Can The CW Survive Without Superheroes and Teen Soaps?

The CW systematically stripped away its superhero dramas and teen-centric soaps during the 2022-23 television season, taking the foundation of its primetime programming slate down to the studs. Now comes the reveal of a renovation that leans heavily on niche sports, noisy unscripted series, procedural dramas and broad-skewing comedies.

The change comes a year after Texas-based Nexstar Media Group acquired a majority stake in The CW from its founders, CBS and Warner Bros. (the “C” and “W” in “CW”). A new owner inevitably brings new priorities and a new regime, and The CW’s freshly appointed leadership team of president Dennis Miller and entertainment president Brad Schwartz have a nail-biter of a season ahead. There’s little doubt that The CW will see a ratings drop, at least early on, as it implements a radical shift in content strategy.

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The new CW team can only hope that Nexstar, led by local TV news anchor-turned-investor Perry Sook, shows as much patience with its makeover as it has over the past three years with NewsNation, the cable news channel that Nexstar revamped from entertainment-focused channel WGN America.

Birthed in 2006 by the merger of The WB network and UPN, The CW is taking a hard pivot into new programming lanes at a time when traditional ad-supported networks are struggling to maintain an audience.

“We’re broadcast; we’re not a niche cable channel. We have to reach the largest audience possible, and we need those audiences to fall in love with us and want to spend a lot of time with us,” Schwartz says.

According to Schwartz, The CW has more than a dozen unscripted series in production in the U.S. and five scripted series that are either international productions, including the Sophie Turner-led “Joan,” or indie projects, like religious series “The Chosen,” which received a SAG-AFTRA strike waiver.

For most of its 17 years, The CW has been dominated by scripted series. Now, the slate is focused on unscripted series including “FBoy Island,” the provocative dating series that previously ran on HBO Max. It also picked up more Canadian-produced dramas and comedies, notably “Sullivan’s Crossing” and “The Spencer Sisters,” and sports, including LIV Golf and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

But with both “Riverdale” and “Nancy Drew” ending on Aug. 23, following a slew of cancellations throughout last season, the new CW regime dares to defy what was laid out by then-chief Mark Pedowitz. Over Pedowitz’s 12-year tenure, the network helped seed big series assets for CBS and Warner Bros. And it reached lucrative licensing deals with Netflix in 2011 and 2016 for reruns of series after each season finished its first-run airing on The CW. Those deals made all the difference in The CW’s profit statement.

That all changed, however, when the 2016 Netflix pact ended in May 2019. At that point, CBS parent ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia decided to funnel original content to their own streamers, CBS All Access and HBO Max, respectively. As peak TV turned the industry’s focus from building curated cable networks to pooling internal resources around subscription streamers, it became clear that CBS and WarnerMedia both had less interest in sticking with the CW joint venture.

Add to that broader turbulence in the TV business, including mergers, debt problems and cord-cutting, and it’s no surprise that Paramount and what is now Warner Bros. Discovery put The CW on the auction block last year (both ex-parents maintain minority stakes). The most logical buyer, Nexstar, was the lead horse throughout the sale process, clinching an agreement in August 2022.

Now at the helm, Schwartz says he wants the network to take on more of an “underdog” and even “contrarian” vibe. And the exec knows how tricky the programming business can be in the era of global streaming. As president of CBS-owned cable channel Pop TV from 2013 to 2020, Schwartz found “Schitt’s Creek” in its infancy and championed it in the U.S. — only to watch the quirky Dan Levy comedy series become an Emmy-winning hit for Netflix in its final seasons.

The CW’s new focus is meant to be a better fit with Nexstar’s local news fare, which skews toward an older audience. For years, there’s been a significant disconnect between The CW’s programming, meant to appeal to a younger audience, and the needs of the local TV stations that carry that programming. Warner Bros. and CBS were able to rake in licensing fees from after-market sales of shows that launched with fanfare on The CW, but none of that online buzz did much for Nexstar’s linear 10 p.m. news numbers.

The CW, though, is now positioned for gains as it benefits from clear strategic focus under unified ownership. But Schwartz still has to meet two distinct mandates with programming: Help The CW’s linear affiliate stations (those owned by Nexstar as well as other broadcast station groups) and appeal to a younger crowd through on-demand streaming.

A new on-air look for The CW is also coming soon. Schwartz says, “It will be elastic enough where all of these things make sense all together.”

Schwartz speaks with confidence, but he’s facing a tall order for a channel with an “Under New Management” sign hanging out front.

“The CW had a very distinct brand. It’s definitely not going to be that brand going forward. But what is it going to be?” a CW alum says. “Usually, that is defined by what you put on the air. So right now, with all these different acquisitions, it still doesn’t feel like it’s a cohesive ‘This is what we are to our viewers,’ other than what they say they’re going for — older and broader.”

Nexstar is valued at around $12.5 billion, with The CW estimated to contribute $250 million of that sum, per Wells Fargo media analyst Steven Cahall. When Nexstar acquired The CW, the company agreed to absorb its losses for a few years rather than hand over cash in a formal sales transaction. Sook and other Nexstar executives have told investors in recent months that they expect The CW to become profitable for the company by 2025.

A big part of Nexstar’s rebrand of The CW has involved “moving very quickly into the sports business,” says Schwartz. The network has snapped up rights not only to LIV Golf and the NASCAR Xfinity Series but also ACC football and basketball and even the stalwart pigskin recap series “Inside the NFL.” Now that The CW is scooping up such rights, “every other sports league” has started calling to discuss future deals.

“If we did see a really significant piece of sports content end up on The CW, that increases the earnings power of other assets within the Nexstar portfolio,” Cahall says. “The CW can play a lot of roles within the Nexstar portfolio — but the biggest one is really still earnings power.”

The CW hasn’t completely abandoned programming that previously fueled its primetime. Long-running shows like the high school sports drama “All American” and its spinoff, “All American: Homecoming,” as well as the Jared Padalecki action-drama “Walker” and the DC series “Superman & Lois,” all have been renewed for the upcoming season. However, those shows won’t likely be on air until sometime next summer on account of Hollywood’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

“Our big boss, Perry Sook, likes to say, ‘I want to play smart TV. … I’m not interested in peak TV,’” says Miller, formerly a senior executive at Sony Pictures, Lionsgate Television and TNT. “It’s time to play smart TV right now.”

Key to playing smart TV is overhauling The CW’s digital operations and its app. That task has been taken on by Roku veteran Ashley Hovey, who signed on as chief digital officer in April. The chance to invigorate the app is “one of the biggest growth opportunities for The CW overall,” Miller says. “You’re going to see over the next one to two years a very aggressive content acquisition strategy for The CW digital. It was a bit of an afterthought under the previous owners. So we’re going to really focus on that 25-to-40-year-old spot. The app is being upgraded dramatically.”

The CW hopes to claw back some of the bragging rights it lost as its top shows became synonymous with Netflix once they landed on the platform. “All American,” “Riverdale” and the CBS-produced redo of “Dynasty” are among the shows that found much larger audiences on Netflix than they ever did on linear. Along with the digital revamp, Hovey’s team is working on how to better handle streaming licensing partnerships.

“One of the biggest challenges of the previous CW,” Schwartz says, “is they didn’t have the rights to the content. The content was fabulous, but they were CBS rights and they were Warner rights. All the new content we’re doing, both scripted and unscripted, all those rights are ours.”

Amid the tumult, Schwartz is mindful of trying to retain some connection to the CW of the past, and even flavors of The WB and UPN.

“We don’t want to alienate an audience that we spent 20 years cultivating — keeping our connection to our old audience just can’t be the only thing we do,” he says. “It can be one of the five things that we do.”

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