Like young viewers, CW wakes a little late

Posted: June 05, 2007

Knock, knock.

Who's there?

The CW.

Who?

Who, indeed. The fledgling network with the weird name and the mongrel identity spent its inaugural season in Witness Protection. And with good reason.

Launched in just three months, the corporate love child of the WB and UPN debuted in September with relatively little promotion. Its lineup featured two new shows and more than a few returning series with cobwebs.

"They went out and said, 'We're a new network,' but there was almost nothing new," says Mediaweek analyst Marc Berman. "You can't fool an audience."

Eight months later, the CW "has the goods" to be a bona fide fifth broadcast network, says Dawn Ostroff, its president of entertainment. This time, media experts agree.

"For us, it's all about keeping up with the 18-to-34-year-olds," says Ostroff, 47, formerly head of UPN. "They change quickly. Their tastes are fickle. We need to stay with them."

To accomplish that, the network has morphed most of its prime-time schedule for the fall.

Out: Veterans 7th Heaven; Veronica Mars; Gilmore Girls; All of Us.

In: Newbies Gossip Girl (from the creator of The O.C.); Aliens in America, a sitcom about a Pakistani exchange student; the quirky comedy-thriller Reaper; Life Is Wild, a family drama shot in South Africa.

Also in: New reality shows CW Now and Online Nation. They join America's Next Top Model, the network's most popular series, averaging 5.4 million total viewers.

"I'm very impressed with their lineup," says Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming at CARAT USA, a media-buying firm. "It looks amazing. They know squarely who their audience is."

Berman seconds that emotion. "They're doing now what they said they were going to do. They got rid of a lot of the old baggage. I'm excited about their new schedule."

The CW's baggage was mondo heavy. There was only a small window of time to merge because both the WB and UPN were about to re-up with local stations around the country. Viacom (UPN's and CBS's owner) had to move quickly.

Once the deal was finalized, Viacom had to cobble together a group of new affiliates (it's Channel 57 here). The CW was left with virtually no time to develop new programming.

Ever the good soldier, Ostroff's not complaining. "That was the hand we were dealt," she says. "By some wild coincidence, the timing was like lightning striking in a bottle."

On Ostroff's report card, the CW's first season scored a B-plus.

"I think we wound up exactly where we predicted. I always said if we could be doing better than the other two [WB and UPN] by the end of the season, I'd be very happy.

She's very happy. But not by much.

The CW averaged 3.2 million total viewers in the just-completed 2006-07 season, up 3 percent over the WB and UPN, individually, last season, according to Nielsen Media Research. It also finished slightly ahead among adults 18 to 34.

The network's fall schedule remains Balkanized, with African American sitcoms on Mondays; chick shows on Wednesdays; boy-driven pro wrestling on Fridays.

Still, Ostroff insists the CW's "branding" is clear.

"I feel like we're more focused than any other network. Whether man, woman or minority, our viewers have several things in common - vernacular, lifestyle, pop culture icons."

Translation: They speak their own dialect. Surf the Net. Send text messages. Wear hip clothes. Dig cool music. Hate the haters.

"They have a very different attitude toward our culture," in Ostroff's view. "To them, it's all a melting pot. They really don't judge by color or ethnicity."

Expanding to a seventh night is a "longer term" goal, Ostroff says, but she's in no hurry to program for Saturday.

"It's no secret that Saturday is a tough night. That's why no network is currently programming Saturday with original scripted programming. It's all repeats, news and sports."

Even without a full weekly schedule, ad buyers are buzzing about CW's fall lineup, announced May 17. They say it speaks to the network's diverse viewership.

"Of all the networks, they seem to know their target audience the best," says CARAT USA's Brill.

For example, she labels Aliens "the best metaphor for racial tolerance of any new show on any network. The CW is the most culturally diverse, and its viewers are the most culturally open."

They're also the youngest.

Median age of CW viewers last season was 32.6, according to Nielsen. That's 11 years younger than its closest competitor, Fox, at 43.3. ABC clocks in at 47.7, followed by NBC's 48.8 and CBS's 52.6.

Bottom line, the CW "delivers younger eyeballs better than anybody else out there," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research for Horizon Media.

Knock, knock.


Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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