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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The CW is down 27% this year in its target demographic, adults aged 18 to 34.
Its fall shows were well received but have barely treaded water in the Nielsens. Most worrisome: The return of the network's reliable reality performers "America's Next Top Model" (down 29%) and "Beauty and the Geek" (off 54%) dropped sharply this spring. The numbers suggest that the CW needs more than just quality shows to jump-start its stalled momentum.
Here are some suggestions:
- Start recycling. At fellow ratings-challenged NBC, co-chair Ben Silverman is doing what movie studios have profitably done for years: tap established brands for remakes. Critics turn up their noses, but it works to draw a number (see "American Gladiators" and "Knight Rider"). The CW needs some pre-established brands because it has such a depressed level of viewership that it struggles to self-start new shows -- even when they're actually good (think "Aliens in America," "Gossip Girl" and "Reaper"). This is why the CW's pilot remake of "Beverly Hills, 90210" is a great idea. When a network can't sell good shows, it needs good shows that sell themselves.
- Use your biggest asset. There are a headache-inducing array of contractual, tactical and relationship issues that discourage CW co-owner CBS Corp. from cross-promoting its shows with those of the CW like NBC does with its cable networks: "Our audiences are different," "the affiliates will pitch a fit," etc. Still, putting "Big Brother" repeats on the CW in the summer or repeating the "Gossip Girl" and "Top Model" premieres on CBS couldn't hurt. Bottom line: It's tough to believe that the most-watched network can't be used in any effective way to help the least-watched.
- Quit being polite. Most CW programming often comes across like CBS' well-mannered grandson. CBS Corp. class prevents the network from being scrappy, obnoxious and truly youthful. During its 1990s growth phase, Fox would beat up a hobo for a ratings point. The CW needs that sort of anything-goes urgency. A CW spokesman joked about counterprogramming NBC's Beijing Olympics with a Free Tibet special. But really, why not? It would give the CW press and a sense of personality. Better yet: The recent sexy "OMFG" campaign for "Gossip Girl." The series returned to originals up 8% last week while other serialized shows are crashing.
- No summer vacation. Last year the CW went into repeats during the summer, its ratings dropped through the floor and the network didn't have enough of an audience to launch a fall lineup against the major broadcasters. CW executives are aware of their summer blind spot and will do better this year. But the original problem was paying for that year-round programming. Which brings us to . . .
- Cash advance. In addition to last summer's repeat-stuffed slate, funding also played a role into letting go of stalwarts "Gilmore Girls" and "7th Heaven." CBS Corp. and its CW partner Warner Bros. need to make sure the CW has the budget to remain competitive year-round.
- Real popular or real shocking. The CW's reality efforts can't afford to be timid and low profile. The network needs to outfox Fox and get shows with an identifiable name in front of the camera (like Tyra Banks for the network's biggest draw, "Top Model") or an outrageous and addictive concept that becomes must-see (like Fox's "The Moment of Truth"). The CW's reality can't merely be entertaining, it must have an X-factor that self-generates buzz and delivers a great show.
- Keep taking risks on unique, quality shows. Network game-changers tend to be format-bending shows that nobody saw coming: ABC's "Desperate Housewives," Fox's "American Idol," CBS' "Survivor." The ideas above -- brand names, cross promotion, more personality and more cash -- could all help. But the CW likely won't break through until it gets that one original smash to call its own.