The CW rose from the ashes of the WB and UPN’s decade-long struggle to get attention. Because that never happened (despite some critical favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, surprising “hits” like 7th Heaven, and UPN’s headline-making annihilation of the Star Trek franchise), the two failing networks merged into a single entity, a superpower promising real competition for the Big Four while quietly implying that it would require Big Four ratings to support itself. Thanks to a combination of poor marketing (the slime-green FREE TO BE… posters plastered all over the place did the network no favors), incomplete market saturation, and…just offering really shitty programming, the network got neither the recognition nor the ratings it wanted. Instead of banking on new, daring programming (like Fox did in its infancy) and hoping the audience would follow, the CW offered…a hodgepodge of dinosaur acts from their previous networks. In fact, with the exception of The Game, the CW didn’t air a single new series in its first season.
The CW did, however, have quality. The merged forced the cancellation of weaker offerings and, while some of its shows could be generously described as mediocre, it did have the impressive slate of Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, Supernatural (which improved significantly in its first CW season), and Gilmore Girls. It also had 7th Heaven, the logic-defying hit whose day had come and gone long before it creaked toward its eleventh and (second) final season after impressive ratings for its first series finale caused the network to rethink its cancellation.
Then it got canceled again, despite remaining the CW’s highest-rated show for some reason, because it had already proved too expensive. Salary negotiations, annual union-mandated budget increases, and the show’s ever-expanding cast led to the (one assumes) reluctant decision to put the show out of its misery. Since the series hit creative exhaustion right around the time they had Jessica Biel sent to a Dickensian private school “upstate” for drinking half a beer, the few CW-scoffing viewers who were aware of the show applauded with great zeal.
Gilmore Girls, too, got the axe for contract- and budget-related reasons. The Girls lobbied for more money, and the CW—already struggling for ad revenue—simply couldn’t afford it. Also on the chopping block: Veronica Mars, the lowest rated show on dramatic television during all three of its seasons. Though the show had brilliant first and second seasons (some would dispute the brilliance of the second, but I maintain it was even better than the first), the quality of the third eroded with a rapidity that could only indicate network interference. Either that, or creator/showrunner Rob Thomas really, really lost focus and control. Considering the low ratings and the “subtle” changes largely occurring in the form of teen-soap-friendly clichés, blaming the network feels like the right call. While I liked the show and rooted for it to bounce back in a fourth season, both UPN and the CW gave the show every possible chance to strike ratings gold, and it just wasn’t going to happen.
This season, their development slate was rife with creativity: Aliens in America, both the best new comedy and the best comedy on TV; Gossip Girl, has a lot of dangerous, sexy adventures in the colorful backdrop of a Manhattan prep school; and Reaper, a show that has the potential to become the next Buffy the Vampire Slayer but has, as of this writing, slacked off as much as its protagonists. How long can these shows last, though? Creatively, they’re doing fine for now, but will Reaper start paying off if they introduce long-term character and story arcs that take its established mythology to a new level? Will it feel like a knockoff or a fresh take on the puny-human-versus-supernatural-creature genre?
A question applicable to both Aliens in America and Gossip Girl: what the hell happens when these people go to college and everyone officially stops caring? At least Aliens has the potential for restaging the show in a “high school with ashtrays” community college, which will continue the same loser high school characters in a similar setting. Can anyone imagine the the characters of Gossip Girl all somehow managing to end up at the same college facing the same angsty problems? The inherent limit with these high school shows is four years: without exception, college ruins them. Even if they somehow pulled some magic out of their respective asses, what happens when Aliens in America‘s Raja becomes more assimilated to American culture and conversely, the students grow accustomed to his quirkiness? What will Gossip Girl do when its characters grow too old to gossip about (sex, drugs, and alcohol in college?! Alert the authorities!)?
The solution to the inevitable budget problems and eventual creative bankruptcy of the entire CW slate, from now until the end of time, is deceptively simple: limited series.
You’ve heard the phrase before, applied to failures like ABC’s Kingdom Hospital and FX’s Thief to justify the fact that nobody’s watching them. “Nobody has to watch them—they’re only around for a season.” The CW could have an endless supply of fresh, interesting shows—far more intriguing than what the Big Four offer—by going into it with a game plan: 22 episodes to tell a complete story. Writers won’t pad the series with “filler” episodes to draw out storylines for a few years. The limited commitment and emphasis on quality over quantity may lure bigger names to the projects, which would in turn lure viewers. Saving money is a sub-goal, which may not lure bigger names, but FX got Glenn Close for Damages, so how hard could it be?
The implicit promise that these shows won’t be yanked in January—after all, advertisers only have to muddle through until the spring—might encourage viewers to stick with the CW over certain other axe-happy networks (Fox and CBS, I’m looking at you). Another nice thing about the idea of a “limited series”: you can limit it however the hell you want. If a show is a bona fide hit—a real hit, comparable to a hit show on a real network—why not keep it going? If another show is a marginal hit but the showrunners have a second-season plan that sounds better than the first, who says it has to go? Okay, I did earlier, but arbitrary rules are made to be broken.
So there you have it: a focus on quality (something the CW already appears to be working on), keeping the budgets down by making sure the show doesn’t last so long it becomes too expensive for a marginal network to produce, luring stars and viewers with the promise of a commitment to a complete story? It works for basic cable, it works for the BBC—why wouldn’t it work for the CW?
Snooty viewers will scoff and moan, “But there’s no such thing as high-quality television on a network.” Bullshit! To anybody who says networks will never manage cable-level quality, I point them to Veronica Mars, a CW show, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a refugee of both the WB and UPN. Comedy? Arrested Development and The Office. And those examples are just from the past few years. Whether or not TV snobs want to admit it, we’ve been in a golden age of television for the past decade or so, across the board—it’s not just HBO and FX turning out great television. The manic genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s first five seasons absolutely destroy the entire run of The Sopranos.
The CW might say, “Gee, a batch of one-season shows every year until the end of time? Even with the provision that they can last longer if they yield qualitative or financial results, how will we build loyalty scheduling like that?” Loyalty comes from quality. And maybe controversy. If you want to rival the major networks, you have to offer something they can’t—consistently excellent, bar-raising television. Networks attempt boldness and innovation every year, sometimes with surprise successes (Lost and Pushing Daisies are two recent examples) but often with dismal failures. They’ll yank a great low-rated show in favor of another CSI spinoff in a heartbeat—and that’s what can give the CW an edge. They can offer substantive programming than forensics investigation—IN A DIFFERENT CITY!!!
Hell, even if it doesn’t, at least the shows won’t hemorrhage money as viewers and ad dollars go down while production costs go up. If the CW wants to see the end of this decade, they need to consider real boldness in the face of adversity, real innovation in a network landscape that is sliding further and further away from its golden age each time a celebrity-focused reality show premieres.
I want the CW to succeed. It has made a few missteps in its brief history, like squeezing all the quality out of Veronica Mars to make it fit the teen-soap mold, or tarnishing an otherwise exceptional development season with Life Is Wild, a great concept with great location shooting marred by an emphasis on teen soap operatics performed by an iffy cast. Despite that, The CW has a proven ability to recognize quality even if it doesn’t always showcase it. The network can take what it has and turn it into a viable, attention-grabbing network if its executives take bigger chances and shake up the network-television model.