A Brief Unauthorized History of The CW (Part I)

[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]

These days, I find myself losing track of more TV shows than ever. It’s the downside of having so much on the air – series that don’t click (or used to, but have now lost their luster) tend to pile on my DVR for a couple of months, before it finally becomes too much of a commitment to catch up. Too many other shows – both new and old – have my attention at any given moment to make room for all of them.

Yet despite the rise of television on cable and streaming platforms, I remain particularly loyal to one network that remains under the broadcast banner: The CW. Incredibly, I’m currently following more shows on the CW than any other network – it has Jane the Virgin, Arrow, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, Supergirl, and now Riverdale. Six shows on The CW. (It’ll be seven, assuming I ever catch up with The 100.) That’s more shows than I follow on any other network, Netflix included.

And yet to many people, The CW is still referred to as little more than “the Gossip Girl channel.” (Fascinating Fact: Gossip Girl ended nearly five years ago.) It has struggled to maintain a presence in the quality TV pantheon, being thought of as a network aimed solely at tween girls. It’s barely left an impression on viewers (being quintessentially the lowest-rated of the broadcast networks) or awards ceremonies (it’s never achieved a single major Emmy nomination). Any proposal of mine that Jane the Virgin is among the finest shows on television is usually met with a rolling of eyes.

And that’s a true shame, because The CW has essentially perfected the art of making purely enjoyable television. Its shows are not merely thoughtful and well-written, but are just plain fun to watch. No other network can claim shows as eminently binge-able, mixing just the right balance of character and thematic depth with surface-value entertainment.

To understand how The CW came to be this way – and by extension, to gain a true appreciation for it – we must understand what a miniature miracle it is that the network even exists anymore.

Television in the 1990s was not nearly as expansive as it is today. For the first half of that decade, there were four broadcast networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, the last of which had premiered in 1987 and was viewed as the “edgy younger child” of its era. There were also a handful of cable networks, but very few of them regularly carried original programming – and even those that did tended to limit them to half-hour comedies.

But there was also another outlet through which television could produce exciting and stimulating drama – first-run syndication. The prospect of selling shows directly to local stations (and thus bypassing network heads) was first popularized in the late ‘80s thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and gained widespread notoriety with Baywatch (which was cancelled by NBC after one season, and then aired new episodes in syndication for eleven more). During the early ‘90s, many shows were produced for syndication-only purposes, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which used the lack of network pressures to tell a serialized long-term story) and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (which inspired a spate of imitators and an even more successful spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess). It was a place to tell edgy stories, such as in Renegade, or offbeat ones, like in Forever Knight. Few of these shows attained mass popularity (excepting Baywatch, because of course it did), but many of them attracted loyal cult audiences.

Larger media industries, as you can expect, were not thrilled about the rise of syndication – they wanted to monetize TV shows through both production and airing. In 1993, Time Warner and the now-defunct Chris-Craft Corporation struck upon a promising middle ground: They developed a fifth network that they would control and finance, designed specifically to air primetime shows that were not affiliated with other broadcast networks. Called PTEN (which stood for – what else? – Prime Time Entertainment Network), the network found modest success in Babylon 5 and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

Realizing that they’d hit upon something, the two parent companies decided to divide and conquer. They went their separate ways, each intending to create a new broadcast network. (PTEN, left with no major financiers, became just another syndication network for a few years, and shut down in 1997.) Chris-Craft teamed with Paramount to create a network called UPN, while Time Warner developed The WB.

Remarkably, both networks launched within days of each other, in January 1995. UPN, initially, had the higher-profile debut – its flagship series was Star Trek: Voyager, the latest entry in the enormously successful sci-fi franchise. The WB, on the other hand, debuted with the premiere of The Wayans Brothers, a half-hour sitcom starring Shawn and Marlon Wayans (both fresh off In Living Color). Given that Star Trek had essentially launched the syndication craze a few years ago, you’d expect UPN to have the upper hand over its new competitor.

And initially, you’d be right. Voyager attracted a large audience when it premiered (The Next Generation had ended only months earlier), and would ultimately produce a total of seven seasons. But elsewhere, UPN’s track record was pretty spotty. During the mid-to-late ‘90s, the network introduced a string of forgettable sitcoms that were critically derided and swiftly cancelled. Among the misfires were Shasta McNasty (the misadventures of a rock band), The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (a 19th-century story which starred Chi McBride as Abraham Lincoln’s manservant), and Homeboys in Outer Space (two black astronauts travelled through the galaxies in a ship called – sigh – “the Space Hoopty”). UPN featured numerous shows with African-American stars, trying to target minority audiences that were underserved by the major networks. (It was a tactic Fox had tried a few years earlier, before breaking out with The Simpsons.) Unfortunately, few of these shows measured up in quality – to this day, Homeboys continually ends up on critics’ “Worst TV Shows Ever” lists.

The WB began with similar minority-aimed programming (early premieres included The Jamie Foxx Show and The Parent ‘Hood), but slowly began to break out of the mold. In the fall of 1996, they premiered 7th Heaven, a drama centering on a religious family. The show began with weak ratings, but began to grow in popularity thanks to support from the Parents’ Television Council, and would ultimately run for over a decade.

Then in the spring of 1997, the network introduced a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And things would never be the same.

Though it began its run as a midseason replacement (for Aaron Spelling’s short-lived Savannah), Buffy slowly but surely began to build up a fanbase – not merely in viewership, but on this mysterious new thing called the Internet. The well-drawn adolescent characters and whimsical plots attracted a small but devoted group of teenagers and sci-fi fans – and the network realized they were on to something.

A year after Buffy, The WB tapped Kevin Williamson (who had written the screenplay for the acclaimed hit Scream) to create another high school-based series, and he delivered the subversive Dawson’s Creek. It drew even better ratings than Buffy had. Compared to other networks, the ratings were nothing earth-shattering – Dawson still lagged well behind longtime teen hit Beverly Hills, 90210 – but The WB had made a crucial impression in the market.

Realizing they were accumulating a young and largely female audience (an inviting demographic to advertisers), the network began looking for new ways to sustain this momentum – without losing the minority viewership that had sustained them in the early days. When NBC cancelled For Your Love (a predominantly African-American sitcom with a passing resemblance to Friends) just weeks after its premiere, The WB swooped in and revived up the show for the fall of 1998. It was a modest hit, but was overshadowed by two new dramas the network debuted that season – Charmed and Felicity.

Both these shows were, on some level, offshoots of Buffy: the former featured a trio of female protagonists dabbling in the mystic arts, while the latter focused on a young woman finding her way through college and grappling with the difficulties of growing up. Both also proved to be hits with the network’s growing target audience. Felicity, incidentally, was co-created by a young man named JJ Abrams, who would go on to have quite a few other noteworthy projects on his resume. And he would hardly be the last breakout talent to make his first mark at The WB – in 1999, the network picked up Roswell (from Jason Katims, of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood fame) and Popular (from Ryan Murphy, of too many shows to list here).

The network’s audience remained relatively small, but also fiercely loyal, with several shows gaining passionate online fanbases. Buffy begat Angel, and the two series quickly became among the most-blogged shows on the nascent world of the Internet. Even more impressive, however, was the response to Roswell. The WB cancelled the sci-fi/high school drama after one low-rated season in 2000, but fans responded with a fierce online campaign, sending thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce to the network’s offices. (It makes sense if you watched Roswell, okay?) Amazingly, the campaign worked – Roswell was revived for a second season.

By the end of 2000, The WB was still fifth-place among the major networks, but it didn’t matter: The network had successfully monopolized the youth demographic, and had even earned the love of most television critics. That year saw the release of Gilmore Girls, a whip-smart, delightfully entertaining dramedy set in smalltown Connecticut. The 2000-01 season, which featured great material from Buffy, Angel, Felicity, and Gilmore Girls, was The WB at its peak.

But regrettably, the peak did not last long.

Be here next week for Part II of The History of The CW – when I might actually start talking about The CW!

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9 thoughts on “A Brief Unauthorized History of The CW (Part I)”

  1. You know, at this stage I think I might actually be more fond (or at least as fond) of reading about TV history than actually watching TV. And that’s partly or perhaps even largely because you make such a fine historian.

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    1. Reading…..about TV? I think you just created a massive paradox.

      Great article. It’s funny to think that the same network has had so many good shows.

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  2. I think the CW network has produced many television shows over the years that have entertaining and well made.

    It has purposely gone after a young audience demographic and has succeeded in retaining that viewing group with shows like “Buffy”, “Angel”, “Smallville”, “Supernatural”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Gossip Girl”, “The 100” etc.

    The counter side however is that the older audiences generally veer towards programming with characters who are in or around their own age range.

    In other words a 50 year old woman is not going to be turning into many of the above programs I’ve mentioned.

    So perhaps moving forward the network may want to be more inclusive with regards to going after an older group of viewers.

    From a advertising and marketing perspective, this section are constantly ingored yet they make up a sizeable portion of the viewing public as well as consumers.

    The network has done little to promote the hiring of older actors/actresses in leading roles or catering it’s programming choices to reflect that

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    1. Yeah, I’ll probably discuss the CW’s current demographic standings and how they reflect on the network in a later segment. (This article is planned to be 3 parts total.)

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