The CW – the perpetually last-ranked network – thrives on international sales and Netflix. Thanks to those revenue streams, The CW is truly the only major US broadcast network which can claim to be completely ratings immune. Who gives a shit about little things like advertising when Netflix is basically subsidizing your entire schedule? Recent comments from WarnerMedia’s Kevin Reilly, however, indicates CW’s entire business model could soon change. What happens then?
For a small, but passionate portion of the TV audience, last night was especially emotional. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s genre-bending, rom-com upturning musical series – aired its final episode. Spoiler: Bloom’s on-screen counterpart didn’t end up in a place many expected her to. Social media, as per usual, has some thoughts.
For a slightly bigger portion of the audience, however, this experience will have to wait a minute until Netflix puts up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s entire final season. That’s been the pattern ever since the CW and Netflix signed their insanely lucrative deal allowing each new season from the network’s roster of millennial-targeting shows to hit streaming 8 days after completing their broadcast run. Some of us watch the shows more traditionally, as they air; significantly more simply wait to binge over a long Netflix weekend.
In the old days – the “TV networks make their money off of advertising” days – this would be a significant problem. We’ve already dealt with people time-shifting their viewing thanks to DVRs. Now they’re bypassing the networks altogether and waiting for shows to hit streaming. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the CW has to explain that to advertisers.
Except the CW is so over ratings. Whenever longtime CW president Mark Pedowitz takes the stage at a Televisions Critics Association Press Tour event, he is inevitably asked by some quant nerd about the network’s anemic ratings. His stock response: a smirk, a bit of a laugh, and a finger pointing to Netflix, international sales, and the network’s own ad-supported streaming on CW Seed and CW.com as explanation for why the traditional linear ratings don’t ultimately matter as much as they used to.
If they did, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend wouldn’t have come close to satisfying Bloom and McKenna’s four-season outline. Per THR:
For all its critical acclaim and fiercely devoted audience, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ends its four-season run as one of network TV’s least-watched shows. In three of its four seasons, in fact, it finished dead last for the season among all regularly scheduled broadcast programs in total viewers (the exception is 2017-18, when another CW show, Life Sentence, had a slightly smaller audience). It was last or tied for the bottom in adults 18-49 in all four seasons.
While that represents the most extreme example of The CW’s ratings defiance, it is hardly unique. Jane the Virgin, which just kicked off its fifth and final season, has regularly ranked near the bottom. iZombie is also about to begin a fifth and final season, yet it has barely ranked any higher in the ratings than Jane or Crazy.
Similar examples dot the network’s schedule, yet business is so strong Pedowitz recently added a sixth night of programming, expanding into Sunday for the first time. It’s a stunning success story, but it’s not one which can be so easily repeated by any competitors:
The CW has been uniquely suited to thrive in this modern, synergy-leaning TV environment because it is duly owned by CBS TV Studios and Warner Bros. TV and simply does not air any programming from outside studios. That Netflix deal puts a lot of money into CBS and Warner’s pockets, which they put right back into funding the network’s schedule. That allows them to be extra patient with all of their shows.
Sometimes, it pays off in the form of a Netflix bump, with Riverdale and The Flash finding a larger audience in linear ratings only after their prior season became a popular Netflix binge. Even Supernatural owes its extra long life to new generations of fans finding the show through Netflix. Other, more niche offerings, however, struggle to ever really improve in the ratings, yet the network keeps renewing practically its entire schedule year after year.
Of course, that schedule is about to look a lot different. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is done. Jane the Virgin and iZombie are about to be. Arrow and Supernatural are each due to close shop next season, with the latter being the rare long-running CW genre show to exit stage right without first leaving behind a spin-off – not that they didn’t try, multiple times. The 100 might only have around two seasons left in it.
So, Pedowitz has some work to do on handling The CW’s transition into a slightly new phase. At this point, he has to be kicking himself on allowing the Riverdale spin-off Sabrina the Teenage Witch to go straight to Netflix. That’s maybe why he’s pursuing another Riverdale spin-off called Katy Keene, which – perk up your ears, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fans – is described as a “musical dramedy chronicling the origins and struggles of four aspiring artists trying to make it on Broadway, on the runway and in the recording studio.”
However, while Pedowitz searches for his next genre hit (the new Charmed is a contender) and next female-leaning, critically-adored cult classic the ground beneath his feet might be changing. The synergistic and streaming strategies which have allowed his network to thrive might also be conspiring against it. The CW’s parent companies want their own streaming services. CBS already has one (CBS All Access); ditto for Warner (DC Universe), yet a larger, Netflix-threatening service encompassing all of WarnerMedia’s properties is due before the end of the year.
Those conglomerates are now in a similar position as fellow “we want our own streaming service” biggies Disney and Comcast: do you accept the short-term pain of walking away from a passive revenue stream like Netflix’s money for the long-term gain of actively building your own streaming service with millions of subscribers?
The CW is caught in the middle of this supply chain conundrum. As it so happens, their Netflix deal expires soon. It might not be renewed.
“I think you can expect the crown jewels of Warner will ultimately end up on our new service. Pulling it away (from Netflix)? It’s certainly something we’re willing to do,” WarnerMedia’s Kevin Reilly told a TCA audience earlier this year. “I think for the most part, sharing destination assets like that is not a good model to share — my belief is that they should be exclusive.”
He was speaking specifically about Warner’s decision to extend Friends on Netflix for another year, but those in room immediately wondered what his larger philosophical statement might mean for The CW.
That forced Pedowitz to address it during his Q&A:
“No real discussions have occurred — the parent companies will sort it out themselves,” he said, before pivoting toward touting the network’s digital success. “We’ve managed to go into the ad VOD space better than anybody else. The CW with Netflix is not an output deal. There’s a new offering of content coming up in the spring. I think you can anticipate we’re to be looking at that; we’re very interested in putting that (the CW series) on our platform.”
His point is thanks to CW Seed and CW.com as well as traditional linear ratings and international sales the network has multiple ways to monetize its shows before you even get to streaming deals. However, ever since AT&T took over WarnerMedia has been on a run of closing down niche streamers (RIP, FilmStruck), presumably with an eye toward folding them into the upcoming larger service. Who knows if CW Seed will even survive that purge and who knows what WarnerMedia will do to compensate for the significant loss of capital if it declines to renew the network’s Netflix deal.
The only certainty here is change. The CW faces a future without Supernatural, Arrow, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin and iZombie but also quite possibly a world without Netflix. Pedowitz has been more adept than anyone else in this space at adjusting to the rapidly shifting economic realities of the TV industry. That talent is going to be called on again very soon, but he seems to know that. “The next five years in the space will clearly not look like the last five,” he told TCA.
In the future, a chronically underwatched broadcast series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might not earn perpetual renewals. Instead, the next Crazy Ex-Girlfriend could just end up on a streaming service where success is measured in monthly subscription figures instead of ratings. Instead of being a CW series, it might be a WarnerMedia streaming show – renewed or canceled for no obvious quantitative reason.
Actually, that sounds a lot like Netflix’s current M.O. It might soon be the industry norm.
So, celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s end while you can. There might never be another broadcast show – a creatively rewarding, but financially challenged ratings loser subsidized by synergy and Netflix – quite like it.
Also, if there’s a CW show you’ve been meaning to get around to on Netflix maybe push it a little higher in your queue. Just in case.