Caryn Murphy. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3: Television. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
“This new network will serve the public with high-quality programming and maintain our ongoing commitment to our diverse audience. It will clearly be greater than the sum of its parts, delivering excellent demographics to advertisers, and building a strong new affiliate body. Additionally, The CW will be able to draw from the creative talent and production resources from the top two television production studios in the business, while also seeking programming from all sources—independent producers or other studios. With this move, we will be creating a viable entity, one well-equipped to compete, thrive and serve all our many publics in this multi-channel media universe.” ~ Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corporation, January 2006
In a move that seemed to signal the decline of conglomeration, Sumner Redstone, founder of media giant Viacom, split his company into two entities at the end of 2005. The division was an effort to improve stock prices by separating the more stable CBS Corporation, with its emphasis on broadcasting, from the more fluid Viacom, specializing in cable programming and film production. Redstone remains a controlling shareholder in both companies, which are operated and traded separately. Although industry analysts speculated that this move was a first step in a plan to divest one of the companies, this has not come to pass.1 Analysts also argued that the split was part of a trend of media conglomerates responding to the failures of synergy, but this was negated within a month by the announcement of The CW network, a joint broadcasting venture between CBS Corporation and Time Warner. Leslie Moonves even uses the key synergy phrase “greater than the sum of its parts” in his press announcement about The CW, quoted previously.
In January 2006, CBS Corporation and Time Warner declared their plans to shut down their competing broadcast networks, UPN and the WB, and combine their resources in The CW, targeting an audience of 18 to 34 year olds. The venture was designed to complement the media holdings of each conglomerate while addressing a market inefficiency that resulted when their networks increasingly targeted the same specific audience. Among its many holdings, CBS Corporation controls the CBS network, syndicator King World, television production units CBS Paramount TV and Spelling, cable networks under the Showtime banner, CBS Records, publisher Simon & Schuster, CBS Radio, and CBS Outdoor Advertising. The assets of Time Warner, the largest media conglomerate in the world, include Warner Bros. Television production, HBO, CNN, Time Warner cable, a host of magazine and publishing interests, and America Online.
The CW demonstrates a tendency toward cooperation rather than competition within the culture industries in an economic era characterized by both globalization and fragmentation. According to media scholar Michael Curtin, media conglomerates are responding to the threat of competition and decreased productivity by shifting their business practices toward flexibility in production and distribution.3 He argues that the culture industries employ two major strategies to maximize performance within these economic conditions; they offer mass media for global or national markets and they target niche audiences with media designed to encourage intense identification and devotion. CBS Corporation and Time Warner maintain a competitive position within a global capitalist economy by simultaneously distributing media to mass audiences and targeting specific demographic groups. In Todd Gitlin’s recent update of Inside Prime Time, his classic study of the broadcast industry, he writes, “Broadcast networks today are like networks a generation ago because they adhere to a single unswerving imperative: create, within the demographic target, the largest possible audience.” The CW has positioned itself to target a portion of the broadcast audience, viewers aged 18-34, by creating its network as an immersive experience that holds appeal for as many people within this segment as possible. For each of its corporate parents, The CW represents a small part of a larger strategy to dominate the distribution of global media. The network seeks to establish intense identification among its target audience in order to benefit each of its partner conglomerates as a whole.
In a critique of conglomeration, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, Robert McChesney argues that, “Ironically, in the eyes of investors, the main problem with the existing media system is that there is too much competition.” The competition among these media giants is not typical, however; it is characterized by cooperative practices that serve to protect the interests of the market oligopoly. On the practice of joint ventures, McChesney explains, “They are ideal because they spread the risk of a venture and eliminate the threat of competition by teaming up with potential adversaries.”7 The CW eliminated the competition between UPN and the WB over the youth market demographic, turning each network’s strengths toward succeeding with that same audience.
The CW planned its launch strategically to capitalize on the strengths of its partner companies but also on the lessons learned during the early years of UPN and the WB about the importance of network branding and target marketing. The new network has also focused on innovation in advertising, luring sponsors with “content wraps” and commercial-free sponsored programming (a strategy that recalls network radio and early television, when advertising agencies produced programming for major sponsors). Barry Meyer, CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, predicted early on that The CW would be profitable from the start because of its ability to utilize the strengths of its parent-partner conglomerates. However, the first-year results did not come close to meeting early expectations in terms of viewership, and advertising sales’ executives have quickly moved toward major changes in programming, rededicating the vision of the network to its targeted youth audience. The launch of The CW provides an instructive case study about the uses of media convergence, flexible/innovative advertising strategies, and targeted viewership within the current broadcast environment.
Learning from the Past: UPN and The WB
As far back as 1977, Paramount sought to exploit its production capabilities by starting a television network. Initial efforts failed, and by the mid-1980s, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox had supplanted Paramount’s startup attempts. The idea of launching a broadcast network hung on, however, because it made good business sense for television production companies to also be in the business of distribution (a business that was expanding during the 1980s and 1990s as the broadcast and cable universe continued to grow). During the 1980s, Paramount produced popular television programming including Cheers and the syndicated hits Star Trek: The Next Generation and Entertainment Tonight. When the expiration of the financial interest and syndication rules was announced in 1993, Paramount saw an opportunity to use their successful programming to build their own network rather than face dealing with existing broadcasters who were now free to produce the majority of their own content. Since the 1970s, the financial interest and syndication rules had limited the amount of programming that broadcast networks could produce themselves, forcing the nets to deal with independent producers. The expiration of the rules was seen in the industry as an opportunity for networks to regain control of production, leaving independent producers such as Paramount Network Television and Warner Bros. Television without dependable outlets for their content. Paramount and Warner Bros. made the announcements of their intentions to build broadcast networks in 1993 with near simultaneity, and both recruited personnel from the Fox network to guide their startups.
UPN and the WB launched within days of each other in January 1995, both having access to far fewer homes than the big four networks: NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. In order to win viewers, programmers at UPN and the WB attempted to reach more specific target audiences than the big four networks; they strategically sought out audiences who were underserved by major broadcasters but who were also potentially valuable targets for advertisers. These “netlets” closely followed the example set by Fox in its early years, through the calculated development of programming and cultivation of viewership among specific audience segments. Lucie Salhany, a former Fox network head, served as the first president and CEO at UPN, and former Fox president Jamie Kellner became the WB’s first president, developments which were the first point of comparison between the netlets and the Fox network. Fox was well established by 1993, and the strategies that Murdoch’s network had employed to gain viewers, advertisers, and affiliates were put to use at both UPN and the WB. During its early years, Fox rolled out programming slowly; when it went on air in 1986, the network only offered programming three nights a week. This limited production liability, and it also offered affiliates a certain amount of freedom with primetime during the rest of the week. Fox also built its audience by targeting specific segments that were ignored or underserved by the big three broadcasters during the 1980s. Early programming targeted African Americans (In Living Color, Martin), young men (The Simpsons, 21 Jump Street), and young women (Beverly Hills, 90210). Salhany and Kellner brought these strategies to UPN and the WB, respectively, attempting to use the lessons learned at Fox as a model for success. Both went on air with three nights of primetime programming per week, with differentiated programming aimed at finding viable audience targets.
By 1998, the WB had established itself as the network for young viewers, with primetime programming geared toward teen audiences (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek) on each of its on-air nights. Although UPN was the early favorite in the race between the netlets, it failed to quickly establish a relationship with its multiple audience targets and fell behind the WB in the race to roll out programming and gain affiliates. In 1999, UPN stumbled onto a profitable target audience: young males. The netlet aired WWF Smackdown in primetime, drawing its highest non-Star Trek ratings ever and climbing into potential viability for the first time. Historian Michele Hilmes writes, “By spring 1999 UPN had improved its ratings by 35 percent and was the number-one network among African- American households.” UPN attempted to capitalize on its appeal for the young male audience by maintaining its African American sitcoms and adding science fiction dramas. This strategy did not find long-term success, and the network continued to flail without a clear target audience.
Dawn Ostroff was installed as UPN’s president in 2002 and immediately focused her efforts on brand identity and targeted programming. She streamlined UPN toward a focus on young female viewers, just as the WB’s focus on this audience was in decline with the loss of series including Buffy, Felicity, Dawson’s Creek, and Popular. Ostroff previously worked in programming at Lifetime, the cable channel that advertises itself as “Television for Women.” Of her new position, Ostroff stated, “The first step was to find out who our viewers were, then come up with a strategic plan to create a more cohesive, quality-driven schedule.” Her strategies included the development of series with racially mixed casts and a heavy reliance on star power to speed up the development of series/network identity. The first successful example of this strategy at work on UPN is America’s Next Top Model, a reality show helmed by African American supermodel Tyra Banks. The show’s popularity translated into success on The CW, and the season seven premiere provided the official primetime launch of the new network.
The CW was structured to incorporate successful elements of both the WB and UPN. Ostroff, who had established a clear target market for UPN, was rewarded with the presidency of The CW. Rick Haskins, responsible for successful network branding at the WB, became the executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy at The CW. The WB’s 6-night, 13-hour primetime schedule was adopted, as well as its schedule of weekday afternoon and Saturday morning children’s’ programming. When the WB launched, it innovated an affiliate pay model called “reverse compensation,” in which affiliate stations paid the network one-fourth of the profits generated through their network association. This upended the traditional broadcast network model, in which the network paid affiliate stations to air programming. The WB’s experiment with this model was considered successful, and The CW adopted this approach in establishing its national network. The revenue stream generated from affiliates is intended to foster the network’s long-term financial stability.
At the time of The CW’s launch, network heads announced that they had already secured coverage in nearly 50 percent of the country through a 10-year deal with Tribune Company (an investor in the WB network) and the owned and operated stations of CBS Corporation. After the launch announcement, there was a race among other stations to affiliate with the new network. UPN had less of a market reach than the WB, and in some areas of the country, although UPN was available via cable, it had no broadcast stations at all. In markets areas that had previously had a broadcast affiliate for both UPN and the WB, typically The CW affiliated the station with a stronger signal.
Free To Be Branded
“I don’t look at us as launching a new network. I look at us as launching a new entertainment brand.” ~ Rick Haskins, CW executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy, September 2006
The CW undertook a major branding campaign in the relatively short period of time between its announcement and launch. This marketing effort was particularly challenging because it involved getting the attention of current UPN and WB viewers but also potential viewers that might be drawn into the new network. The campaign worked to appeal to the youth market across lines of demographic difference including race, gender, and ethnicity. Market research undertaken by the network estimated that their ideal target audience included 60 million people from Generations X and Y and that one of the defining characteristics of this group is that they make no distinction between “old” and “new” media. The network’s branding campaign utilized aspects of both old and new media in order to reach potential viewers, emphasizing that The CW would not maintain the same boundaries as other broadcasters.
The CW’s “Free to Be” promotion served as its national branding campaign and was circulated heavily in print media and on billboards. Advertisements employed a bright green background along with the network’s logo, rather than a mascot. Each ad featured a different CW series and associated it with the “Free to Be” slogan. Wise-cracking dramedy Gilmore Girls was promoted as “Free to Be Witty,” Chris Rock’s family sitcom Everybody Hates Chris as “Free to Be Funny,” and teen Superman adventure Smallville as “Free to Be Super.” The campaign emphasized the youthful and energetic outlook of the new network but also attempted to brand The CW specifically as a broadcaster. The “free” quality referenced in these ads emphasizes the network’s youthful attitude but also refers to its status as an over-the-air broadcaster, entering a television landscape increasingly populated by pay channels transmitted via cable. The campaign worked to create awareness that familiar programming from the former netlets would be moving to a new location (in some cases, a literal channel change) but would still be available via free broadcast.
The “Free to Be” campaign was employed during a mall tour in August 2006, working to target young people specifically. The “mall domination tour,” as CW executives referred to it, visited 35 malls in major markets. The tour met with a surprising level of interest. In Los Angeles, several thousand young fans showed up to meet the stars of Smallville and Supernatural. The tour also featured major recording artists including Jewel, whose albums are released by a Warner Music Group label, and promotional giveaways with the network logo. Visitors to the “CW Lounge” areas found televisions and computers available and were invited to incorporate their own photos with footage from network series to create promotional ads. The winning entries in this user-driven campaign, “Free to Be Famous,” aired during The CW’s first few weeks. The strategy was designed to make young viewers see the network as technologically innovative and to see themselves as creative participants in the network. CW Lounges sought to engage young viewers in the digital world in order to draw them into the audience for broadcast television.
The CW also reached out to young computer users through advertising on the search engine Yahoo! and the social networking site MySpace (owned by News Corporation), where it was the first network to employ a “homepage-takeover” option that directed all users to The CW’s page. The MySpace page promoted the network and its programming and was designed to help get the word out on the new network’s identity through viral communication. The network’s interest in MySpace, a site mainly populated and trafficked by people under 30 years old, was a strategic attempt to appeal to potential viewers within the youth market. MySpace is also a major networking source for amateur musicians, and The CW used their homepage-takeover to promote a contest offering a chance for a band to play on the primetime series Supernatural. As with Free to Be Famous, this was designed to make young people see the television network as interactive, offering unique opportunities for viewers to participate in its content.
The CW has continued to emphasize convergence, interactivity, and social networking in its branding strategy, indicating that this has been a successful way to connect with viewers and establish itself as an entertainment source for the target demographic. In February 2007, the network promoted a contest called “Making the Cut” that allowed entrants access to Supernatural footage that they could fashion into their own preview for the series. The winning advertisement aired during primetime.
The industry trade paper Variety uses “the Green net” as a shorthand reference to the network in acknowledgement of the association that The CW has built between its identity and its signature color. In its second year, The CW is taking this link in a new direction with its campaign “Free 2 B Green,” which focuses on environmental issues. The campaign, which partners the network with Stop Global Warming Virtual March and the Natural Resources Defense Council, was spurred by market research indicating that environmental issues are of particular importance to the youth audience that The CW is targeting. It will include environmentally themed public service announcements (featuring CW stars), national advertising, and in an ambitious move, related themes will be incorporated into one episode of each series airing on the network during its second year. This branding effort utilizes the “green” association of environmental awareness to cement the association between the network and this color. It builds on the brand identity already established by the network, continuing the “Free to Be” theme, but further promotes The CW as socially conscious and responsive to the concerns of its target market.
“We want to be the entertainment destination for young adults.” ~ Dawn Ostroff, May 2007
In 2006, Ostroff announced The CW’s first program schedule at the television industry upfront presentation in New York City. She told the gathering of advertisers and affiliates, “By bringing together established hit series with innovative new shows, we were able to create a stellar schedule for our premiere season.” In fact, the network premiered only two new shows in fall 2006, African American sitcom The Game and family drama Runaway. The latter was cancelled after only a few airings, leaving the new network with a schedule of veteran series that no longer garnered peak ratings. Prior to the network’s launch, executives anticipated that shows from the WB and UPN might find new audiences and improve their ratings as part of The CW lineup. The pairing of WB’s Gilmore Girls with UPN’s low-rated but critically beloved teen detective series Veronica Mars was frequently referenced as an ideal programming benefit of the new network. Analysts speculated that viewers who enjoyed one of these series would certainly enjoy the other and that airing them on the same night, on the same network would build the ratings for both series. Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas summed up the situation, saying, “Finally, a lead-in (‘Gilmore Girls’) that makes sense for us. We’re not opposite ‘Lost’ and not competing with the WB that had the audience ‘Veronica Mars’ is trying to get.” In an unusual programming move, The CW negotiated with the family drama 7th Heaven to return for an eleventh season in September 2006, even though the show had celebrated its series finale on the WB in May. None of these series improved their ratings on The CW, and all three were cancelled at the close of the network’s first season in May 2007.
One of the early controversies resulting from The CW’s announcement revolved around the status of African American programming on broadcast television. By 2006, UPN was the only broadcaster offering series with predominantly black casts and production teams, and estimates showed that African Americans made up about 65 percent of the network’s audience. When the new network announced that they would select the most successful programs from UPN and the WB in line with targeting a specific audience segment, there was an outcry over the implied fate of UPN sitcoms that were popular with African American viewers but did not crossover with white audiences. In the end, however, The CW retained Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, and All of Us from UPN, and added The Game, which has been successful enough to continue for a second season.
Average ratings for the network’s first year were estimated at 3.14 million viewers, lower than either the WB or UPN had earned on their own the previous year. Critics argue that the network did not live up to industry predictions because the programming schedule was too diversified; although the branding strategy focused on the youth market, programming was all over the map. To address these problems, The CW has intensified its efforts to program for its target audience during its second season. Recognizing that the network’s programming was failing to contribute to the youth-oriented brand identity, Ostroff approved 15 pilots for the 2007-2008 season, more than had ever been produced for UPN or the WB. Older series that are still popular with young viewers, including Smallville, Supernatural, and network stalwart Friday Night Smackdown! were renewed, but many shows from the network’s first year are gone.
The new series appearing on the fall schedule manipulate what Michael Curtin refers to as “edge,” a quality designed to engender controversy and inspire intense loyalty among the target audience. Aliens in America, a sitcom about a Muslim exchange student, has already drawn critical fire due to online previews that depict negative stereotypes of religion and ethnicity. Life Is Wild also engages with culture clash; the comedy follows a family who leave New York City for rural South Africa. Gossip Girl, a teen drama based on a series of popular young adult novels, raised questions at The CW’s upfront presentation for advertisers and affiliates because it portrays teen sex, drug use, and drinking. Reaper, a horror-comedy series about a young man whose parents sell his soul to the devil, is one of the most anticipated shows of the fall season. Kevin Smith, whose talk-heavy, profanity-laden films have a major following among young viewers, directed the pilot. The edgy subject matter and young casts of these series are intended to appeal to a larger portion of the target audience and help The CW’s programming contribute to establishing its brand identity as the youth market network.
The first breakout hit for The CW emerged midway through its premiere season when the reality series The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll generated solid ratings and renewed attention. The show features hip-hop star Lil’ Kim as a judge in a contest to find a new member for the successful recording group, demonstrating Ostroff’s continued commitment to using star power to build audience appeal. The success of Pussycat Dolls, along with continuing strong ratings for Top Model, led to renewed fervor for youth-oriented reality programming at the network. These shows will return in the 2007-2008 season, along with the WB-originated Beauty and the Geek and two new series: Farmer Wants a Wife, a reality competition in which women who live in the city vie for the attention of a rural man who wants to get married, and Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants, which follows a mother-daughter beauty contest. A commitment to reality-based programming serves two major purposes for the network. The genre has proven popular with the youth audience that the network is seeking, and short runs of reality shows (8 to 12 weeks) help the network to air year-round programming rather than relying heavily on reruns of scripted series. In a related strategic move, teen drama One Tree Hill will not premiere its fifth season until January, with the storyline advanced four years past the characters’ high school graduation. All of the major networks have recently moved toward year-round programming as a way to combat the loss of viewers to cable channels. The theory holds that viewers are more likely to tune in for new episodes of a cheaply produced reality series than for reruns of an expensive scripted show.
In one of the more experimental changes planned for its second year, The CW will produce two of its own programs. On Sunday nights, the network will air Online Nation, a showcase for user-generated video clips, and CW Now, a news/entertainment series. These shows are considered low risk because they are inexpensive to produce. Online Nation attempts to further the interactivity that The CW is building into its brand identity by bringing viewer-created content into the network’s regular schedule. CW Now is designed to exploit young viewers’ interest in popular culture and celebrity trends and may follow the lead of Online Nation by incorporating information from tabloid-style Web sites. The show will also attempt to differentiate itself from similar entertainment-themed programs by capitalizing on the success that The CW has found with innovative advertising strategies.
Appealing To Advertisers
In Breaking Up America, Joseph Turow’s study of target marketing and audience fragmentation, he argues that media executives in the new landscape offer two things to advertisers: “claim of efficient separation” and “claim of a special relationship.” Ideally, executives want to deliver the exact demographic that the advertiser seeks to reach and promise that viewers will be invested enough in the media format to consume all of the content and advertising that it provides. The CW has made a concerted effort to help advertisers reach viewers and to innovate advertising strategies that encourage a “special relationship” with the network’s content. Executives at the network have cultivated close relationships with sponsors and advertisers and have been willing to experiment with product placement, integrated advertising, and other new strategies designed to bring viewer attention to advertising messages.
When the network announced CW Now, they stipulated that the show will be commercial-free; three or more sponsors will underwrite each episode, but the show will not feature traditional commercial breaks. This requires a balance between content and information about sponsors, and it is still unclear how the show will bring these elements together. However, the series design reflects an awareness of one of the biggest concerns in the industry; increasingly, time-shifting devices such as digital video recorders allow viewers to fast forward through commercial breaks. Advertisers have increasingly asked television networks to be accountable for the loss of these viewers because they don’t want to pay to place advertisements that viewers are not watching. Commercial-free sponsored programming is just one of the strategies that The CW has experimented with to address this concern.
“Content Wraps” is a phrase coined by the network to describe brief programming that leads out from a show to commercial break or completely takes the place of the break. Wraps are typically related to the content of the program in which they are placed, but they feature sponsored product information along with information or entertaining content. They utilize connections with program content in order to hold viewer attention. Procter & Gamble sponsored one of the first successful content wraps, a mini-story featuring Herbal Essences shampoo that offered hairstyling tips, which aired during an episode of Top Model. Ratings data for the segment indicated that it held nearly 100 percent of the key demographic sought by the advertiser (women aged 18-34). Content wraps not only address the concerns of advertisers seeking more effective ways to get viewer’s attention, but they are also part of The CW’s strategy to target the needs and desires of a youth demographic familiar with both old and new media. The mini-stories typically ask viewers to go online to get more information, enter contests, or qualify for promotional giveaways. They attempt to blur the boundaries between television and the Internet by introducing more direct participation into the television viewing experience.
In recent years, particularly with the surge of reality programming on all of the broadcast networks, product placement and integrated advertising have played a major role in advertisers’ strategies to catch viewers’ attention. Product placement, in which an advertiser pays to have their product shown during a program, is more common. The CW has increasingly experimented with integrated advertising, in which a product is woven into a program’s storyline in such a way that it is not only shown but also discussed. Keds sneakers were featured in a storyline of an April 2007 episode of Top Model, in which contestants posed in a photo shoot designed to draw attention to the footwear. The model whose photo was judged the best was then featured in an ad for Keds in Seventeen magazine. A spokeswoman for Keds commented that although the shoes are placed a lot in film and television, the storyline integration offered by Top Model was a more rare opportunity for the company. This strategy brought the viewers of the show together with the target market for the shoes and the demographic targeted by Seventeen, a lifestyle magazine for young adult women.
Integrated advertising was taken a step further by The CW’s summer reality show Schooled. The program, about students at a New Jersey high school trying to raise money for their school’s music department, not only integrated products from sponsor OfficeMax but was actually directed and produced by The Escape Pod, the company’s advertising agency. The arrangement hearkens back to the early years of broadcast television in which the majority of network programming was produced by advertising agencies. OfficeMax not only developed the show but also featured their products as rewards for the students who participated. In a further effort at cross promotion, OfficeMax offered a free DVD of the show in their stores, giving it to customers who spent a certain amount of money on school supplies. OfficeMax helped to promote The CW to its customers with the DVD, and the show itself promoted OfficeMax to the network’s viewers.
In early 2007, The CW began streaming episodes of many of its prime-time shows through the network’s Web site, www.cwtv.com. Although ABC has been the real pioneer among broadcasters in this effort, even making full seasons of series available online, The CW adopted it as a strategy to reach young viewers who do not access television through the “old” media format. A single advertiser typically sponsors each streamed episode, and the content is interspersed with advertisements that cannot be skipped. The network is able to track how many times their online episodes are accessed and offer this information to advertisers. Streamed episodes offer a way to reach viewers that may prefer to watch episodes online (the youth audience that The CW targets) and to generate additional revenue from effective ad placement.
Conclusions: Corporate Synergy and Young Viewers
“The words we use to describe CW, besides the young demographic, are innovation, participation, connection and community.” ~ Dawn Ostroff
Although The CW has attracted positive attention from advertisers because of their willingness to experiment with new ways to reach viewers, the network’s innovation hasn’t proven completely effective. The first year’s disappointing ratings dictated low advertising rates for year two and also drew industry criticism about the network’s failure to capitalize on its synergistic potential. The CW’s initial attempts to utilize the strengths of its predecessors in creating a new network failed to result in a larger audience and have made the network the butt of industry jokes. When Kevin Smith introduced the pilot episode of Reaper at 2007’s Comic-Con in San Diego, he told the gathered crowd, “It airs on The CW. Don’t leave.” Although the changes in programming planned for year two are attempts to address low ratings by attracting new, loyal viewers, it is worth taking a look at how the network has employed synergy thus far and how it plans to do so in the future.
One of the major advantages of The CW is that it can draw on the television production resources of its corporate partners. Outside of reality-based programming, virtually all of the network’s primetime lineup has been produced by CBS Paramount Television and Warner Bros. Television. This strategy helps to limit financial risk for the network and gives it more control over production costs than it would have through contracts with outside production companies. Reaper is the only scripted show on the fall schedule produced by an outside company (Mark Gordon/Touchstone), and the rest represent a fairly even split between CBS and Warner Bros. Aliens in America was originally set up as a pilot for NBC, but they declined to pick it up because they felt it was too “young” for their viewers. The CW expressed interest in the series, but the network was initially unable to come to a financial agreement with NBC regarding the series’ production costs. When NBC relented and sold the rights, it became a coproduction between CBS Paramount and Warner Bros, who now share the burden of its production costs and will benefit equally from its potential success. The CW plays a significant role as a distribution arm for CBS Paramount and Warner Bros. programming. Since the expiration of the financial interest and syndication rules, networks are much less likely to buy programming from outside producers; without their own network, these production facilities would have to produce less programming and assume more financial risk.
The CW was not initially characterized by synergistic opportunism. In fact, one of the highest-profile industry stories surrounding the network’s launch emerged when Time Warner Cable refused to carry some small-market CW affiliates. The new network depended on cable to help it reach nationwide coverage, especially in small markets that only have a few broadcast stations that are already affiliated with other networks. Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable operator in the United States, demanded payment from The CW in return for carriage. Negotiations with individual affiliates were protracted, with 20 CW stations receiving minimal or nonexistent carriage during the network’s first few weeks. Individual stations did negotiate with the cable operator to pay for carriage, an arrangement that seems to negate the assumption of cooperation between The CW and other companies under the umbrella of its corporate parents.
In many ways, however, the network has clearly benefited from the resources at its disposal and acted as a resource for CBS Corporation and Time Warner. The national advertising campaign that preceded its launch utilized the billboards of CBS Outdoor Advertising and the ad space available in Time Warner magazines. CBS Records was revived in late 2006 with the primary goal of sales through digital distribution and television program placement. The company relies on revenues from music downloads, which it advertises by placing music in television programs and offering artist and sales information at the end of the show, rather than physical product distributed through retailers.53 During the late 1990s, the WB was a pioneer in using its series to promote music; the network saved money on licensing fees by calling viewer attention to the songs and artists that were featured in particular programs. Recording artists from Warner Music Group were successfully promoted on WB shows including Dawson’s Creek, Buffy, and Charmed. Although Warner Music Group spun off from Time Warner in 2004, becoming a stand-alone company, music from its labels continues to be heavily promoted on CW programming (including One Tree Hill, which has released three soundtracks through the post-spin-off company). Time Warner’s film production arm, Warner Bros., regularly advertises its upcoming films during CW programming, and many affiliates air CBS news broadcasts.
The CW’s synergistic vision came full circle with a series of content wraps that aired during Smallville episodes in April and May of 2007. The wraps were created by DC Comics, a Time Warner company, to promote Toyota Yaris, a subcompact car targeted toward the 18-34 demographic. As part of the Smallville: Justice and Doom campaign, these comic book-themed wraps directed Smallville viewers to log on to The CW’s Web site to play a game that tested their knowledge of the series. The game continued for five weeks, and the grand prize winner received a Yaris. This campaign operated on several levels; it brought a product together with its target market, rewarded loyal series fans, and promoted Superman as a Time Warner brand with associated products in a variety of forms. In a key move, it brought television viewers to the network’s Web site and further immersed them in an online game; The CW profited from the advertising revenues but also from the opportunity to promote itself as an entertainment “experience” rather than a typical broadcast network.
The CW’s strategy has thus far gambled that courting a youth audience is the best way to capitalize on the strengths of the conglomerates partnered in the joint venture. Attempts to utilize branding and interactivity to reach this audience have yielded mediocre results in terms of ratings numbers but may yet pay off in terms of intense identification and viewer loyalty that translates beyond broadcast programming and into the ancillary business interests of CBS Corporation and Time Warner. As of January 2008, Gossip Girl has emerged as a “hit” by the network’s definition; although the series’ ranking is low when compared to major network hits, it is the number one new show among teen viewers in the 2007-2008 season. In addition, the show’s ratings improve by approximately 20 percent when DVR usage is included (and this data has also boosted the ratings of Reaper and Smallville). In October 2007, Gossip Girl was the first network television series to be picked up for a full season; this mark of distinction indicates that the show’s success with young viewers, which has translated into Internet traffic and iTunes downloads, serves the strategic vision of The CW. Recent programming failures include Online Nation, which was cancelled after just a few airings, and the low-rated Life Is Wild. While overall ratings have not yet reached the levels initially predicted for the network, in its second year The CW has created notable successes by catering to the needs of the target youth demographic.