A Brief Unauthorized History of The CW (Part 2)

[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]

Welcome back to my brief and entirely unasked-for history of The CW. Part 1 can be read here. Go read that if you haven’t already. And then come back to this page for the Roman numeral-free Part 2…

While the WB was flying high on teen-targeting hits like Buffy and Charmed, rival network UPN wasn’t faring too well. Though a handful of its late-90s debuts had garnered modest acclaim (the animated Dilbert series was embraced by critics, and even won an Emmy for its awesome title intro), most of UPN’s shows had failed to last more than one or two seasons.

Then in September 2000, the network introduced a sitcom called Girlfriends, centering on the lives of four African-American women. And the needle moved – the series became a bona fide hit among black viewers, moreso than any UPN series that had preceded it. The show aired for a total of eight seasons, and led to a spinoff (titled The Game) which lasted nine seasons. By the time the franchise finally ended in 2015 (having finished its run on the cable network BET), it had clearly left a mark.

At the time, however, no one anticipated the staying power of Girlfriends. Star Trek: Voyager, after seven seasons, was drawing to a close, and although UPN had another Trek series (the prequel Enterprise) in the works, they were anxious to score a hit in the drama department.

So when Buffy’s term with The WB ran out in the spring of 2001, UPN jumped at its chance. The WB had gotten into a financial dispute over Buffy’s hold on the network (the series consistently lagged behind Charmed in the ratings), and was unwilling to raise the show’s rates. UPN offered 20th Century Fox (the company which produced Buffy) a two-season renewal, and the studio agreed – provided they would buy the still-flailing Roswell along with it.

So in October 2001, The WB premiered a revamped fall season. Along with the migration of Buffy and Roswell, the network had cancelled the comedic Popular and the soapy Jack & Jill, as well as the long-running Jamie Foxx Show. New programming was needed, and fast.

The network’s two most successful new shows of the season were Smallville (a drama focusing on a young, pre-costume Superman) and Reba (a Southern comedy centering on country music star Reba McEntire). Reba, while not well-received by critics, quickly became the network’s most-watched comedy, and it began the end of the network’s first “minority sitcom” phase. That same year would mark the end of For Your Love and The Steve Harvey Show, two WB sitcoms with predominantly black casts. The WB, like Fox a decade earlier, was courting a larger audience, and was (temporarily) starting to whiten up.

Smallville, meanwhile, was the network’s breakout hit. It became The WB’s most-watched show, period, wooing teenagers and comic-book fans and teenagers who were comic-book fans. Still, some critics were quick to notice the similarities Smallville shared with the likes of Buffy and Dawson’s Creek. The WB’s formula – introduce some adolescents with dramatized problems, have them fall in and out of love with each other, and occasionally pit them against mythical monsters – was becoming apparent.

Still and all, that formula was working, and the network continued to milk it. In 2002, they released What I Like About You (from Nickelodeon whiz Dan Schneider), which began as a half-hour sitcom but quickly morphed into a serialized soap. The WB also debuted Everwood, a smalltown drama created by a young fellow named Greg Berlanti. Everwood was harshly criticized by the Parents’ Television Council for its frequent sex scenes and controversial plotlines (a first-season episode featured one character getting an abortion), but was well-liked by critics and gained a strong following.

But not every experiment clicked. That same season, The WB blended the comic-book sensibilities of Smallville with the “strong female trio” aspect of Charmed to create Birds of Prey, a DC Comics-series set in a post-Batman Gotham City. The show, which focused on the crime-fighting team of Oracle, Huntress, and Black Canary, was heavily hyped in the weeks leading up to its premiere, but failed to sustain an audience, and was cancelled after a mere 13 episodes.

And it was far from the only high-profile failure The WB endured at that time. In 2003, a pilot was produced for a Lone Ranger series (starring Chad Michael Murray in the title role), but it failed to get picked up. Not long after, the network tapped a young unknown named Eric Kripke to create Tarzan, a modern retelling of the jungle legend, starring Travis Fimmel (lately of Vikings fame) as the handsome hero. The show was panned by critics, and even Kripke later admitted the series had been a mess.

But arguably The WB’s biggest failure came in the fall of 2004. At a time when every network was trying to create the next West Wing, Greg Berlanti pitched Jack and Bobby, a series that blended the typical teen drama elements The WB craved with a more serious political edge. Stylized like a documentary, the show focused on two adolescent brothers, one of whom would someday become President of the United States. Each episode was framed in the political backdrop of the 2040s, while reenactments would flash back to the President’s youthful years in the early 21st century. The cast featured several strong actors (including future Mad Men stars John Slattery and Jessica Paré), and began with promising ratings, but quickly fizzled, and was canned after 22 episodes. Part of the problem may have been the hook of the show: “One brother becomes President… the other dies!” A promising draw, but the show revealed the answers in the second episode, and audiences tuned out shortly after.

The WB did have one bona fide success during this era, though – the high school soap One Tree Hill. After years of guest-starring on other WB series, Chad Michael Murray finally landed a starring role, playing one of two teenage brothers (with the other portrayed by James Lafferty) who were also fierce rivals, and the series followed their lives through high school and beyond. One Tree Hill debuted around the same time as Fox’s The OC, and viewers were quick to notice the superficial similarities between the two male-driven soaps. Critics gravitated to The OC, which took itself less seriously, and routinely poked fun at its own dramatic conventions. But One Tree Hill was no slouch – it quickly became a hit for The WB’s target demo, comfortably filling the vacancy left by Dawson’s Creek, and would ultimately run for an impressive nine seasons.

Still, One Tree Hill was largely the exception to the rule. In 2004, a contract dispute led the modestly-rated Angel to be axed, leaving Charmed and 7th Heaven as the network’s only ‘90s holdovers. The WB tried to maintain a sitcom brand, reviving Grounded for Life (which had been abruptly canned by Fox in 2002) and picking up new shows like Greetings from Tucson (which was notable for its heavily Latino cast), but comedy clearly wasn’t their forte. The network also tried to capitalize on the reality craze, but had little success outside of Beauty and the Geek.

By the end of the 2004-05 season, the five lowest-rated programs on network TV were What I Like About You, Jack & Bobby, The Starlet, The Mountain,, and Big Man on Campus,all of which aired on The WB. The network was in sixth place, slipping below even UPN – which, it should be noted, was still having issues of its own. Outside of Girlfriends, few UPN shows managed to last more than a single season. A Twilight Zone revival (hosted by Forest Whitaker) flopped, as did Roswell, which was finally put to rest in 2002. Even the relatively successful Star Trek: Enterprise couldn’t garner enough support – it ended in 2005, bringing the long-running franchise that had launched the network a decade earlier to a close. Ironically, UPN’s least-watched show of the ‘04 season – the noir-ish detective series Veronica Mars – was one of their only original shows to garner attention from critics.

Viacom, the conglomerate that owned UPN, underwent a major transition in late 2005, funneling its broadcast properties into a new company called CBS Corporation. (Viacom had purchased CBS in 2000, and it had since proven to be their most profitable network.) The move was designed to streamline the company’s various networks, but it only proved what a sore patch UPN had become. The fall 2005 season yielded one quasi-hit – the Chris Rock-inspired comedy Everybody Hates Chris – and another string of flops – including the reality series Get This Party Started (inexplicably hosted by the guy who placed Percy on Buffy), which finished dead last in that season’s ratings.

The WB didn’t fare much better. Their only fall 2005 debut to gain even modest success was Eric Kripke’s horror/fantasy mash-up Supernatural (which partnered Gilmore Girls’ Jared Padalecki with Smallville’s Jensen Ackles). That same year, the network suffered one of its biggest dramatic flops, cancelling the lawyer drama Just Legal after a mere three episodes.

With two flagging networks eternally battling for a meager fifth place, things looked dire. (UPN, since its inception in 1995, had by this point lost over $100 million in production and promotion.) So in January 2006, a compromise was reached, one which harkened back to the PTEN days. CBS Corporation and Warner Bros. decided to pool their resources and combine the most popular shows on The WB and UPN into one single network. This new network would be christened “The CW” (for CBS and Warner Bros), and would make its debut in fall 2006.

Quickly, executives began to negotiate. It was decided that The WB – which, thanks to its daytime programming, had a more extensive schedule than UPN – would form the template for the new network. (The space vacated by UPN was bought out by Fox Broadcasting, which turned the new property into – big shock – another syndication network.)

Then there was the matter of which shows would survive the jump. Charmed, Everwood, and What I Like About You were lagging in the ratings, so the decision was made to end them. 7th Heaven and Reba were also formally cancelled, but both were revived again at the last minute for a final season. Other WB survivors included Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill, Smallville, and Supernatural; the refugees from UPN included Veronica Mars, Everybody Hates Chris, and Girlfriends.

Dawn Ostroff, the President of UPN, was tapped to run The CW, which was set to take over The WB’s space in September 2006. Executives braced themselves, hoping the fresh start would pay off.

But it didn’t. (At first.)

Tune in next time for Part 3 – where I promise to start talking about The CW.

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5 thoughts on “A Brief Unauthorized History of The CW (Part 2)”

  1. Today I learned what “The CW” stands for. Thanks, Jeremy!

    Also I really appreciate the research you’ve done into all this, it’s been educational.

    Like

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