubling down on low-rated shows, whereas bigger, more successful networks would just cut their losses and try again. But as ratings fade in importance and more arcane business concerns become more relevant, The CW’s approach increasingly looks like one that even the most successful TV networks will take.

Reason 1: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is produced by CBS Television, which gives it an invisible advantage

Jane the Virgin
So is Jane the Virgin!
The CW

Talk to folks within The CW or the greater television industry, and you’ll learn about a weird reality of working at The CW that’s almost entirely unique to the network.

Though The CW exists under the larger umbrella of CBS’s TV properties (which include Showtime, CBS All Access, and the CBS mothership), it’s technically owned by both CBS and Warner Bros. — an offshoot of the network’s origins as a merger of the old UPN and WB networks. (CBS, at the time, was a corporate cousin of Paramount and oversaw UPN, a.k.a. the United Paramount Network.)

Thus, The CW generally tries to keep a somewhat even number of shows from each of its two corporate masters on the air. TV shows are not produced by the networks that air them, but rather by separate production companies that then sell them to the networks for a licensing fee. Most networks buy plenty of shows from their sister studios: ABC buys from ABC Television, NBC buys from NBCUniversal, etc.

At the moment, though, The CW — which, because it’s co-owned by two different companies, has two sister studios — is dominated by big hits from only one of them. The majority of The CW’s current programming comes from Warner Bros., including its various DC superhero shows (Supergirl, The Flash, etc.) and Supernatural. There are fewer and fewer CBS productions on the network, and none of them rise to the ratings level of the Warner Bros. shows. In the past, when The CW has renewed a low-rated show like Reign or Beauty & the Beast, the renewal has generally been viewed as a make-nice to CBS TV.

And guess which studio produces Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (and, for that matter, the also modestly rated and recently renewed Jane the Virgin)? The CW’s relationship to CBS Television isn’t the only reason Crazy Ex-Girlfriend remains on the air — and may not even be the main one, if network president Mark Pedowitz is to be believed (we’ll get to this). But it certainly doesn’t hurt the show.

Reason 2: The CW has a lucrative deal with Netflix, which gives it more wiggle room

The CW was one of the first networks to realize that streaming deals could help boost low-rated shows and maybe even turn them into hits. The long-running Supernatural, for instance, saw a slight ratings uptick in the early 2010s that coincides nicely with its availability on Netflix.

And in July 2016, the network and Netflix signed a major new deal that took The CW’s shows off Hulu (where the most recent episodes of currently airing shows had typically been available to stream, before moving to Netflix after the season ended) in favor of placing them on Netflix just eight days after their season finales air. We don’t know exactly how lucrative the deal was for The CW — as with all things involving Netflix, many of the details are slightly murky and hard to parse — but it seems to have bought the network room to maneuver.

And more intriguingly, at his executive session during the 2017 Television Critics Association winter press tour, Pedowitz said he has some intel, based on what production studios have told him, about which shows are performing well on Netflix (though he doesn’t get any hard numbers). In that sense, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could be a longer-tail hit — nobody might watch it on Friday nights on conventional TV, but if enough people catch up with it on Netflix, and it remains valuable to the streaming giant, it could make back its expenses in the years to come.

Reason 3: Having a critically acclaimed show is more of an asset than ever

Mr. Robot
Consider how Mr. Robot has boosted USA’s profile.

This is Pedowitz’s stated reason for his continued support of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Critics love the show. Their love for the show (and for Jane the Virgin) has completely changed the perception of his network — which as recently as five years ago was thought of as the place teen soaps go to die. Their love for the show has won it awards. And even if that doesn’t translate into ratings, it translates into a better overall reputation for The CW.

This is, essentially, the same strategy that many smaller cable networks now employ. Mr. Robot is far from the most watched show on USA, but it’s by far the most acclaimed. Similarly, UnReal doesn’t pull big ratings, but it has put Lifetime on the map. As old strictures break down in the face of streaming and other newish ways of watching TV, finding a way to stand out is more important than ever. And if you have a show that critics love, the press will do at least some of the marketing work for you.

When I asked Pedowitz about this approach, he said the show is simply worth renewing because it’s so good:

This show stands by itself. ... It’s a critically acclaimed, well-executed, innovative, different show that explores the town of West Covina and all of its inclusiveness, depression, sexuality. It takes these very dark topics and puts them in a brighter light. To me, it’s something that should be on the air.

But critical acclaim only goes so far on its own. It makes a much bigger difference in how it plays into both of the points I discussed above. If you read a bunch of articles about how great Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, you’re more likely to check it out on Netflix. And the more Netflix is convinced the show is valuable, the more money it will offer to the studio that made it and to the network that aired it when the rights come up for renewal again.

The TV industry is increasingly a multi-pronged attempt to make money off as many shows as possible, in as many ways as possible. And sometimes that means the most conventional way of measuring a TV show’s success — ratings — just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.