A Brief Unauthorized History of The CW (Part 4)

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Rather belatedly, here is the final quarter of my CW history piece. Assuming any of you need a refresher, here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. But if you’re all caught up…

When Mark Pedowitz was announced as the new head of the CW Network in May 2011, many casual observers raised their eyebrows. The Canadian-born executive was 60 years old – hardly the age one would expect for the head of a “hip youngsters” network. (By comparison, Dawn Ostroff was in her mid-40s when she took over the network in 2006.)

But Pedowitz’s age brought experience. During the 1980s, he had frequented the entertainment industry, working in Business Affairs at various start-up companies. Then in 1991, he landed a coveted VP position at ABC Entertainment, beginning a long and successful tenure at one of broadcasting’s Big Three networks. In 2004, he was promoted to President of ABC Studios, a position that immediately struck gold – his first season saw the premiere of such megahits as Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy.

By the time he left ABC in 2009, Pedowitz had earned a reputation not merely as a business-savvy executive, but as a great fan of television. While other network presidents had been criticized for the sterile, money-first approach they took to overseeing television, Pedowitz watched and enjoyed many of the shows his network oversaw.

It would be erroneous to say that Pedowitz’s tenure at The CW kicked off with the 2011 fall season. The pilots for that season were already in production at the time his new job was announced, and the new premieres had all been greenlit by Ostroff. Among the new shows which debuted that fall were The Secret Circle (a mystical drama about a witch’s coven) and Ringer (a soapy doppelganger series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar). Neither series managed to sustain an audience, and both were cancelled after a single season.

But even as his network limped along, Pedowitz was eyeing the future. Noticing that streaming services were beginning to attract young people, he decided it was worth getting a jump on the older-skewing broadcast networks. To that end, he struck twin deals with Netflix and Hulu – the former would have the rights to stream older WB and CW shows, while the latter would premiere episodes of new seasons the day after they aired. (Recall that this was in the days before streaming services offered original programming of their own, so Netflix and Hulu were all too happy to make the deal.)

Pedowitz’s next move was to install a summer lineup at the network. Although cable networks routinely premiered their shows during the less competitive summer months, broadcast networks were firmly rooted in the September-to-May block, saving the year’s hottest months for disposable reality shows. Within months of his installation at the CW, though, Pedowitz had secured the rights to The LA Complex, a Canadian drama centering on a group of good-looking young Angelinos. The show premiered on The CW in April 2012, just as the regular network season was winding down.

But despite the relative lack of competition, and strong reviews from critics, The LA Complex had the least-watched premiere in network drama history. (Roughly 63,000 viewers tuned in, an embarrassing number even by CW standards.) The show limped along during the summer of 2012, before being unceremoniously cancelled.

Still, Pedowitz shook off the loss, and concentrated on his first full season as network head. Among the new 2012-13 shows were Beauty and the Beast (a semi-revival of the late ‘80s procedural), The Carrie Diaries (a Sex and the City prequel focused on a young Ms. Bradshaw), and Cult (a drama about… well, a cult). None of these shows were critical hits, and only Beast found an audience. (It ran until 2016.)

The biggest bomb of the network’s lineup that year, however, was Emily Owens, MD, a sort of Grey’s Anatomy/Ally McBeal hybrid starring Mamie Gummer. Created by Jennie Snyder Urman, the quirky medical procedural was heavily promoted by the network in the weeks leading up to its debut. But critics and audiences yawned at the series, which was cancelled after 13 episodes.

Years later, Pedowitz would recall the failure of Owens as a turning point. “We realized that show did not connect because no one was coming to us for a procedural,” he told Variety. “So we took a good look at our schedule.” Mythology-based shows like Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries were the network’s biggest hits – clearly, that’s where the money was.

Luck was on his side. The same month as Owens, The CW debuted one more new series – Greg Berlanti’s Arrow. Although the series was picked up based on two major selling points – being, of course, Stephen Amell’s left and right biceps – it quickly found a wider audience among comic-book nerds. In the wake of Smallville (which had also heavily featured Green Arrow in its later seasons, before being cancelled in 2011), the network’s superhero void was in need of filling, and Arrow did the job well.

Arrow was the network’s breakout hit of the 2012 season, and provided momentum going into fall 2013. That year, The CW released the Vampire Diaries spinoff The Originals, as well as the soapy period drama Reign. Both shows resonated with the network’s target demos, and would go on to air for several seasons. The 100, a dystopian sci-fi drama with some Game of Thrones touches, debuted at midseason and quickly gained a fanbase. The network’s batting average still wasn’t perfect (hi and bye, The Tomorrow People), but it was rapidly improving.

And before the 2013 season had even kicked in, the network was making plans for the next year. A two-part Arrow episode introduced Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, a character better-known to comic book fans as the Flash. This in turn led to a Flash TV series, which debuted in the fall of 2014. The show was embraced by critics, and quickly became the most-watched program in CW history.

Even more critically acclaimed was the other series the network debuted that fall. Jane the Virgin, created by the aforementioned Jennie Snyder Urman, was a subversive soap opera based on a Spanish telenovela. No fall debut of any broadcast network won over critics like the warm and winking humor of Jane did. Suddenly, critics who’d once dismissed The CW as a kiddie network were granting it a new level of respect.

And just in time, too. With cable shows dominating at the Emmy Awards, and streaming services now offering multiple original series of their own, broadcast networks had grown to be viewed as something of a TV dinosaur, a place filled with little more than police procedurals and Shondaland soaps. But The CW, despite drawing far lower ratings than CBS or ABC, was now displaying an edge over its competition in terms of quality.

This edge continued into 2015, which saw the debuts of iZombie (marking the return of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas to the network) and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a series originally greenlit by Showtime, then bought by The CW). CXGF was a ratings catastrophe, one of the least-watched series of any broadcast network in the 2015-16 season. But critics and awards ceremonies quickly took to the charmingly quirky musical, and it became a network staple.

Obviously, CXGF could not survive without other series keeping the network afloat. Fortunately, The CW had and continues to have continued success with its superhero dramas. In addition to Arrow and The Flash, the network spun off DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in 2016, and rescued the lagging Supergirl, which had debuted the previous year on CBS. More recently, the network has added Black Lightning to its DC Comics roster, with a planned Batwoman series on the way. And they’ve even dabbled in non-superhero comics, with the dark Archie-centered Riverdale.

As older viewers flock to The CW, the network has lately chosen to draw upon viewer nostalgia. One of their more successful recent debuts was Dynasty, an update of the soapy ‘80s drama that originally aired on ABC. They’re also reaching back to WB/UPN lore, with reboots of Charmed and Roswell for the 2018-19 season. There’s almost a full-circle feel, as the fledgling teen network of the late ‘90s has grown into Cult Central all these years later.

Pedowitz remains network President as of this writing, having extended his deal in January 2018. And around the same time, twenty-three years after The WB debuted, America’s fifth major network finally expanded its programming to Sunday nights. It was an incredible achievement for the great underdog of TV networks, one that could only be achieved with the help of consistently loyal viewers.

I’ve no idea where The CW goes next – in the age of streaming, broadcast TV seems constantly imperiled. But given all the turbulence the network has survived in the past, I imagine they’ll be sticking around to entertain us a while longer.

Now if only they’d bring back the frog…

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