Monday, November 15, 2010

Trimming The Fat (CW Edition)

I am and have in the past been a fan (at times vocal) of shows with mild-to-disastrous ratings.

See, for instance, Veronica Mars (still miss you, Ronnie!)

Of course, when we have personal attachment to shows, we make excuses for why a network should renew / order additional episodes. Upscale incomes. Highly concentrated demographics. Change the timeslot and give this great show a chance to find an audience... it's too damn good to cancel, dammit!

But take your Fan Hat off for a moment. I know, it's hard. But your hair looks fine. Trust me. Let's talk brass tacks.

I was going to extend this post to all networks, but decided that, hey, maybe I'll get to blogging more often if I separate things out a bit. So, for now, we're just talking CW.

This development year was the first in two that failed to produce a "hit" premiere - let alone a "hit" series. For a limited shelf space, limited budget, niche-appeal network like CW with rapidly aging shows and a finicky audience... this is disastrous.

In 2008, CW gave us 90210 2.0 which may have rapidly sunk post-premiere, but for a CW show that premiere attracted eyeballs. Almost 5 million of the (same day). In 2009, The Vampire Diaries' premiere also almost attracted 5 million viewers. Unlike 90210, Vampire Diaries has actually held onto a sizable-enough portion of that audience to be considered CW's lone viable television program (though, unlike True Blood, it failed to see big season-to-season gains... too bad, though).

In a "perfect" world with an infinite budget both for production and marketing and without any personal attachments coming into the mix... The Vampire Diaries is the only show that would survive a real "trimming the fat."

Of course, we, and the CW, don't live in that supposedly "perfect" world.

You can make W18-34 arguments for Gossip Girl (GG, despite having about half the overall audience as TVD, does have basically the same W18-34 audience as TVD... and, according to an article I recently read, GG is tied with The Office for the highest concentration of "upscale" A18-34 viewers). That's two hours of programming.

Supernatural has done respectable business on Fridays and I suspect it will remain there next year. The question is: how does it do without the Smallville lead-in next year? There is also a back-end argument to be made for Supernatural as it's syndicated on TNT (I don't have per episode figures) and the show does well on DVD (genre shows tend to overperform at DVD compared to their audience size). That's three hours.

America's Next Top Model? It's long in the tooth. It's been showing its age since Cycle 10 and this is, what, Cycle 15? The ratings weren't reinvigorated by the "actually a high fashion prize with better designers and photographers" change this cycle. Which I have to imagine added to the cost of the show. Still, this show isn't going anywhere for a while. And ANTM has syndication value. That's four hours.

That's still six hours to program. There are (flimsy) arguments to be made for more seasons of both 90210 and One Tree Hill. But CW isn't a network that can afford to reprogram 6 hours. Reprogramming 4 is still quite a stretch.

Do Hellcats or Nikita fit in?

Probably not. And here's why: Life Unexpected was canceled.

I feel like the experiment of a second season of LUX should tell CW what to do about its two freshmen, Hellcats and Nikita. Neither of them had huge series premieres even by "CW standards" (ah, love that phrase). Hellcats with 3 million, Nikita with 3.6 million. And now they're both lucky to hit 2/3 of those numbers. Nikita's W18-34, behind CW's number one show, are actually the worst on the network (some times, even LUX has higher W18-34). Now, I'm not putting the possibility of either show suddenly catching fire totally out of question. I mean, it's always possible. But is it probable? No. CW hoped LUX would catch fire in its extended break, and it didn't.

Gossip Girl "blew up" thanks to anticipation built during the Writers Strike hiatus, a bold new marketing campaign, a timeslot change, limited competition thanks to the strike, and (JMHO) stellar content in the initial 13 episode order. Then it grew more after the summer... and it was never as popular again as it was at the top of its second season.

Don't expect miracles for either Hellcats or Nikita. Especially because none of those things that helped Gossip Girl "explode" seem to be in the cards (he said without haven't watched any of Hellcats beyond the pilot presentation, and having watched two episodes of Nikita... but I haven't gotten any indication that either are the Best TV Show I'm Not Watching, so...)

The lesson from LUX, then, seems to be that when you don't have enough of an audience to slowly trickle off through several seasons... cut your losses and don't go beyond one season.

Even Hellcats. It rebounded in W18-34 last week... but only to a 1.7 (which is under 90210's season three levels). LUX was pulling 1.7s out of One Tree Hill last season. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (not that anyone has accused Dawn Ostroff of being sane...)

But CW doesn't even live in a world perfect enough that it can program 4 new hours of TV next fall (yet another reason why this fall was disastrous: a complete lack of midseason replacement backup... we've yet to hear how CW is planning to fill Tuesdays at 9pm after LUX runs out of episodes).

So there may be a season two of Hellcats (and, hell, there may even be a season two of Nikita... which will not be indicative of Nikita itself, it will be indicative of the sorry state CW finds itself in). Don't expect much more.

In short... it seems that the CW is in such terrible shape that there is literally too much fat to trim at this point.

Here's an idea for CW, though. Take a page from the first season of Gossip Girl and from the first season of Glee: run a show's initial order out over the course of the fall (and, if you must, January). Take it off the air. Let anticipation build. Have the studio release a Season One, Part One DVD. Bring the show back in late March / early April and run the back order continuously through sweeps. Alternatively, program like the first season of Heroes (a marketing success story), in 3 chunks, and make damn sure the story has the requisite cliffhangers.

There are risks, of course. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or do viewers forget? CW isn't programming broad-appeal shows; it's clearly programming niche shows that tend to have a higher concentration of hardcore, passionate fans, if you give those viewers material that makes them care, their hearts grow fonder, though there's plenty of evidence that it's not always the case (just from last year on ABC: Flashforward and V... of course, the ratings for both were on downward spirals before their hiatus). When you program to a niche hoping for passion, sometimes (rarely / not often) you get a show like Glee where there is a large enough core of passionate fans that the show actually is considered a big hit (remember, the first season's fall airings were not anywhere near the current ratings levels... though between you and me, Dear Reader, I think Glee hit its ratings peak in the first two episodes of this season).

I'm not suggesting CW will find something that hits like Glee. But if you can craft a show that people will anticipate and miss and want to watch... what's another little marketing push?

Think of it, if you will, as more like a cable network than a broadcast network. You can be sure that ABC Family is going to be pushing the return of Pretty Little Liars for its midseason return. And I know there's a difference between airing over the summer and airing in the winter against broadcast competition. But I expect PLL will have no trouble viewership (and I actually expect an uptick).

Of course, the material has to be there (with the casting, and the production, and the direction), and even after all of that, the network still has to pick up the damn show (there's no guarantee that happens as almost every season has a couple of "I can't believe they didn't pick this up!!!" pilots). This year, it wasn't.

An optimist or CW apologist might say "But Travis! You just pointed out a reason to give Hellcats and Nikita a season season order so that anticipation can build! They have to try!" Well... unlike LUX, both of these shows will run full seasons before a pickup has to be made, while LUX "only" had the initial order of 13. There was no opportunity for a schedule break for LUX. There is still plenty of opportunity, in the next 6 months, to see what happens with Hellcats and Nikita. As above, I just don't see it in the cards because the pieces that would need to be in place for a surge just aren't.

Take the Fan Hat off. Run your fingers through your hair and feel the cold breeze.

PS - It was interesting to look at the first seasons of Heroes/Gossip Girl/Glee, each with extended breaks and new marketing pushes for the relaunch... their second seasons premiered to the biggest numbers the show would ever get and then quickly suffered (from a combination of overhype and sophomore slump). Yet another reason why I think that "Audition" and "Britney/Brittany" will be Glee's highest-ever rated episodes.


Spot said...

I'm not sure about the whole "letting the anticipation build" strategy as it pertains to stuff like Gossip Girl. As you acknowledge, there are a lot of examples on both sides of that point. And while it was a little bit bigger right after the move to Monday, it didn't really make significant gains till early season 2.

Very good point, though, about how so many of these really buzz-driven shows tend to peak right around the end of season 1/beginning of season 2. Lost and Desperate Housewives are a couple other good examples. So if you get past that point and you still don't have much of anything ratings-wise (like LUX), it's not really worth much more investment.

SoCal said...

CW has Shedding For the Wedding on deck as it's mid-season replacement.

DuMont said...

The CW has also said that it has the unaired episodes of the summer series '18 to Life' for use as filler in its winter sked, perhaps to put in place of 'Life Unexpected'.

Given that The CW has so little mid-season inventory, what would they lose in opening up the LuX hour for broadcast-ready pilots, just to see if one of them catches viewer fancies. Pilots, mostly genre hours, that I would give a try out to under some sort of 'CW Experimental Theatre' umbrella would be:

* Betwixt
* Body Politic
* Changelings
* Host
* Nomads
* Wyoming Story

That, together with a few other pilots on the shelf (or yet to be filmed), could fill the gap caused by the lack of a 'Life Unexpected' back nine. And The CW might get some useful data on which of the above pilots make a connection with their target A18-34 demos.

I wouldn't keep the newbies because 'Hellcats' suffers from limited premise, and 'Nikita' doesn't pair up well with anything on The CW.

But the really tough thinking comes pre-upfront. Based on the numbers I'm seeing (and one can't forget the dismal repeat Nielsens for all those soapers), here's what I'd recommend to Miss Ostroff:

* 90210 / Gossip Girl
* America's Next Top Model / NEW W18-34 DRAMA-REALITY
* NEW GENRE DRAMA / Supernatural
* The Vampire Diaries / NEW GENRE DRAMA
* THE CW FRIDAY NIGHT MOVIE (the Sunday movie did very well, and there are a lot of good genre titles that could be packaged...also, The CW could use the movie to double-up one-hour pilots for test runs)

This is a viable path forward for The CW that would cut away some of their deadwood, and maximize the opportunities to try out new concepts with their viewer base.


Anonymous said...


On the Glee seeing its rating peak, I have to point out that they have the post-Super Bowl slot this year. That would gurantee that it will get its rating peak then.

Anonymous said...

Just saw your tweet :) I know that it wasn't the point (re: Glee post Superbowl). I was just actually trying to be factual :D... Love your blog BTW :)

Travis Yanan said...


Hahah, just so we're clear :D And I definitely agree with you.

Thanks for the compliment! Going to try to be more active with it.

thedemonhog said...

When [i]Heroes[/i] came back after its first midseason hiatus, it was even with where it left; however, when it came back after is second midseason hiatus, it was down 3 million viewers, so I find you calling it "a marketing success story" a bit much.

Even more misleading in your article is that you call the second season premiere the highest-rated episode of Heroes ever. Sure, in the history books, the September 24, 2007 second season premiere is listed as having 16.97 million, but that was due to NBC's infamous exploitation of the technicality that they could count the following Saturday's rerun in the count if they played the exact same commercials in it.

The actual highest-rated broadcast of Heroes was on November 20, 2006 with 16.03 million.

Travis Yanan said...


The 3rd chunk of Heroes' first season also faced Dancing with the Stars for the first time in the the show's history, and that's where the 3 million viewers went (the demo bleed wasn't as bad, by percentage).

I recall cumegate. It gives the numbers an asterisk, but it was "legal" / within the rules and those are the numbers we have to work with.