CW is the new YouthTube
The brand new network courts young viewers with new media and old shows.
Starting in October, fans of "Veronica Mars," the cult hit that used to air on Wednesday nights on UPN, will find their favorite show is not only on a new night (Tuesday), but also on a whole new network, The CW.
A merger of the struggling and now defunct WB and UPN netlets, the new network has cobbled together a schedule of the top shows from each channel to create a single primetime lineup full of established hits. On the face of it, this "best of both worlds" approach doesn't exactly fit the dictionary definition of "new" (appearing for the first time). But look a little closer and it soon becomes apparent that The CW is borrowing new ideas about entertainment from the rapidly evolving world of newer media – such as the Internet and mobile phones – in a strategic bid to engage the coveted 18-to-34-year-old audience of both WB and UPN.
"The mantra for the network is innovation, participation, connection, and community," says Dawn Ostroff, The CW president of entertainment.
But while this emphasis on novel ways to reach young viewers may be as new as the network's lime-green logo, nearly all the shows are familiar fare from WB and UPN – "7th Heaven," "Gilmore Girls," "Smallville," "America's Next Top Model," etc. A single-hour drama series "Runaway" and a half-hour sitcom, "The Game," are the only premières, both coming up next week.
So, why launch something new with so much that is old? Once the corporate parents CBS and Time-Warner made the decision in January to merge the two entities into one network, executives were leery of unveiling an expensive new network with unknown fare. "The strategy all along was to depend on the established franchises to help bring in new viewers," says Ms. Ostroff.
Today's viewers pay little attention to the network, focusing instead on the content, which in this case is intentionally familiar, says John Consoli, senior editor of Mediaweek.com. "They killed all the dog shows that weren't performing and combined the best of the rest into a single spot," he says, adding "they should all do better."
In a nod to the exploding universe of user-generated content online (think YouTube and MySpace), The CW website will allow viewers to insert themselves into promos and trailers for their favorite shows. Fans can also use clips from earlier episodes to edit together a new version of an old show. Perhaps the most striking of the network's initiatives are what Ostroff has dubbed "the cw's," or content wraps, that will appear on TV. These are little ministories with advertisers' products – such as cars and food – placed in them that will run in place of traditional commercial breaks.
All of these enterprises are geared at slipping under the radar of an 18-to- 34-year-old set that is very sensitive to advertisements, says Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint, a free online service that allows users to create communities and networks. The generation that came of age on the Internet is cynical about commercial messages and leery of being targeted by advertisers.
"They can see right through marketing strategies," says Mr. Elowitz. He says fans may well choose to participate with The CW website, creating their own promos and trailers, as long as they feel they're being listened to when they give feedback on the network's shows.
The key moment may come when users criticize the network or the shows. "What will really determine the success [of The CW outreach] for an interactive generation is whether The CW will react and really let the users have control," says Elowitz. "Otherwise, people will just go and talk about them somewhere else."
In the near term, The CW faces a more immediate challenge. More than half the country will have to migrate from their UPN to their WB station to find the network, while roughly 28 percent will have to do the reverse. In a few cities, The CW will be in a new spot altogether.
Relying on the tried and true shows during the network's launch is the best way to tell fans about a new night and new network at the same time, says Ostroff. "We will have a very tall order, so we knew the best way to communicate that was to depend on the shows that people loved and knew."