John Maatta spent his summer merging two television networks into one. The final product, the CW Television Network, will debut on September 20 with a signal reaching about 93 percent of U.S. television sets.
Formation of the CW, a 50-50 joint venture between CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc., provides a case study in modern downsizing. The CW exists because neither the UPN network, which CBS inherited as part of its spin-off from Viacom Inc. late last year, or its competitor, the WB, run by Warner Bros., could muster enough audience to achieve profitability. According to Kagan Research, the networks had combined ad sales of slightly less than $1 billion.
On January 24, the competitors announced a plan to join forces. The CW's name came from the C in CBS and the W in Warner Bros.
"From that day, it's been a vector straight ahead leading toward the launch on Sept. 20," said Maatta, the CW's chief operating officer, a title he previously held at the WB. "There was no written plan but we had numerous meetings to make sure we had thought and re-thought every detail, complete with checklists and time lines. There were imperatives every day on the way to this combination."
Merging the two networks obviously cuts the number of on-air commercial slots in half, but programming costs will decline only about 20 percent, according to Kagan Research. That's because the CW will retain the best-performing shows, which typically cost more to produce than new or struggling shows.
But few doubt the wisdom of retrofitting the two networks to create a new one. "CBS and Warner Brothers made a good strategic move by combining these two struggling networks into one. Both networks were targeting similar young adults and fragmenting that demographic," said Rob Bochicchio, senior vice-president at ID Media, a large direct-response media buying firm. "Audience share was eroding on both networks, so a move like this had to happen."
Maatta said his toughest decisions involved staffing, because for every available position the combined networks had, there were at least two qualified people. He and Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at the CW, together selected the department heads, who in turn fleshed out their staffs as they saw fit. Today, the staff size is "right in the middle" in terms of the WB and UPN's payrolls, he said.
When it came to real estate, Maatta didn't want space at Warner Bros. or CBS facilities. He finally leased space at Pinnacle Two, a new development on Olive Avenue in Burbank with proximity to both corporate parents.
During the start-up phase, access to the corporate infrastructure has proved crucial. "Between Time Warner and CBS, they have an abundance of resources and executive talent," said Maatta. From legal to insurance, tax, business affairs any discipline where we needed an expert, someone could help us."
On the screen
The CW's own talent pool has pieced together a strategy to reach the young demographic.
"We're now the only network targeting 18- to 34-year-old adults, with the youngest median age of any network," Ostroff told the Television Critics Association at the annual rollout tour. "The first order of business was to bring viewers into the brand and into a new network, so it was important for us to kick off each night with established series by pairing shows that have similar audiences, we've also created theme nights across the week. And now that these series are no longer competing against each other for the same viewers, there's no question that they will perform better together than they did apart."
In all, the CW will air 13 shows, of which six come from the UPN side (including one through syndication), five from the WB, and two are new. The strategy tries to target a segment of the young adult audience each night. For example, Monday pairs family dramas "7th Heaven" and "Runaway." On Tuesday, "Gilmore Girls" sets the pace for "Veronica Mars," both female-skewing shows. Thursday features the comic book-based "Smallville" leading into "Supernatural," about two demon-hunting brothers. The fare clearly appeals to a male, mostly Anglo demo.
In terms of the race demographic, the UPN and WB shows complement each other well. "WB specifically catered to young Anglo viewers and UPN focused more on the minority audience," said Bochicchio.
The CW's schedule reflects this dual heritage. WB shows have mostly white casts, while UPN shows include "America's Next Top Model," hosted by African-American beauty Tyra Banks; "Everybody Hates Chris," a growing-up comedy narrated by Chris Rock; and the multi-ethnic "Friday Night Smackdown."
"One-third of America's 18- to 34-year-olds identify themselves as a minority," said Ostroff. "To be successful, it is a top priority for us to ensure that our viewers see their multicultural lives reflected on the screen."
In its marketing campaign, the CW matches youthful faces with its "Free to Be" tagline. A tour of shopping malls started on August 12 and will culminate with a free concert by Jewel at the Grove in West Los Angeles on August 30.
Because its target demo is the primary online audience, the CW has developed a Web presence called The CW Lounge (accessible at www.cwtv.com). The site allows viewers to produce their own CW network promos. Another feature provides video clips from CW shows so users can create promos with their favorite TV characters.
But the CW looks to change little for the TV sector as a whole.
Previously, the industry had two struggling networks, UPN and the WB; now it has CW and MyNetworkTV, a Fox project designed to supply shows to former UPN or WB affiliates suddenly without a programming source.
At the CW, Bochicchio said 60 percent of the affiliate stations previously carried the WB, about 28 percent carried the UPN, and 12 percent are new stations. He expects the CW sales force will focus on retaining advertisers who supported the two predecessor networks. "The addition of My Network TV will further dissipate the audience, which may take some of CW's younger viewers," Bochicchio warned.
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