What Is The CW’s Brand? Because It’s Not Homegrown Originals Anymore
In 2000, when UPN landed The Hughleys from ABC as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell from The WB Network, industry insiders dubbed it the “Used Parts Network.” Flash forward two decades and The CW’s roster of homegrown scripted originals has tumbled from 18 in the 2021-22 broadcast season to only two shows, with three remaining on the bubble at press time.
The writing has been on the wall for what has become of The CW — whose current name represents its former owners, CBS Studios and Warner Bros. TV. But what is The CW’s brand under station group Nexstar, which has vowed to make the formerly younger-skewing network profitable by 2025? With CBS Studios and Warners now owning a mere 12.5 percent of the network each and Nexstar’s new focus on low-cost acquisitions and unscripted fare, The CW’s brand now may best be described as “Castoffs Wanted” or even “Curated Wreckage.”
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“When they announce a fall schedule next week, mostly of the Canadian shows, this AMC drama and FBoy Island, they will have turned the clock back 25 years and truly turned it into the Used Parts Network,” one industry stalwart tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Nexstar president Dennis Miller (no, not that one) and entertainment president Brad Schwartz (formerly of Pop TV) are set to outline The CW’s first Nexstar-controlled schedule and strategy on Thursday with a breakfast in New York for press, though it’s unclear if the network is formally pitching media buyers. The CW’s fall schedule will feature 61st Street, the Courtney B. Vance-led legal drama that aired its first season in April 2022 on AMC. The basic-cable network initially ordered two seasons of the series but dropped the already-produced sophomore run as part of a wave of cancellations tied to tax write-offs, with the second season scheduled for 2024 on The CW. (Though it’s fair to expect there won’t be a third season of 61st Street, given the costs of making a cable show compared to programming The CW has already canceled and the fact that everyone’s deals have expired.)
Sources say The CW’s early renewal decision for All American was part of Nexstar’s deal with Warners as the studio continues to profit from the show’s lucrative streaming deal with Netflix for the series from exec producer Greg Berlanti. Also returning is Walker, with a 13-episode order that will keep star Jared Padalecki on the network and CBS Studios with at least one original on what remains of The CW. All American: Homecoming and the DC Comics dramas Superman & Lois and rookie Gotham Knights remain on the bubble as sources say The CW and Warners are reviewing costs for all three programs. Homecoming, it’s worth noting, also has a lucrative streaming deal for Warners with Netflix. Schwartz, sources say, wants to keep at least one DC show on the network with a move to HBO Max possible for the veteran (and pricey) Superman & Lois. Other sources note that no matter how many homegrown originals The CW winds up with, none will feature episode counts of more than 13, with Walker already confirmed for its shortest order to date. (Full disclosure: My wife co-created Gotham Knights.)
As for the rest of The CW’s fall slate, the network has Lea Thompson in The Spencer Sisters, which aired earlier this year in Canada; fellow Canadian import Sullivan’s Crossing, starring former network favorites Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill) and Gilmore Girls grad Scott Patterson; and the HBO Max castoff unscripted dating series FBoy Island. While The CW, under former CEO Mark Pedowitz, had focused on year-round homegrown originals and a mix of lower-cost programming in the summer, Nexstar has instead bulked up on the latter with entries including British drama The Rising, Australian entry Barons, Canadian comedies Son of a Critch and Run the Burbs, Canadian dramas Moonshine and Family Law, and Aussie comedy Bump, all of which aired elsewhere within the past two years. (Family Law and Bump, it’s worth noting, were acquired by Pedowitz.)
In addition to parting ways with Pedowitz and the bulk of his development execs, Nexstar has beefed up The CW’s unscripted department with the hiring of former USA, Syfy and Peacock unscripted chief Heather Olander. Lower-cost reality fare including FBoy Island and its newly ordered spinoff, FGirl Island, will be joined this summer by Greatest Greek Year Ever and Down to Earth With Zac Efron (which previously streamed on Netflix). Those join an unscripted lineup that already includes 100 Days to Indy and Nexstar’s deal to air PGA rival LIV Golf — which sources say cost the network nothing.
“As we reimagine the new CW, we had to make some tough programming decisions,” The CW said in a statement Thursday tied to its decision to cancel Kung Fu and The Winchesters.
Nexstar was paid $54 million to take The CW off of CBS Studios and Warners parent companies Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery. CEO Perry Sook has vowed to make the network profitable by 2025 by reducing overhead — i.e. rich licensing fees paid to CBS Studios and Warners for homegrown original content. The strategy has not gone over well among The CW’s affiliates, with eight stations owned by CBS opting to go independent rather than be in business with Nexstar. CW stations in Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Detroit will drop the affiliation and instead program content from across Paramount’s sprawling portfolio (which likely will serve as a big promotional tool for Paramount+).
Showrunners, too, have voiced their heartache over the loss of what The CW, under Pedowitz, represented. “This is so sad. CW was a great place to work. Talented kind executives who supported us at every turn. First thing Mark Pedowitz said to us: ‘Don’t ever pull yourselves back.’ At one point 67 percent of their showrunners were female. RIP to one of the best places I ever worked,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna wrote. Added Julie Plec, who had captained the Vampire Diaries franchise for The CW before it was unceremoniously killed last year ahead of a formal sale to Nexstar as part of a day she compared to the “Red Wedding” on Game of Thrones: “Agreed. Looking back, what an incredible era of job security, mentorship, creative support and beloved programming.” Other showrunners who cut their teeth at The CW, including Arrow’s Beth Schwartz, singled out the network’s willingness to send writers to set — currently a central topic in the Writers Guild’s strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “I was sent to Arrow as a writers’ asst season one. Fun fact: the studio wanted to cut my $700 weekly pay because I was on set and not doing my writers’ asst duties. Luckily @mguggenheim fought to make sure that didn’t happen,” she wrote.
As showrunners pen obituaries for what was The CW, Nexstar’s strategy to age up and broaden out the network appears to be working. The network lost $83 million in the first quarter of 2023, an improvement from losses of $94 million in the Q4 2022, though that does reflect airing of the 10-plus homegrown originals that remained in the 2022-23 season. Nexstar reported record quarterly net revenue of $1.26 billion, up nearly 4 percent year-over-year. “We’re also making continued progress on our plan for The CW with key personnel appointments, further overhead cost reductions and new programming additions, including our exclusive multiyear partnership with LIV Golf,” Nexstar CEO Sook said.
The CW, it’s worth noting, was never designed to be a profitable network, but rather a platform for homegrown originals that CBS Studios and Warners could profit directly from sales of their foreign and streaming rights. The CW previously had a $1 billion output deal that saw all of its originals stream the following season on Netflix. That deal ended when both studios opted to send their respective programs to their own streaming platforms, Paramount+ and HBO Max, while also keeping foreign rights.
Looking ahead, The CW is no longer developing homegrown scripted pilots and Nexstar has an option in August 2024 to acquire the remaining 25 percent stake that remains split between CBS Studios and Warners, which would officially put a cap on the network’s WB Network and UPN era and the end of more than 25 years of a specific brand of programming.
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