Network Lobotomy

After nearly two decades as the primary broadcast channel for teens, The CW, under new ownership, wants to be something else. It may be a hint at what’s next for linear television.

By Ernie Smith

The company Nexstar is no stranger to extreme makeovers when it comes to the television stations it owns. In 2021, it revamped the long-active legacy superstation WGN into a CNN competitor called NewsNation, which is far from the first time a cable network has gotten a reset, and will very likely not be the last.

But its recent decision to revamp The CW to be a linear, more-reality-TV-driven station feels like new territory to me. The early signs of a big rethink come less than a month before the 30th anniversaries of UPN and The WB, the two parent networks that merged into The CW in 2006.

For years, The CW’s bread and butter has been shows like Supernatural, iZombie, and Riverdale—fantasy drama series targeted at a mostly teen or young-adult audiences, indirect descendants of WB and UPN fare like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. (Fittingly, the network was for many years jointly run by Paramount and Warner Bros. Discovery’s corporate predecessors, so it felt like a combination of the two.)

These are the kind of shows that would have died on the vine on a big-three network in a prior television era, but thrived on The CW. Supernatural went on for so long that some teens that watched the show when it came on in 2005 may have had teens of their own when it ended in 2020. Odds are, what kept Supernatural alive was not teen viewers by the end, but the potential for long-term streaming revenue thanks to the fact that it is a highly bingeable series, just like every other UPN/WB/CW teen show over the collective networks’ three-decade history.

Priorities are shifting, however, with Nexstar coming into view. The company, a giant of local affiliate television, ultimately exists to keep those affiliates strong—it doesn’t really have a giant streaming presence, unlike Paramount or WBD. And hence, the things that the company decided to keep from the pre-merger era are absolutely telling. It doesn’t exist to seed streaming services—it exists to help affiliates sell ads.


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A recent Variety piece lays bare the big shift. Gone is Riverdale, which was perhaps The CW’s best-known recent show, along with the 2019 revival of Nancy Drew. It comes a year after The CW, under prior ownership, dumped a number of other shows. While a few dramatic shows from the prior order are still with us, the strike is going to keep them off the air for a while, creating an opportunity for Nexstar to find a new footing in reality television.

Many of the programs being kept around fit the unscripted mold. (Did you know that Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an improv-comedy chestnut that cut its teeth on Monica Lewinsky jokes way back in 1998, has been airing on The CW since 2013?)

On top of that, the network is leaning on a combination of discarded acquisitions from other networks (the former AMC series 61st Street), indie productions (the religious drama The Chosen, which somewhat famously got a SAG-AFTRA waiver amid the strike), and a number of in-the-works reality shows.

The hot new program coming to the network right now is FBoy Island, a HBO Max reality hit that was unceremoniously dumped after WBD changed both the streamer’s priorities and its name. (Yes, the same network airs The Chosen and FBoy Island.)

In a lot of ways, the CW’s schedule feels like an island of misfit toys, less a coherent vision and more an attempt to figure out what a linear television network should be in the streaming era from the perspective of a company that does not have much in the way of a streaming platform. Oh sure, The CW’s website boasts a streaming service of sorts, full of an unusual array of cast-offs and acquisitions, but it is by no means even as good as the weakest of the major streaming services. Missed watching the single-season wonder White Famous on Showtime six years ago? You can find it there, along with Whose Line, The Chosen, and the Canadian import Son of a Critch. Netflix isn’t exactly shaking in its boots. (But maybe they should be: As the Variety piece notes, CW President Brad Schwartz made his name at Pop TV after discovering another Canadian import, Schitt’s Creek.)

Linear television is going through a bit of a shape-shift right now, and I think the hint that something like this was coming isn’t even Nexstar’s CW deal, but Rupert Murdoch’s decision to sell off his studio assets to Disney, but keep the Fox network. A key sign of how the acquisition changed how Fox operates came earlier this year, when the network dropped its biggest scripted hit, 9-1-1, letting the Disney-owned ABC pick it up instead.

And it’s going to get weirder from here. We are going to see the really big companies embrace digital streaming, which comes with none of the regulatory drama or technical hoops of traditional broadcast, while making the old networks someone else’s problem. (Yes, there will be someone who is willing to make it their problem, and his name is Byron Allen.)

With Disney dropping hints that it’s considering getting out of the broadcast television game itself, we may be starting to reach a point where television takes a role not dissimilar to where streaming was just a decade ago—an afterthought for the big content companies, whose priorities lie elsewhere. It might feel like a more rough-and-tumble broadcast climate, akin to the pre-Fox days.

All of this is to say that if you had The CW or any of the other linear networks pegged, you might be surprised to learn that the landscape is on the brink of changing in a big way.

Links ’Til You Blink

Shoutout to Microsoft Paint, the not-quite-dead remnant of Windows past, which now has layering and transparency features—features that a few decades ago might have made it a formidable Photoshop competitor. (↬ Techmeme)

If you’re a fan of The Replacements, I highly recommend you check out the remastering of “Left of the Dial” above. Compare it to the original. It’s wild, right? That’s right: Nearly 40 years later, someone fixed the mix.

If the term “Lowtax Speedrun” means anything to you, you will appreciate this take from Ryan Broderick.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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