Sunday, May 29, 2011

TV: The CW falls, The CW rises

"Our dark lord will be pleased," Christine Willes hissed as Granny Goodness in the series finale of Smallville but to our ears it sounded a lot like Lucie Salhany who created UPN, a netlette that merged with the WB TV to form The CW in 2006.


Smallville wrapped up this month after 10 seasons -- a feat which makes clear there was still more UPN than WB in The CW. Oh sure, there was the almost wedding of Clark (Tom Welling) and Lois (Erica Durance) drenched in pseudo Lilith Fair music (Sara Bareiles' "Breathe Again") and filled with the sort of things Dawson might have said to Joey years ago at the Creek like, "You've always believed in me. And I believe in you. And when you believe in someone, it's not just for a minute or for an hour, it's for forever." However, on the Creek, Dawson and Joey would have gotten hitched. Instead Chloe (Allison Mack) sounds an alarm about kryptonite and Clark yells, "Get everybody out of here!"

However, typical UPN, everybody had already pretty much left. After all, the season average rating was 1.2 with a rank of 131 -- putting it far behind other cancelled shows such as The Chicago Code (rank of 71), The Cape and No Ordinary Family (both tied for 83), Lone Star The Whole Truth and and Traffic Light (tied for 103), etc. (Click here for Nellie Andreeva's "Full 2010-2011 TV Season Series Rankings," And, to be clear, season ten's average rating wasn't a drop. It's consistent with the ratings the show received the season before. Both seasons averaged a little over two and a half million viewers. If it had been a film, it would have bombed.

The WB kicked off at the start of 1995 determined to do what Fox had done before -- become a netlette that captures ratings and buzz with the hope of one day moving to seven nights of programming (a feat Fox still hasn't managed to pull off). Season one was a bomb (though Unhappily Ever After, from that first season, would stay on air for four seasons despite lousy ratings). Season two was as bad. Season three saw the netlette make inroads with 7th Heaven and The Steve Harvey Show. But season four is when The WB turned it around. Buffy the Vampire Slayer caused chuckles in the advertising lead up but, once it started airing, it quickly became The WB's cult hit.

Sarah Michelle Geller starred in the action adventure as high school student Buffy who slayed vampires, demons and others as she and her friends dealt with the aches and pains of young love. It set the stage for the following season when Dawson's Creek would (mid-season) debut and become the network's first actual hit. Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams, Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek played four high schoolers dealing with family problems and, yes, the aches and pains of young love. That was The WB signature -- any show of any genre could potentially be a hit provided it included the thread of "the aches and pains of young love." Adhering to that formula helped turn Felecity, Roswell and Popular into immediate hits (only immediate ones) and Gilmore Girls into seven-season hit. And ignoring it helped insure that Angel never had any real impact or ever became much more than the little sister spin-off of Buffy.

More than any other show on The WB, the Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan starring Charmed (a sisterhood of witches) managed the formula allowing the show to be repeatedly moved around on the schedule and still pull in strong ratings for eight seasons. (Season eight had nearly twice as many viewers as this final season of Smallville did.) Charmed wrapped up after the spring of 2006 because UPN and The WB were merging and they just knew they could do better.

They never managed that feat. And we're sure there are many former execs of The WB and UPN who are laughing at the fact that the merger should have provided The CW with seven solid nights of programming; however, CBS and Warner Bros' execs just knew they could do better than all who had come before them. CBS being CBS, they were especially concerned about the whole women thing, women making CBS so nervous. (Which is why the network has long attacked its own women-led hits; see the network's treatment of Cagney & Lacey, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote, Cybill, The Nanny and Touched By An Angel among others.) So they didn't want to carry over the female-driven hit of Charmed to The CW from The WB and they didn't want to carry over UPN's Eve to The CW. If America's Top Model hadn't been reality tv, they probably wouldn't have carried it over either.

At the end of the series finale of Smallville, they teased viewers with the hope that Lois and Clark would get married after their aborted earlier attempt in the episode. "Are you ready?" asked Lois. Clark replied, "I've been ready for seven years."

The CW is only five years old. But since, unlike UPN or The WB, it wasn't creating anything new (merger's rarely do), it should have been ready from day one. Instead, it's wasted everyone's time thinking it could pull in young male viewers. "Free to be," it insisted in its first series of ads, and the poor souls honestly thought so, airing male-geared bombs 4Real and In Harm's Way thereby wrecking the Sunday night that Charmed built -- a night that they've never managed to get back. Fridays were WWE Friday Night Smackdown. That ratings bomb, pulled over from UPN, continued for the first two seasons on The CW despite hurting the ratings and complaints from affiliates. The UPN struggler (which never covered its budget in ad revenues) Veronica Mars was CBS' idea of a WB show. And they could never understand why it didn't take off. (Among other reasons because Veronica was a token female on a show dominated by males.)

"I need to figure out a way to break the darkness," Clark declared faced with the series' final obstacles. He might as well have been speaking for the netlette because the CW came dangerously close to extinction up until Gossip Girl and 90210 revived its fortunes.

90210 took Fox's hit show from the 90s, revamped it and turned it into a popular youth hit for the '00s and, at least so far, the '10s. Gossip Girl was Dynasty re-populated with teenagers. It's in 90210 that The CW finally showed some awareness. Featuring guest spots by original series stars Shannen Doherty, Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth, they knew the first season would have buzz and curiousity viewers, more than enough to pull them through to the end of that first season. But that season was a nightmare as the producer The CW cared about bailed and the two left kept trying to change what The CW had purchased. Muscling out those two to keep the show geared towards tweens and young women was the smartest thing The CW has done -- and the ratings back that up.

At the end of The WB, they weren't doing much right. 2001 marks the beginning of the downfall. The WB had become the most talked about netlette, it dominated the industry magazines and the consumer ones (like Entertainment Weekly) but then the consensus was, "Okay, now we're going to do what we really wanted to!" It's no surprise that the last great WB show (Gilmore Girls) was launched in 2000. 2001 is when they begin importing failing shows from other networks, shows that don't really fit The WB image. 2001 is when they begin to think they can muck with the formula.

'What the little girls want,' the suits decided, 'is pretty boys. As long as we do that, we can do any kind of show.'

They were wrong. But they just knew that they could do a horror show about demons that would bring in the fellows as long as they made the leads two young hotties. That's how you get Supernatural which, as we once pointed out, is "like really bad gay porn where the leads forget to take their clothes off." Smallville was a little smarter. If only when it came to disrobing. As we noted in 2005, "You're cued that the bod is supposed to be really hot by the opening credits where you see Tom Welling in stages of undress not once, not twice, but three times." It was a 'strategy,' it just wasn't a winning one. Neither show was ever a big hit (Smallville had a dynamic debut, that's all it had ratings wise) and their only real impact can be found online. That's where you can find the Wincest stories of the boys of Supernatural fooling around (and sometimes Sam gets Dean pregnant) or the gay erotic stories of Tom Welling where he usually ends up, if not flying, at least swinging . . . in a sling.

In a frantic moment of the series finale, Tom Welling basically turns to the camera and asks, "What if this is all wrong? My training, Smallville, the farm. My memories. What if it was all just a crutch?" Were we a former male model who never learned to act, we'd be worried as well.

At 34 and with 10 years of celebrity-dom (if not stardom), it's a bit late in the game to try to learn to act. And 34 is way too late to be hoping to ride the next teen or tween interest wave. Welling was smart to grasp that he couldn't be seen in the Superman suit because he'd packed on too many pounds around the middle. (Note the final scene with Welling on the roof. His guts hanging over his pants and when he starts removing the white dress shirt, they stop before his belly would have been exposed.) Sensing the teen throb gravy train was ending, Welling attached himself to a prospective TV series, Hellcats, as an executive producer -- a smart move for an actor who hasn't been able to get any work other than his TV series for the last six years and who still has nothing lined up for his future.

Welling was even smart enough to use his bargaining power to get The CW to pick up Hellcats for this past season (they really wanted the tenth season of Smallville despite the low ratings of the ninth). It's a shame that the power was used for a poorly written mess which Alessandra Stanley (New York Times) rightly described as "a soft-porn music video for teenagers." No, a soft-porn music video isn't generally the way to lure tween girls into a show. That was far from it's only problems. "Tell me the truth, please for once tell me the truth," a character whined in the bad show's trademark of having characters repeat themselves -- as if the writers needed to pad out each script.

While Welling used his power to get the show on the air, The CW used Welling. They waited until after they'd drained all the promotion gigs they could from Welling and after the series finale of Smallville aired to announce they were giving Hellcats the axe. (Smallville aried its last new epiosde Friday, May 13th. Four days later, The CW announced Hellcats was no more.)

Welling insisted in that series finale, "No one can push me or lead me anywhere. My whole life I've been trying to fit in to two different worlds and the truth is I don't belong to either one of them." If he's referring to acting and producing, we'd agree he's demonstrated nothing to indicate he has the skills for either. Where he goes now, we have no idea.

But The CW seems to be getting the point. The Vampire Diaries started off a bad show but followed The WB formula and improved. It, the success of Gossip Girl and 90120 and the continued performance of One Tree Hill have steered The CW back to its successful roots (which would be The WB). It's for that reason that they're so excited about The Ringer.

Sarah Michelle Geller returns to TV and The CW has her. One of the few bonafide stars of the small screen and they managed to grab her. The hope for the debut is that her Buffy fame will interest young girls and will also pull in the sizeable (when Buffy was on WB, not when it was on UPN) number of males and females who sailed through their teenage years with Buffy as guidance counselor. And after the debut? Friends at The CW swear this show will hook viewers immediately. We'd love to see that. But in the meantime, we're even more excited about The Secret Circle which not only has a great trailer and a Charmed vibe but returns Kevin Williamson to his roots in a way that The Vampire Diaries couldn't and didn't. Williamson was the genius who created Dawson's Creek.

Between now and the fall premieres, many networks will jockey for attention and buzz but, at this point in the game, only The CW deserves it. This could be the year if finally becomes the breakout network.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }