Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
The CW might not have nearly as many viewers as the “big four” broadcast networks do, but the network has proved that knows what it’s doing.
By the time The CW hosted its upfront presentation on May 18, NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox had already presented their upcoming TV slates to ad buyers with no shortage of triumphant grandstanding. But The CW — whose live viewership regularly tops out at well under 2 million viewers per episode, which would be a bare minimum for other networks and an embarrassment for CBS — didn’t try to eke out ratings victories where there were none.
The CW’s particular strength lies in its ability to inspire passion in young fans. This fact was on display before the network’s presentation even started: Just like last year, as ad buyers and press lined up outside the theater, they found themselves standing opposite throngs of teens amassed outside the New York City Center and London Hotel across the street, craning to see the network’s stars streaming in. (My personal favorites were the three girls standing upfront with a sign openly thirsting after Riverdale’s Archie, calling actor K.J. Apa “the real daddy,” as per his social media request. Teens!)
And so The CW didn’t bother trying to convince ad buyers that they’ll reach the highest number of eyeballs if they invest in the network. Instead, it emphasized its reach outside TV itself — which might be true but also undersells the smart choices The CW has made in putting together its 2017-’18 lineup.
Here are five takeaways from The CW’s new fall schedule, and what it might mean for TV’s unlikely broadcast hero looking forward.
1) The CW would like you to know that The CW is "a true multi-platform success"
Throughout upfronts week, the other major broadcast networks have been crowing to ad buyers about their most impressive viewership numbers, each somehow managing to brag about being No. 1 in some demographic or another. The CW knows it can’t do that, so it took a different approach.
In fact, the network’s press release announcing its new schedule didn’t mention any numbers at all. Instead, it just detailed its fall schedule and included a statement from CW president Mark Pedowitz, who claimed that “The CW has transformed over the past few years, from a linear network into a true multi-platform success.”
That phrase — “multi-platform success” — was a recurring theme at the presentation itself. Pedowitz talked up The CW’s willingness to adapt to “ongoing change in our industry.” He returned again and again to CW Seed, the network’s digital-only free streaming service, which hosts older shows like The OC and original series such as an upcoming animated version of DC Comics’ Constantine. (CW Seed will also soon host Everwood and Dynasty, the latter of which is getting a CW reboot in the fall.)
Pedowitz also emphasized the “buzz” surrounding CW shows, from both critics (for Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and fans (from the network’s glut of superhero and DC comic book shows, like Supergirl, Arrow, and Riverdale). He even pointed out while introducing the midseason comedy Life Sentence that star Lucy Hale — fresh off finishing Pretty Little Liars — is not only “a gifted actress” but one “with a loyal fan base and massive social media following."
The network’s mention of Riverdale during the presentation was an especially interesting moment, particularly because it ended up being the only show there to not bring out anyone from the cast. The Archie Comics adaptation — despite giving Archie Andrews a superhuman six-pack — ended up with disappointing ratings at barely a million live viewers. Pedowitz didn’t quite acknowledge that onstage, but he did insist that Riverdale “is a series where you must look at the full picture,” since its audience grows so dramatically (125 percent, according to The CW) when you factor in delayed and/or streaming viewing.
TL;DR: The CW might not have the numbers other networks do, but it wants advertisers to know it’s got the reach nonetheless.
2) But the network’s fall schedule is still smart about its actual scheduling
Don’t get it twisted: The CW’s low relative viewership hasn’t stopped it from putting real effort and strategy into its fall 2017 schedule.
Supergirl — which The CW adopted for the 2016-’17 season after the show aired its first season on The CW’s sister network CBS — remains on Mondays, where it drew solid numbers (for the CW), and will lead into the network’s ambitious new military drama, Valor. It’s keeping The Flash on Tuesdays to lead into Legends of Tomorrow, making more potential crossovers between the two shows that much easier to pull off.
The mainstay drama Supernatural — now entering its 13th season(!) — will air on Thursdays with the tonally similar Arrow, a pairing The CW is confident will appeal to different viewers from those who will flock (in much larger numbers) to Thursday Night Football on CBS or This Is Us on NBC. (As a side note, Supernatural will also apparently be spicing things up with a journey into “the animated world of Scooby Doo,” a line that came off like a joke until slightly panicked stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki clarified that it was not.)
Meanwhile, Riverdale and the new Dynasty — both reboots of beloved properties of old — will bow together on Wednesdays.
Jane the Virgin is moving from Monday to rejoin its former schedule neighbor Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Friday. On a conference call with reporters held before the upfront presentation, Pedowitz justified the decision to move Jane by noting that the show is in its fourth season, is about as solid as it’s going to get in the ratings, and anyway, “we also have to launch new shows!”
This kind of dramatic Monday-to-Friday shift for an acclaimed series might set off alarm bells at just about any other network, but honestly, it makes sense for The CW. Jane and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are both low-rated but critically beloved shows that have earned the network its only Emmy nominations and Golden Globe wins to date. Neither is about to find more of an audience than they already have, and as Pedowitz confirmed, both see substantial boosts from delayed and streaming viewing, meaning their primetime time slots doesn’t matter as much.
With only two new shows launching in the fall, The CW can largely stick to what it knows works — and the adjustments it’s made are ones that proves the network understands its audience.
3) The CW says it’s looking to expand beyond its established superhero slate (fact-check: half true)
Now that most other networks are branching out further into the superhero and sci-fi genre that The CW latched onto years ago, The CW says it’s ready to “zig when others zag.”
This isn’t exactly true, given that its fall schedule features three superhero shows (and a triple crossover event slated to air in November), with the midseason schedule adding another DC Comics series — Black Lightning — into the mix. (Note: Black Lightning does not currently take place in what The CW calls “the Arrow-verse,” which encompasses the rest of the network’s DC Comics series, a fact that made me literally sigh with relief.)
So make no mistake: The CW is still dependent on superheroes to deliver reliable results, especially since it now doesn’t have The Vampire Diaries in its lineup for the first time since that show premiered in 2009.
But The CW is still taking a couple of risks in the fall, a tactic that has paid off in the past with shows like Jane and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In this vein, the midseason comedy Life Sentence looks to be the closest analogue. It gives Hale — a more charming comedic actress than Pretty Little Liars often let her show — a starring vehicle, helmed by none other than Bill Lawrence (the mind behind Scrubs and Cougar Town).
As for The CW’s beloved soap arena, the network is very excited about Dynasty, a modern-day reimagining of the ’80s soap classic that will nonetheless have to prove to a new generation why a fresh bunch of rich nightmare people are more compelling than any of the others on TV. (One point in the show’s favor, though: This Dynasty comes from Gossip Girl and The OC creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage.)
Valor is perhaps the most off-brand new show to land on The CW in a long time, featuring zero teens and a hefty amount of grim and grounded drama. I’ll be surprised if it lasts for more than a season, but I’m intrigued by the simple fact that The CW thinks it can make such a show work alongside the rest of its programming.
4) The CW has something other networks don’t: a record of pushing female-led shows
Early in The CW’s upfront presentation, Pedowitz practically glowed as he introduced Gina Rodriguez, the effervescent and Golden Globe–winning star of Jane the Virgin. In perfect Gina Rodriguez fashion, she launched into an impassioned, inspirational speech about the network’s commitment to diversity, imploring the packed theater to “pause the [business] for a second and open our hearts.”
Rodriguez beamed as she preached — there’s really no other word for it — the value of television, which “has the power to bring someone in your living room that you might not have the opportunity to meet otherwise.” She also pointed out that The CW will air “five female-led shows” in the fall between Jane, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Supergirl, Valor, and Dynasty (whose trailer features two women beating the hell out of each other via hair pulling, but still!). And women’s prominence in the network’s lineup will only get more pronounced in midseason, when iZombie and The 100 come back, joined by the aforementioned Hale-starring Life Sentence.
The CW, in other words, is staking its claim on presenting a schedule that looks nothing like any of its competitors’, which is smart. If it can’t deliver the numbers that, say, the incredibly white and male CBS lineup can, it’ll at least give us something different.
5) The CW might not need viewers when it’s got such a strong lineup and #branding
Last year, my colleague Todd VanDerWerff wondered if The CW might just be the best broadcast network out there. As a longtime CW/WB enthusiast and a sucker for soapy drama (whether teen or supernatural or both), I’ll admit I was already primed to agree.
But this year’s CW upfront really did feel like the work of a network that’s fully come into its own — and not just because it eschewed its usual opening number by a band featured in an Apple commercial for a world-premiere performance of a new single from Muse. (Also, and not for nothing, the network’s new lineup — especially Dynasty — looks to have a much higher budget than any other CW season I can remember.)
The CW has proven itself to be a network that knows exactly what it is while also being willing to take some risks — which, of course, is easier to do when you’re not quite as concerned about bringing in more than a few million viewers for a live broadcast.
But whether or not Pedowitz managed to convince advertisers that viewer numbers don’t matter, The CW is correct on at least one front: The way people watch TV is changing. The CW really might be better equipped to deal with that, given that it’s never been able to rely on a live audience anyway. And in the meantime, it’s at least putting out entertaining shows in a way no other network can claim.