You’ll be forgiven for cringing a bit as new CW entertainment president Brad Schwartz made the rounds in trade interviews this week. “I think we’re going to try having breakthrough content that brings in large audiences,” he said. “And we’re just going to have to figure out a way of doing it efficiently.” It’s always tough when the guy hired to gut the place tries to explain his strategy in the fluffiest and most optimistic terms. But with apologies to station group owner Nexstar, which just acquired 75 percent of the CW, the economics of “bringing in large audiences” to a last-place linear broadcast network don’t really make sense.
They haven’t made sense for years, actually. The CW, which programs for the 18-34 year old demo yet has an audience with a median age of 58, continued to exist only because its owners, Warner Bros. and CBS, could seed their younger-skewing shows there, build small but devoted audiences, and then make the real money selling rights to Netflix and foreign outlets. Without that ownership element and a rich aftermarket, the CW is a little-watched linear money pit, and the numbers are getting worse. Its top show this season, All American, is averaging about 440,000 viewers, down more than 20 percent from last season, per Nielsen. That’s its top show. Coroner, a Canadian drama you’ve definitely never heard of (don’t lie!) that is remarkably in its fourth season, is averaging about 380,000 viewers and a .04 rating in the 18-49 demo. There are local newspapers with that kind of audience.
And get ready for more Coroners. It’s no coincidence Nexstar’s CW overseer Dennis Miller went with Schwartz, a low-budget guy known for cheap foreign acquisitions. That and third-tier reality shows are pretty much the only genres of originals that make sense at those audience levels, and that’s the sandbox in which Schwartz tends to play. He’s been dining out on Emmy winner Schitt’s Creek for years because, when he was running the PopTV cable network, he picked up U.S. rights from Canada when no one else would. That’s not nothing, of course, and TV executives have definitely built bigger reputations on doing less. But let’s not pretend Schwartz had anything to do with the production or even the popularity of Schitt’s, which caught on when it began airing on Netflix, not Pop. Back in 2014, it was just another cheap license that Schwartz picked up when many others passed.
And those days of finding Dan Levy-sized diamonds in the rough are kinda over—maybe not over; let’s just say it’s a lot more challenging. Prices have soared, thanks to streamers padding their libraries and the willingness of U.S. audiences to sample foreign series. And given the overall linear apocalypse, everyone is looking for less expensive options, thus running up the cost of the cheaper stuff. The CW’s previous president Mark Pedowitz knew this because he was already in the foreign-licensing game. On shows like Coroner, for instance.
So no, the new CW will soon not be airing all those Greg Berlanti-produced Y.A. shows or DC Comics adaptations, which can now run $4 million to $5 million an episode. In fact, many insiders expect the CW to be in need of its own coroner, killing off most if not all of the pricer stuff after this season. It already fired its entire casting department this week, among many others. Maybe Schwartz can replace the programming with $1 million an episode dramas or comedies, as has been floated. And maybe there’s an audience for that, and an ad business to be built on that audience.
But being in only the ad and affiliate fee game is gonna be really tough, and more likely than not, the CW as it has existed is gone. The new CW will likely retreat to C-level unscripted, whatever cheap pickups Schwartz can fill time with, and, if I had to predict, some news programming from Nexstar. Which is what Schwartz probably should have told the town this week in the first place. And even then, without sports or a network-defining franchise, or anything that might cause viewers to complain if it just went away, that still probably won’t be enough to save it.