Two weeks after all the other broadcast networks, the CW finally kicked off its 2015-16 season last night. It may be the most pivotal season in the network’s history for reasons that have nothing to do with how its shows do in the ratings, because it may be the CW’s last season in its current form. Here are the facts the CW faces:
- In recent years, the number of shows the CW has aired has skewed heavily towards Warner Bros. productions over CBS productions – 7-to-3 in this year’s fall lineup. As a result, more marginally rated CBS shows have been renewed, sparking speculation that those renewals were a way to keep CBS happy and meet certain obligations inherent in the structure of the network. It’s easy to see why such a skew has developed – CBS has its own broadcast network to focus on and develop for, and the CW is a lower priority.
- 2016 marks the CW’s 10-year anniversary, and more importantly, it marks the expiration of most if not all of its original affiliation agreements. That’s especially important because of a number of other factors surrounding those affiliates.
- Many CW affiliates in large to mid-size markets, including the CW affiliates in the Big Three markets of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, are owned by Tribune, the legacy of those same stations previously being WB affiliates. Although Tribune was a partner in the old WB network, it does not have a stake in the CW, and that has been the subject of some tension between Tribune and the network, as Tribune has complained about how the network has not lived up to their expectations. Some years ago Tribune de-emphasized CW branding on many of its CW affiliates in favor of more locally-oriented branding; although some stations have since re-emphasized the CW, many, including WPIX, KTLA, and WGN in the Big Three markets, have not. Tribune has also begun venturing into producing its own shows, including “Salem” and “Manhattan” for WGN America, and may feel it has less reason for a network like the CW to fill time on its stations, or may even decide to start a network, or at least MyNet-esque “syndication service”, of its own.
- In late 2016, the FCC will hold incentive auctions allowing stations to surrender some or all of their spectrum in exchange for cash payouts, and many CW and MyNet stations in smaller markets may opt to take the FCC’s offer. Already many CW and MyNet “affiliates” in smaller markets are digital subchannels of larger stations, and because FCC rules only prohibit common ownership of two of the top four stations in a market, effectively meaning the Big Four affiliates, many CW and MyNet affiliates in mid-size markets are co-owned with Big Four affiliates, including almost all the CW stations owned by CBS itself, who may opt to surrender the junior station and consolidate both affiliations onto a single signal. Some partnerships that use sharing agreements to circumvent FCC rules have already done this in anticipation of the FCC cracking down on such circumvention (and Sinclair Broadcast Group, the most infamous user of such agreements, may be preparing for a CW/MyNet-less future with its American Sports Network). The fewer separate stations the CW and MyNet have, the less reason either of them has to exist, especially depending on how happy the owners of the remaining stations are with the network. The CW must give standalone stations a good reason to stay on the air and sign up for another term with them.
- The CW has long emphasized that it does not see the ratings of its shows on linear television as the whole story, that its shows make much of their money through streaming, DVD/Blu-Ray sales, syndication, and international deals. None of those, however, directly benefit the local stations that carry the CW, for which ratings are the only stake they have in the network. If linear ratings aren’t where you’re making your money, why are you a linear network, certainly one on broadcast?
- The CW has long ordered fewer new shows than the other networks because they don’t program weekends, 10 PM, or scripted comedies (or any half-hours outside of summer). This year, however, takes it to an extreme with a grand total of one new show in the fall, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” – a show that was originally developed for Showtime before being revived and retooled for broadcast at the CW. Worth noting that “Supergirl”, which comes from the same people behind “Arrow” and “The Flash” and might otherwise have crossed over with those shows, is debuting on CBS, not the CW. One may surmise that the CW is preparing for the possibility that it may not exist by this time next year and so isn’t starting any new shows that might be shut down for reasons outside their control, or moved to another channel, after one season.
Ultimately, the future of the network may well hinge on Warner Bros., and whether or not they still feel it’s worth it to own and run a broadcast network in this day and age (which is especially doubtful considering the CW merger itself may have been a stepping stone to getting out of the business). If not, they may elect to shut down the network and move their shows to networks like corporate sibling TNT, and CBS can move whatever shows they don’t decide to just end to their main broadcast network, Showtime, or Pop, or try and start their own MyNet-alike to air on their own owned stations (including independents WLNY New York and KCAL Los Angeles) and subchannels in other markets. If they do, they may want to buy out CBS’ half of the network, perhaps in conjunction with Tribune, and effectively resurrect the WB. Warners would still need to find a way to work with Tribune in order to have stations for the network to air on, especially without CBS, which could mean letting Tribune have part of CBS’ stake or even trying to buy out Tribune’s CW (and, potentially, MyNet) stations entirely. If Warners does want to keep the CW on the air as at least a nominal “fifth network”, they will want to change the network’s strategy in order to provide enough value for stations at markets of all sizes to avoid losing them to the incentive auction or any other forces that might make them reticent – and that means that keeping CBS involved, which probably doesn’t really allow the CW to fix its “underperforming CBS shows that get renewed anyway” problem, really isn’t an option, since CBS has no interest in fostering its own competition. (Unfortunately, sports is the most obvious way to do that, and there’s basically nothing they can acquire until next decade.)
With that context, perhaps the two most important shows for divining the CW’s future are “The Originals” and “Reign”, two shows that enter this season on the syndication fast-track, and so, under normal circumstances, would be a sure bet for another season – if the CW still exists next season. “The Originals” is a Warner Bros. show, but “Reign” is a CBS show, and so CBS has incentive to have some sort of platform next season to air “Reign” if nothing else. That means CBS wants to prevent either of the above scenarios from happening, or at least make sure “Reign” is taken care of if they do.
Frankly I think the CW shutting down or converting to a MyNet-esque service is more likely than Warners trying to run it on their own, though I do hope for the latter. Even the latter scenario would likely mean the CBS shows get kicked off the schedule and the standards for Warners shows might be lower. However, I’m going to look at CW shows as though it’s going to essentially be business as usual next season. Besides the shows mentioned above, based on the scheme I introduced last week, “The Flash”, “iZombie”, and “Jane the Virgin” are sophomores; “Arrow”, “Supernatural”, and “The Vampire Diaries” are veterans. As for NBC’s “Undateable”, see its entry at the bottom.
How to read the chart: First box shows current time slot, second box current season number. Eps: Total number of episodes aired / total number of episodes ordered (if known). Last: 18-49 rating of the most recent episode. Raw: Average of first-run 18-49 ratings. Adj.: Average of the most recent episode and the previous Adj. rating. WklIdx: Last divided by the network scripted show average for the week. RawIdx: Raw divided by the network scripted show average for the season. Index: Adj. divided by the network scripted show average for the season. In general, >1.1=certain renewal, .85-1.1=probable renewal, .7-.85=on the bubble, .6-.7=probably cancelled. Anything substantially less than .6 for rookie shows indicates a dead show walking. Prod: Production company that produces the show (ABC=ABC Studios, CBS=CBS Television, Fox=20th Television, NBCU=Universal Television, Sony=Sony Pictures Television, WB=Warner Bros. Television). Incorporates ratings through Sunday, October 4; write-ups do not take into account Tuesday’s ratings. Weekly averages used: ABC 1.89, FOX 1.89, CBS 1.71, NBC 1.66. Network averages used: ABC 2.01, FOX 1.97, CBS 1.87, NBC 1.74. Read More