The CW’s crisis of branding

12.22.08 9 years ago

Jack Rowand/The CW

On Sunday (Dec. 21) night, The CW dedicated two hours of primetime to a broadcast of “Three Amigos!”

I have no hatred for “Three Amigos!” even if I refuse to figure out which keys on my laptop would yield the required upside-down exclamation point necessary to properly report its title. But it still struck me as odd that a network that has repeatedly declared its desire to narrowcast to young female viewers, overall audience diversity be damned, would be airing a male buddy comedy from 1986 in a slot that constitutes roughly 15 percent of its week.

The fewer than 1.4 million people who tuned in might also have felt a certain confusion.

For a network, in primetime, 1.4 million is an audience so insignificant that it could almost be attributed to energy-wasting viewers going out to a movie and forgetting to turn off the TV or, at the very least, conversation-starved families keeping the TV on to provide a little ambient noise. I say “almost” because the audience for “Three Amigos” actually beat the snot out of what “Valentine, Inc.” and “Easy Money” were drawing in that timeslot earlier in the fall. 

As I was thinking about “Three Amigos!” and what that said about The CW and MRC’s blundered Sunday programming, I also happened upon this AP story about ratings improvements made by My Network TV this season. The story begins with the proud announcement that My Network TV has beaten The CW three weeks in a row. It’s a factoid so juicy that Aint-It-Cool used the headline “MyNetworkTV Pulls Ahead Of The CW” and led with the specious claim “MyNetworkTV is clobbering The CW…”

It isn’t untrue, mind you. It’s just slightly meaningless, since the alleged rise of My Network TV coincides with the end of The CW’s “America’s Next Top Model,” plus the end of 2008 installments of “Gossip Girl,” “Smallville,” Supernatural” and “90210.” That is to say that My Network TV has, indeed, managed to beat a CW lineup composed of serialized repeats, MGM movies and the fashion disaster that was “Stylista.” If My Network TV wants to boast about that, kudos, I guess. 

But the point that I got out of the AP article had to do with how The CW’s decision to prioritize branding over pure eyeballs either hasn’t worked, or is the latest extension of the Ben Silvermanization of television, a process through which simple eyeballs can no longer be computed into dollars-and-cents. Perhaps I’ll ask CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff about it next month at press tour.

My Network TV has been the direct beneficiary of The CW’s move to only focus on young women, grabbing the jettisoned “Friday Night Smackdown!” and riding it to just under 3.6 million viewers per week on a tough night. The CW got 4.5 million viewers out of the show, but determined that those viewers, largely young white males, were worth less than the ability to claim flow from night-to-night.

“Clearly, we know that taking something like ‘WWE’ off, which was a very strong performer, will have an impact on the schedule,” Ostroff admitted in July at the TCA press tour. “The question is will we be able to compensate in other places. But I think what”s really important is that we have talked about building a brand, about having flow. And when you look at the schedule now, we just feel that we”re speaking to a similar audience night after night after night and have an opportunity to bring people in who are all coming to us on Monday night in the next night and the night after, which we really hadn”t had. So that was our goal. I mean, it was a really tough decision and a bold decision to decide to take ‘WWE’ off. It was not easy.”

To that Friday night slot, The CW exiled the dying last vestiges of several former network brands. In “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game,” The CW shunted a withering commitment to both comedies and African-American viewers — formerly a bedrock of The WB and, particularly, UPN. The results have been exactly as you’d imagine. “Chris,” still deserving a place in the upper tier of network sitcoms, and “The Game,” which still holds a little of that dedicated “Girlfriends” fan base now, both average under 1.9 million viewers. With an audience of that size, flow doesn’t really factor into the equation, does it?

Trying to make a Sunday lineup with flow, courtesy of Media Rights Capital, has also failed, though The CW’s Sunday had always been a wobbly (to be kind) proposition. At least those early season MRC duds stayed on-brand for The CW. In their absence, MRC has left The CW with the most random assortment of castoffs, two-year-old repeats of “Jericho” and an assortment of MGM movies that sometimes fit (“Cutting Edge”) and sometimes don’t (“Three Amigos”).

I wonder if there’s any precedent to suggest that network television is a good place to have principles, or if you have to have accumulated a certain amount of capital to earn principles. With “America’s Next Top Model” down this season, The CW doesn’t have any show drawing a bigger audience than “Smackdown” used to. The new incarnation of “90210” hasn’t been the breakout hit the network so desperately needs and after a couple decent weeks, it’s settled into the same ratings range as “Gossip Girl” and “One Tree Hill,” which makes me wonder why The CW things a remake of “Melrose Place” could possibly be a good idea. And with “90210” failing to break out, “Privileged” never had the sort of lead-in programmers hoped for, possibly preventing the critically adored show from finding any traction. “WWE Smackdown” may not have had flow, but it had viewers, enough viewers to cover a multitude of sins.

The future offers little cause for optimism. The CW’s midseason hopefuls are the off-brand reality show “13 – Fear Is Real,” which will have to buck the netlet’s recent past with non-“ANTM” unscripted shows, and the return “Reaper,” a show that failed to find any sort of audience last season. I loved “Reaper” and will probably encourage you frequently to watch it, but I don’t expect it to suddenly become a smash, especially with a less-than-compatible lead-in in “90210.” Throw in a sinking Friday and a filler Sunday and it will be interesting to see if The CW takes a different approach for next fall.

Til then, I guess we’ll always have Tyra, Blair and Serena. That’s my idea of The CW’s Three Amigas.

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