Last January, while announcing the formation of the first new network in 11 years, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves vowed The CW would use ”the best of UPN and The WB” to immediately become a profitable player. It was a bold promise. And one that, six weeks into the new season, is starting to look awfully premature.
The stats tell the story: The CW has only managed to draw an audience of 3.5 million — almost exactly the same number of viewers that UPN and The WB each pulled in on their own — and has taken in $35 million less than The WB did last year. (The CW did take in $300 million more than UPN earned in 2005.) Suddenly, assurances of insta-profitability have disappeared. ”Think about what we had to accomplish,” says The CW entertainment president (and UPN veteran) Dawn Ostroff. ”It was such an overwhelming task. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”
The most significant challenge The CW has faced — besides, you know, building the company, developing a brand, and creating a lineup — is finding stations to actually carry the network. Sixty-seven percent of UPN’s old viewers, along with 28 percent of The WB’s, had to switch channels to get The CW when it debuted in September. The good news is that fans found some of their old favorites: America’s Next Top Model (5.4 million) has actually posted gains over what it did on UPN, and remains The CW’s most-watched program, followed by Smallville (4.9 million). The bad news is that once the viewers got there, they rejected the new stuff: The Game is floundering (only 2.5 million viewers) and Runaway, starring Donnie Wahlberg, was yanked after three airings — sobering proof that The CW was smart to air mostly returning shows from UPN and The WB.
”I never thought ratings would be [significantly higher],” says programming analyst Shari Anne Brill. ”With the exception of NBC, everyone is down. The CW has good shows, and now that they’ve got the business together, there will be more time to concentrate on their investment.”
And sure enough, Ostroff is working on several new pilots, including a family dramedy from Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman, a political drama from Commander in Chief’s Rod Lurie, and a glossy soap from The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz. Ambitious stuff for a network still struggling to find an audience. ”You’ve gotta remember, we’re only one month old,” says Ostroff. ”I can’t tell you how many people still say, ‘What’s The CW?”’