Inside The New CW: Network Chiefs Explain How They’re Measuring Success, Leaning Into Adult Dramas and the Path to Profitability
The CW that audiences see when they tune in this fall won’t look like the CW of years past – but it also won’t look like the CW that new owner Nexstar actually intends to offer consumers moving forward.
In a move similar to its broadcast competition, the CW released a fall schedule meant to be practically immune to the effects of the ongoing writers strike. It’s an acquisition-heavy lineup that’s a mix of comedies (Canadian sitcoms including “Children Ruin Everything” and “Run the Burbs”), dramas (former AMC series “61st Street”) and unscripted fare (the salvaged HBO Max hit “FBoy Island”). The only potential hiccup would be a strike-related production delay for “All American,” one of two CW shows that new network president Dennis Miller and entertainment president Brad Schwartz have decided to keep moving forward.
As much as Schwartz doesn’t like the perception that there is anything wrong with an acquisition, he and Miller told Variety that isn’t the center of their scheduling strategy, but rather a path they had to take this first year because of production uncertainties.
Here, Variety speaks with Schwartz and Miller about the network’s plans for adult dramas, programming to Black audiences following the success of “All American,” going hard on unscripted with “FBoy Island,” and the path to making the former Paramount/Warner Bros. Discovery-owned channel profitable for Nexstar.
What is the plan for marketing the new CW network ahead of the fall, especially given that this schedule won’t always be your schedule, but it’s going to be the first taste of the new CW? And what is the overall strategy for re-educating the public about the CW vs. the individual strategies for re-education about the linear channel and the CW App?
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Schwartz: Everyone talks about us needing to get away from the expensive, old CW programming. It’s not even so much the expense. It’s the performance and the rights. We’re still going to spend a lot of money on programming. We’re still going to produce over 400 hours of original programming. But it was the performance of the shows and it was the rights for the shows. In today’s media environment, it almost feels like the viewers are children of divorced parents, they don’t trust you completely. They want to make sure that the show is going to go on a couple of seasons before they’re going to go check it out, because they’re worried their show’s going to get canceled. And in that kind of viewing environment, to not have past seasons of all your shows — Imagine if Netflix didn’t have seasons one and two of “Outer Banks.” If you went to Netflix and it was only season three? Terrible, terrible experience.
But historically, when people sold to broadcast, you had a show, it was on for the broadcast season and at the end of the broadcast season it went away. And it’s just not the way we can operate anymore. So it’s about finding great programming. It’s investing, but it’s also about getting all the rights you need so that when we go into the third season of “Sullivan’s Crossing,” for example, and people are talking about how great it is, you can go back and watch it from the beginning. So that’s where the digital and the linear play so well together. What we have to do is think about creating great content that connects with people and that, hopefully, you’re going to watch that content wherever it’s more convenient for you. Convenience always wins. But we do know we have absolute, complete reach. So it’s our job just to put programming on that people are going to want to come to see and be good marketers to convince you to come check it out. But I think we have to look at our business now just holistically and to make sure that the content choices we make are available everywhere, and not the way that typical broadcast channels used to do it.
Will there be points where you are trying to hit those beats of the CW’s history and connecting with that audience?
Schwartz: We’re casting a new show right now that I can’t talk about and the male lead — there were a couple of different options — and one of the male leads that we liked the most, we were like, “Oh, and he was in ‘Reign.'” So we were like, “Let’s go with that guy!.” We have to respect the CW, and everything it’s done. It’s put some of the greatest pop culture shows of all time into into the world from “Gossip Girl,” “Vampire Diaries,” to “Riverdale” and “The Flash.” You have to always respect where you came from, and then jump off of that. The CW has always been contrarian. It has always been different. What I love about “FBoy” is I feel like that’s a show that no other network would do. And I think the CW did shows that no other network would do. So you find all the good things that have been built. And now we jump off to try to get bigger. So lots of respect for the former CW. We just have to be bigger.
You’ve said you don’t plan on changing the name from the CW, but were there conversations about that? And could you revisit it if you feel like you do have a hard time reestablishing yourself or reimagining the network?
Schwartz: We can always revisit and I think we had very brief conversations, I would say, never a serious conversation. Rebrands are difficult, I’ve done six of them. Rebrands are difficult because, depending on how you do it — like when the Oprah Winfrey Network rebranded from Discovery Health. You literally told everybody that’s on that channel, “Go away, we’re gonna start from scratch.” It’s hard. It took them years, and they lost hundreds of millions of dollars on their way to profitability. Or when Style rebranded to Esquire. They literally said bye to everybody that was on that network, tried to get a new one, and that failed miserably.
We have a brand that, for better or worse, has been around for almost 20 years that people know. And I believe that that brand has enough equity in it that we can make it more elastic. And that we can do shows like “Sullivan’s Crossing,” and “FBoy Island,” and do comedies. Dennis’ and my job is to figure out, what is the CW way of doing comedy? What is the CW way of doing adult drama? We’ll be doing a lot of brand work over the next year to really flesh out that story. But I don’t think we’d change the name. You can always revisit it — but there are no plans on any piece of paper or any deck or roadmap that has us changing the name. That’s on the record.
Brad, you’ve talked about the need to attract new viewers and to keep them coming back to The CW. But when you’re programming shows like “Everyone Else Burns” that is only six episodes, how does that factor into the plan? Or if a show like “61st Street” — which you’ve acquired two seasons of — really over-performs, is there a world where you order a third completely original season?
Schwartz: We knew when we attacked this project that we wanted to bring new people to the CW. We knew we had to. So we were like, what does adult drama look like? What do original films look like? What does unscripted look like? And that’s why some of the first choices that we have are some acquisitions or co-productions. We have about four or five comedies in development or in upcoming production to come behind all those shows. We have that show, and another one, and another one that’s going to keep that female-fronted drama night going. The “I Am…” series of films is the start of a potential movie strategy. “FBoy Island” leads into “FGirl,” and then behind that, Heather is developing a ton of big, loud unscripted stuff.
I think this is Phase 1– but the idea of trying to get more comedies, and hopefully those comedies work and then we build off comedy, and the dramas work, we build off drama. With “61st Street,” specifically that show, Season 2, no spoilers, has a really solid ending. There’s no cliffhanger of any kind. It ties up the story and ends really nicely. So that really could be it. If it over-performs, if it does really well, we can always have a conversation. Courtney B. Vance has been texting me every day about how excited he is that the show is going to get a bigger audience and get a bigger platform. I wouldn’t say we’re buddies yet, it’s just been over text. So never say never. But that’s an expensive show. That was a really opportunistic opportunity for us to have Emmy winners and Michael B. Jordan, amazing producers, and find something that we think matches well with the highest concentration of African American audiences on television, which is “All American.” I would love to have to have that do so well that Dennis and I have to have a talk.
And looking at your fall schedule, you are very well insulated against the effects of the writer strike for now. But you’ve also said you’re developing new shows and you have new shows in production. So how long do you think it will be before the CW starts to feel the effects of the strike?
Schwartz: The only show on that schedule that is strike impacted is “All American.” So that schedule is pretty solid. And if the strike ends in the next four to six weeks, I think “All American” would be fine because they did a lot of work breaking stories and stuff before the strike and now we just get the writers room going. If that gets pushed because the writer strike goes a little longer, and I think it probably might, that goes into Q1 and you replace it with something like “The Swarm,” and we have some other things. As long as the writers strike is three months or four months, or less, I think we’re going to be fine. And a lot of our original productions that are coming next, even in scripted, some of them are co-productions. “Joan” is a great example.
“Joan” is a co-production built from scratch with the CW. And that show is being shot in the UK and just started production this week. And so that’s not strike impacted. That’s a show that our entire team is dealing with on a daily basis. We just saw first shots from the set. And the two that I was talking about that are coming behind “Sullivan’s Crossing,” that female-fronted drama world, those are both co-productions being built from scratch, homegrown shows that are being done in Canada. Those are also not affected. And then Heather has a ton of great unscripted and that’s obviously not impacted. I think we’re in good shape. “Walker,” we’ll have to wait.
How you are positioning the CW in the market — where there is a continued perception that broadcast is dying, while at the same time streaming is clearly struggling — in terms of rebranding. Not the aspects for the consumer, but rebranding in the minds of buyers and the industry?
Miller: Lo and behold, of the 30 stocks in the media space, [Nexstar was] the second-best performer over the last 10 years. Just in the last two board meetings, we were talking about that: Doing 34-35% margins in a business where we don’t even know if there’s positive margins in streaming yet, that’s to be determined here. Slow and steady growth, sticking to your knitting, staying out of areas when you don’t know what the business model is going to look like. Perry and his team, Andy Alford, that group here, have just done a remarkable job. And I think for both Brad and I, when we were looking at this, because it was kind of unusual jump [for me] from the board into an operating role, and Brad and I worked together previously at TV Guide/Pop, and one of the big, compelling things and getting the kind of talent that we’ve been able to bring over on the executive side was, “Take a look at this balance sheet. They did $1.6 billion of cash flow last year. They are leveraged almost below three times now.” Compare that to where Warner sits and Paramount sits and the other folks here, we’re in a really good place to acquire the things we need to acquire to take the long view. We want to invest in content, as we’re doing now. We could do that on a larger scale if we found the right asset.
So that was a hugely important part for me to say, hey, we got the right mothership who is sitting there in a very financially viable place and not biding it’s time always looking for opportunities. They’ve told Brad and I, you present something, go right to the top, there’s no bureaucracy here. You’re gonna hear from the guy who started this quickly. If you want to get sports rights, if you want to buy a production company, if you want to license content at a high level, go right to the person, get that answer and move forward — which doesn’t happen at the other places. This was the reason for both Brad and I to go, this is the right company to have behind you in going after what is a challenging turnaround, in terms of the world that we live in today here. With the reset going on, that you guys are covering every day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime it resetting this rapidly and without a lot of answers as to what the final playbook is going to look like here, I just think we’re in a really cool position here.
What would be your measure of success at the end of the season? What would you want to see by the end of the season to think, we did a first successful season of our CW?
Miller: That we have brought new viewers to the CW. That we have a couple of shows that have popped. We all know when you’ve got a whole new schedule on, you’ll be surprised that some of the stuff you thought was going to be big isn’t, some of the stuff you’ve thought it’s okay, becomes a huge hit — I’ve seen that so many times in my career and in my life. At the end, if we have a couple of shows that are really developing fans, if we have brought a whole set of unique viewers into the CW, if the word on the street and in the creative community is that this is a place doing quality work, that’s innovative, they’re taking chances, they respond quickly, they treat you fairly, that’d be a really good year for us.
Schwartz: Ditto. I would be doing that thing where I repeat everything he said, but it’s unnecessary.
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