The CW Just Might Be TV's Best Broadcast Network

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.

In terms of ratings, The CW is usually far, far behind the four major broadcast networks and Univision. It's sometimes even behind PBS. Yes, it's as stable as it has been since it was founded (10 years ago!), and yes, it has a few shows that qualify as minor hits in this age of relativity (with The Flash chief among them). But it's hard to look at the network and think of it as a sensation.

And yet every year, when The CW holds its upfront presentation, throngs of fans line the sidewalks outside the New York City Center on 55th Street. They shout and scream for the network's stars. They wait for hours just to catch a glimpse of, say, The Flash star Grant Gustin walking while flanked by security guards. Traffic grinds to a halt. It's impossible to get anywhere. It's like Beatlemania.

The CW is the only network this happens to, really. Small clusters of fans will huddle outside of other networks' upfronts or post-presentation parties. But they don't cause the same level of disruption as The CW's fans do.

Some of this is thanks to The CW's youthful viewers, who are a lot more likely to hang out outside a building in hopes of a glimpse of their favorite star. And some is just the fact that 55th Street is not the world's greatest location for this sort of thing. But there's something else here: The CW is really great at what it does. Here are five things I've learned about the network during its rise to (relative) prominence.

1) The CW just might be TV's best broadcast network

No, really. After years of languishing in the shadows, The CW has put together a killer lineup, with only a couple of clunkers. Even Supernatural, headed into its 12th season, is still an agreeable monster smash when I tune in every few months or so.

The CW's shows reflect a fascination with using good storytelling and compelling and diverse characters to stand in for the network's obvious budgetary limitations. Many episodes of even its best shows (except for flagship The Flash) look like they were assembled for a couple of bucks. (For more on The CW's rise, check out Maureen Ryan's profile of the network in Variety.)

But the network has somehow assembled a long list of shows that are worth watching, and in a surprisingly diverse number of genres — from musical comedy (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to historical fiction (Reign).

Sure, The CW might over-rely on superhero shows — of which it now has four, one airing each day of the week from Monday through Thursday. And it probably needs to avoid burning out hero guru Greg Berlanti, who produces all four, along with plenty of other shows. But it's still the only network that might bring a Jane the Virgin to the air.

Not all of The CW's shows are perfect, of course. Many of them seem to make weird, unforced errors as a matter of course, to say nothing of how so many struggle once they get past season two (CW shows too frequently burn through all their story in that time, and then stall). But even when one of The CW's shows burns out, it typically does so in entertaining fashion.

2) And yet even The CW is addicted to reboots and adaptations

The CW has picked up three new drama pilots in No Tomorrow, Frequency, and Riverdale. All three are based on other properties, though No Tomorrow is based on a Brazilian soap opera it's safe to say the vast majority of Americans have not seen (or heard of).

The other two, however, are like case studies in how dependent TV is to properties other media have developed in the year 2016.

Who was clamoring for a TV adaptation of the (very well-done) time-traveling father-son drama Frequency? Probably nobody, and though The CW has made it a time-traveling father-daughter drama, the network is still making a very weird bet that people not only know the original movie, but love it and wish to see it made into a TV show.

Perhaps even worse is Riverdale, which doesn't really bother to make an actual Archie show, based on the comics character. Instead, it overloads on brooding energy and kids behaving badly. (Archie even appears to be sleeping with his teacher, from the looks of the trailer.) Though it hails from the usually reliable Berlanti, this is a case of a network buying an established brand, then completely misunderstanding why people liked that property in the first place.

An Archie show could be many things, but an elaborate homage to Twin Peaks and the works of Kevin Williamson probably wasn't it. Still, I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. The CW's earned that, at least.

3) No Tomorrow suggests the network's comedic hot streak must end sometime

I say this based on an admittedly extensive trailer I saw, but No Tomorrow doesn't really seem as if it's in the tradition of Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which both feature beautifully evocative roles for women and actually interesting examinations of modern courtship.

No, this is a show about a woman who's charmed by a man who claims to know the date of the end of the world and then goes to such measures as logging into her email to quit her job for her, because she won't be needing a job after the apocalypse. The trailer's quirky music and tone tried to sell the show as adorable, but it just felt creepy. And, again, that's out of context, but a story point like "man invades woman's privacy in preparation for the end of the world" being presented out of context as goofy fun is troubling in and of itself.

A high-concept premise like No Tomorrow's can make for plenty of fun, and the show's use of Los Angeles locations looks like the kind of bright sunniness that can offer great escapism. But it's hard to shake just how thoroughly the trailer wants us to see this dude as our hero's dream guy, only to completely botch the landing. Here's hoping the actual pilot is better.

4) The CW knows what cool is; it just misplaced it about three years ago

Every year, The CW's upfront presentation features attempts to seem hip and edgy. And this makes sense; the network's audience loves streaming its programming and performing acts of "social engagement" to talk about the show on Twitter and Facebook.

But it's still a TV network, first and foremost, which means that it will always be a little behind the times. For instance, as most other networks are gobbling up full-season streaming rights for the shows they broadcast (something called "in-season stacking rights"), The CW continues to operate with a "rolling five" (which essentially translates to "streaming rights to the last five episodes to air").

Some of the reason for that is budgetary, but it also feels a little out of the past, as anyone who tried to catch up on Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend after their stars' respective Golden Globe wins might tell you.

But if that's not enough proof to illustrate The CW's datedness, its 2016 presentation featured an opening performance by rock band Fitz and the Tantrums, who hit their peak in 2014, further suggesting that the network has a better handle on "cool" than the other broadcasters, but is still slightly in the past. (In 2015, Of Monsters and Men performed at The CW's upfront, which can only mean the 2017 event will feature Walk the Moon.)

5) But, hey, The CW is 10 years old!

The network's upfront presentation concluded with a clips package featuring highlights from The CW's first 10 years. Not all of said highlights came strictly from The CW, since many of the clips from shows like Veronica Mars, Supernatural, and Gilmore Girls actually featured footage from the days when those shows aired on UPN or The WB. But it still represented an impressive roster of past series you may have cared deeply about at one time, and Life Unexpected, which you probably should have cared more deeply about.

It's hard to say whether The CW will last another 10 years. The network's business model is such an awkward conflation of some of the good stuff about broadcast TV and some of the good stuff about cable TV (up to and including ordering lots and lots of shows, like broadcast does, with smaller episode counts, the better to cram more of them onto the schedule, like cable does); it's hard to imagine it not eventually blowing up for being so unstable.

But until that point, The CW is going to ride high. The network nobody seemed to want for many years has become an unlikely success story, and all it took was a judicious focus on the basic building blocks of TV storytelling. Fancy that.


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