[By Jeremy Grayson]
By the time she was first approached to run the all-new CW Network, Dawn Ostroff had thirty years of media experience behind her – twenty in radio news (where she had started work as a teenager), and another ten in television. In 1996, she had joined Lifetime, a network with programming aimed at women, and presided over successful shows like Any Day Now and The Division. In 2002, she left her post to become President of UPN. And when the struggling UPN was merged with the WB into a shiny new network, CBS President Les Moonves chose her to lead the way.
But it would be a tough transition. Even before The CW made its fall 2006 debut, the network struggled to keep its showrunners happy. The first sign of trouble came when Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls, asked for money to hire more writers to help sustain her long-running show. Juggling too many plates at once, Ostroff turned down her request, and Palladino quit. (David Rosenthal, who had been hired on Gilmore Girls one year earlier, was appointed the new showrunner for what would be the series’ final season.)
Then Ostroff met with Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, and requested he make some changes. Though she had happily greenlit Mars on UPN two years earlier, the show was barely scraping by in the ratings, and Ostroff told Thomas to dial back the show’s lengthy and complex mysteries for its third season. Ultimately, they decided to break the season up into mini-arcs, rather than sustain a single mystery from start to finish. The result would prove highly divisive among the show’s fervent fanbase, and Mars’ third season would also be its last.
Understandably, most of the shows on the fall 2006 schedule were holdovers from the WB/UPN days. The only new shows that Ostroff greenlit were The Game, a Girlfriends spinoff centered on love and football, and Runaway, a drama about a family on the run from the law. The Game would prove quite successful, but Runaway bombed immediately, and was cancelled after three episodes.
The rest of the CW’s fall schedule tried to settle in, but the results were uneven. Though they had debuted within the same week, The WB and UPN had grown into very different networks, and combining their programming only made their differences more noticeable. Was The CW a network for teen dramas or minority comedies? The network relegated its four sitcoms into a two-hour Sunday night block, and devoted the rest of the week to dramas, but that only made the divide more starkly obvious.
Returning for the 2007 season, Ostroff knew that the network needed something to stand out. Then Josh Schwartz, coming off his popular FOX drama The OC, pitched her a show based on a popular young-adult book series. Ostroff was intrigued, and gave it the green light. And thus, Gossip Girl was born.
Bearing no relation to Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl focused on a group of upper-class New York teenagers who fell in and out of love (and in and out of bed) while staying pretty and navigating the NY Scene. The show was alluring, enticing, and filled with biting primetime soapiness, underscored by Kristen Bell’s narration as the never-seen titular Girl, who somehow seemed to know about every scandal happening beneath the Manhattan skyline.
Premiering in September 2007, Gossip Girl was an immediate hit (at least by CW standards). Teen girls loved the show, and gleefully began unpacking its secrets and writing online fanfiction about its characters. The show’s ratings remained steady throughout the first season, even if it never approached the heels of a CBS procedural.
Gossip Girl also had its fair share of detractors – namely, parents. In terms of inappropriate content, the show made Everwood look like 7th Heaven, with constant scenes of irresponsible drinking and underage sex. The Parents’ Television Council excoriated the show, calling it “mind-blowingly inappropriate.” The producers responded by pulling that quote and using it for a Season Two poster. Ratings (obviously) rose.
Still, Gossip Girl was an anomaly among CW premieres; shows like Reaper and Aliens in America tanked almost out of the gate. So Ostroff decided to play it safe, and revive the mother of all modern teen dramas. In the fall of 2008, a new 90210 made its debut, eight years after the original had been cancelled by FOX.
The original Beverly Hills, 90210 was the defining teen drama of the ‘90s, lasting ten seasons and spawning too many knockoffs to count. The follow-up series was essentially a sequel, featuring a new generation of teenagers, with several of the original castmembers making return appearances. The show premiered to strong ratings (nostalgia may have helped boost the series), but viewership declined in later episodes. Nevertheless, the show better than the network’s other 2008 debuts (including the forgotten Easy Money and Privileged), and was the only one renewed for a second season.
The CW now had a coveted advertising target – teenage girls – and began gearing its programming to reflect that. 2009 saw the network move The Game to BET and cancel Everybody Hates Chris outright. The sitcoms which had defined UPN years earlier were now being phased out in favor of sudsy primetime drama. As a result, sitcom diversity took its latest hit, one from which it is still recovering from. During the late ‘90s, there were over a dozen network sitcoms with black protagonists; by 2010, the number had dropped to zero.
Still, the fact remained that The CW had now found a groove, and continued to build on it, nurturing new dramas while building on established ones. Supernatural had been introduced in the last days of The WB, had slowly but surely become a hit for the follow-up network, in large part due to its passionate online fanbase. The show’s (largely female) following propelled the show up the network’s ladder, and essentially granted it immortality. (As of this writing, the show is preparing to enter its thirteenth season.)
The success of Supernatural played a part in the next season of The CW’s lineup, although the influence could be drawn more directly from hits like Twilight and True Blood, as well as the mothership, Buffy. Created by Kevin Williamson and premiering in September 2009, The Vampire Diaries was another supernaturally-charged series with an impossibly pretty cast. But fans as well as critics responded favorably, making yet another hit. TVD would ultimately last longer than any other show introduced during Ostroff’s tenure.
But other new shows introduced at that time weren’t so lucky. A remake of the popular ‘90s soap Melrose Place (produced in response to the success of 90210) lasted only one season; The Beautiful Life, a drama centering on the lives of supermodels, was cancelled after two episodes, making it the shortest-lived show in The CW’s history.
Those shows seemed to skew a bit older than the network’s typical demographics, and thus didn’t catch fire the way execs had hoped. But even series that successfully checked the teenage boxes had trouble gaining a foothold. Life Unexpected, starring Britt Robertson as a teenager united with her long-lost parents, received good reviews, but the ratings couldn’t sustain it for more than two short seasons.
Part of the issue lay in the fact that the traditional broadcast model was eroding, particularly among younger viewers, who were slowly but surely migrating to the Internet. As the 2010s dawned, network ratings were the lowest they’d been since TV’s early days. And The CW still lagged well behind its four competitors.
The 2010-11 season, which introduced another high school drama (Hellcats) and a slightly older-skewing action drama (Nikita) would prove to be Ostroff’s last. After nearly a decade of working in broadcast television, she needed a break, and was looking to move her family to New York. She stuck around long enough to greenlight a new slate of shows for the 2011 season, then said her goodbyes.
Over the course of Ostroff’s five years, The CW had established itself as the prime network for young women. So it seemed a little odd when executives at CBS (which, as you’ll recall, owned The CW), announced that the network’s next president would be a man.
His name was Mark Pedowitz. And he was ready to shake things up.
Tune in soon-ish for one more chapter of the CW saga, in which I tie everything together in a way that will hopefully make some kind of sense.