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Will the CW Survive the Pandemic?

The cancellation of Katy Keene and a summer grab-bag of off-brand shows are bad signs.
  • With most of its regular programming sidelined by coronavirus shutdowns, The CW is keeping the lights on this summer with reality imports like Fridge Wars and Killer Camp.
    With most of its regular programming sidelined by coronavirus shutdowns, The CW is keeping the lights on this summer with reality imports like Fridge Wars and Killer Camp.

    We’ve all seen it — the barbecue joint inside a former Wendy’s, the massage parlor in the beaten-down strip mall, the old record store turned flea market. Driving by these sad sights, you realize that something cool once went on there. Now, though, whoever owns these zombie properties is obviously only doing enough to keep the lights on while hoping a buyer comes along.

    That’s the vibe I’m getting from the CW these days. This was once an up-and-coming network that touted itself to advertisers as the place to reach America’s young-adult consumer class. The CW’s lineage goes back to the Nineties and the formation of two networks, WB and UPN, that were broadcast on stations with channel numbers like 50 and 62. For two decades the WB/UPN/CW audience tuned in for high-school goth (Buffy, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural), attitudinal teen soaps (Gossip Girl, Dawson’s Creek), urban comedies that put future Black superstars like Steve Harvey, Brandy Norwood, and Jamie Foxx on center stage, and some odds and ends that were useful because they reached a broader audience — 7th Heaven, America’s Next Top Model, Felicity, Gilmore Girls.

    And now? Well, here’s what the CW has going this summer: Killer Camp, a reality show from the UK that I will try to say nice things about in a moment; Fridge Wars, a chef competition show from Canada; Taskmaster, a British panel comedy show; Being Reuben, a docuseries from the UK; Coroner, from Canada; Dead Pixels, from the UK. On the domestic front, we have reruns from Season 1 of the thriller Tell Me a Story, which was developed for and is currently streaming Season 2 on the CW’s corporate sibling CBS All Access.

    What these programs all have in common, besides nothing, is that they seem to have been chosen mainly for price. The imports, in particular, give off the odor of the bargain bin — what was left after Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and other bigger-pocketed streaming services were done shopping for shows.

    Granted, we are in the midst of a pandemic that has left the entire TV industry in a scramble to find fresh content. But this is very thin gruel, and it tastes like existential crisis, one that likely dates back to 2006. That’s when the CW was formed out of a corporate reshuffle that closed down WB and UPN and moved their best-performing shows onto the new network. For a few years, the CW was a pretty happening place, provided you could find it on your rapidly expanding dial of cable channels.

    Increasingly, though, the CW has become less and less relevant, for pretty much the same reason that shopping malls were hollowing out. Like brick-and-mortar stores, TV channels are a product of the physical world, where shelf space is finite and scarcity drives up the price. Online, where product is infinite and universally available, your primo location doesn’t matter as much. And if you’ve got no compelling reason to go there, who would? (A question Quibi executives are no doubt pondering right now.)

    This posed a particular danger for the CW, which only airs two hours of shows a night and has never drawn big crowds, opting instead to sell those valuable young-adult eyeballs to advertisers (scarcity). Its online presence, CW Seed, makes money for ViacomCBS and AT&T, the CW’s corporate overlords, but has had almost no impact on the TV channel, other than the enjoyable I Ship It, and CW Seed just bought a bunch of shows from the BBC, which sells shows to everybody.

    Now with all of its older shows gone, that puts added pressure on CW’s remaining on-brand shows to succeed. Which makes the quick demise of Katy Keene, a Riverdale spinoff that the CW had put a lot of promotional effort into, kind of alarming. Katy Keene was a musical comedy, very different from Riverdale but not so different from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which had a good run on the CW. It was produced by Greg Berlanti, who has a long and successful record on the WB and CW. But even with a captive pandemic audience, Katy Keene’s viewership was so small — under half a million, or less than a lot of longform YouTubes — that it was almost invisible.

    There’s still quite a bit of life to CW thanks to its joint venture with DC Comics known as the Arrowverse, which has five franchise shows returning next season. But when will that be? And how do you make your numbers until then? That, I suspect, is what’s behind this flood of cheap, mostly foreign content that will make up a significant amount of the CW schedule between now and 2021.

    Killer Camp, debuting tonight on CW stations nationwide (find yours now!), is a whodunit from Britain’s ITV2 where contestants at a summer camp are gradually “killed” off while the survivors try to figure out who among them is the “killer.” Contestants gain immunity from that week’s “killing” by winning some dumb camp game. But that’s if they can avoid being sabotaged by the mole — I mean, the “killer.”

    The host/“camp counselor” is a Canadian (detecting a pattern here?) comedian named Bobby Mair. He lends a Norman Bates-like weirdness to the proceedings, at one point asking a picture on the wall, “Do we have to hurt them?” No, nobody gets hurt here, except maybe scraping a knee in the immunity challenge.

    It’s not bad, but Killer Camp is just one show in a huge category of reality competitions and it doesn’t give the average Netflix viewer any reason to seek it out. So why is it here? To fill time and deliver profits to the shareholders? You can do that without original content — look at ION and myTV. But it’s harder to define your brand that way. The CW brought back that British cop show Bulletproof for a second season, signs that at least some viewers weren't as triggered by all the shooting as I was. Bulletproof is getting ratings, but what’s it doing for the CW’s brand? Hurting it, I would imagine.

    When the WB and UPN launched in the 1990s, shows with African-American leads were hard to find. Shows aimed at younger viewers, that didn’t even try to appeal to older ones, were also rare. There’s no shortage of such programming now. If the CW is indeed in a death spiral, the obits may say that COVID-19 did it in. But the real “killer” was Peak TV.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: The CW, Being Reuben, Coroner, Dead Pixels, Fridge Wars, Katy Keene, Killer Camp, Taskmaster, Tell Me a Story, Coronavirus