The CW is stuck in a rut. Specifically, The CW is stuck in a superhero rut.
The young-skewing network picked up its fifth superhero series last week — the Cress Williams vehicle Black Lightning — but with just 15 series in its 2017-18 lineup, and only 10 hours of primetime programming available a week, five superhero series is a sizable one-third of the network's upcoming schedule. Although Black Lightning -- which is not part of the so-called Arrowverse at this time — won't debut until midseason, the writing is plainly on the wall: The CW is in the superhero business and everything else comes second. And that's a problem, because the network is sacrificing prestige programming and different voices for an aging genre with diminishing returns.
During a conference call Thursday morning, CW president Mark Pedowitz told reporters there would never be more than four superhero programs airing at any one time — currently, Supergirl, The Flash, DC's Legends of Tomorrow and Arrow will all return in the fall — but he also confirmed that the network has no intentions of stopping the DC Comics train anytime soon.
"This programming will last as long as people want to watch it," Pedowitz said. "As long as we have quality programming, which we have thanks to [Arrowverse super-producer] Greg Berlanti and [Black Lightning creators] Salim and Mara Brock Akil ... it will last as long as people want to watch it. ... It will keep going. Quality matters in this case."
It's worth noting that DC is part of Warner Bros., which owns half of The CW (along with CBS), but this is also the same argument Pedowitz has been peddling for years regarding the longevity of Supernatural, which will wrap up its twelfth season Thursday evening and be back for lucky number 13 in the fall. And that's all well and good — people are still tuning in so of course it makes sense to renew these programs — but the insistence that quality matters falls a bit flat. Arrow and The Flash have both seen major dips over the years, with the latter's being tied to its change in tone: from a light and funny series to one that more closely resembles the often unrelenting gloom of Arrow.
Complicating matters further is the fact the network is moving the Golden Globe-winning and critically acclaimed comedy Jane the Virgin from Monday's prime post-Supergirl slot to Fridays at 9/8c after the Golden Globe-winning and equally critically acclaimed comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which made the move to Fridays last season. In doing so, The CW is sending the message that, while it wants to remain in the prestige TV business, it's also no longer a priority.
It's true that the two hourlong, female-driven comedies are best paired together — they previously aired together on Mondays in 2015 — and it's equally true they're not ratings juggernauts, with Jane averaging a 0.35 rating among adults ages 18-49 in its third season and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's second season coming in dead last for the network and all of television, with just a 0.2 rating. But they are the two programs that brought prestige television to The CW and remain the only two series in network history to garner significant awards attention. Additionally, Jane is one of two series on the network to actually see an increase in total viewers this season (the other being The Vampire Diaries spin-off The Originals).
When the network issued early renewals to both series in January, Pedowitz defended the decision to reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour saying, "When you have great critical work and a critically acclaimed and [award-]nominated show like [Crazy Ex-Girlfriend], it deserves to be picked up. It has nothing to do with numbers. It has everything to do with [how] Crazy Ex, Jane the Virgin and the DC franchises have helped alter the perception of what The CW has become."
But now both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have been punted to Fridays, which has traditionally been considered the death knell for a series. Although that's not necessarily the case any longer — especially on The CW, where digital viewing is weighted more heavily than on any other broadcast network — there's only one program in CW history to have escaped Fridays, and that's Supernatural, which is The CW's top-rated non-superhero series and will probably never die until stars Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki decide to get out of the family business. Short version: it's the exception.
But viewer interest in superheroes is dwindling on The CW — or at the very least, interest in these particular superheroes is dwindling. Each of the network's four current superhero shows, while the top four performing programs, have seen a decline in ratings this season. This fits the pattern across all of TV — nearly every show sees its ratings diminish as it ages — but Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow have all dipped at least 20 percent year over year, and that's significant (Supergirl is a special case as it moved from CBS to the lesser-watched CW in its second season, though it likely would have followed suit). So despite the fact the shows remain relatively popular with CW viewers, does it still make sense, from a creative standpoint, to go all-in on a genre that is experiencing viewer fatigue and has yet to offer something truly new?
On one hand, yes, it does make sense; superheroes helped to change the face of The CW in the fall of 2012, when the Greg Berlanti-produced Arrow made its debut. The success of Marvel's The Avengers in May of 2012 had proven the masses cared about live-action superheroes on film, but that didn't mean viewership would translate to the small screen. By introducing Arrow into its then female-centric programming slate — which included shows like 90210, Hart of Dixie, Gossip Girl and The Carrie Diaries — The CW took a big risk, one that many other networks may have avoided all together.
Five years on Arrow has changed both the trajectory and the reputation of The CW. Oliver Queen's story brought male viewers to a network that historically created content primarily aimed at young women. It produced two direct spin-offs and features an extended universe that also includes Supergirl. And all four series remain at the top of The CW's most-watched programs list.
But on the other hand, as we all know, popularity doesn't necessarily always equal quality. So as The CW prepares to launch its fifth Berlanti-produced superhero series — which at least stands out a bit because it's about a black superhero who's reentering the game after several years, as opposed to yet another superhero origin story — it's worth discussing whether compromising on more prestige programming by leaning into the superhero genre is ultimately worth it.
Since Arrow debuted — just one year after Pedowitz took over at the network — The CW has taken a few risks that most other networks have not. In addition to Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — which, as a telenovela and a musical comedy, were even bigger swings for The CW than Arrow had been in 2012 — the network also received positive attention for the harsh realities depicted in the first two seasons of the post-apocalyptic drama The 100. Elsewhere it breathed new life into the fatigued zombie genre with iZombie, a series that, despite being fairly beloved by critics, has been moved by the network into a midseason slot because the glut of superheroes take priority.
But The CW has also had plenty of misses, too, like last season's comedy No Tomorrow — which the network had hoped would continue to build its hourlong female-driven comedy brand — and Frequency, a remake of the film of the same name. The crop of new programs, which in addition to Black Lightning includes a reboot of Dynasty from the creative team behind Gossip Girl, a military-themed drama in Valor, and Life Sentence, a series about a woman who finds out she's no longer dying of cancer, obviously remain untested. On the surface they appear to offer up a wide range of tones and themes, but we won't know how they perform or affect the status of the network for months.
Because while it's true the DC series are a large reason people view The CW differently in 2017 than in 2012, and the relative success of the Arrowverse is likely what allows The CW to continue to renew shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- during Thursday's call, Pedowitz noted that last November's superhero crossover gave the network "its most-watched week in six years" — this wave won't last forever. It might be paying the bills for now, but when it fizzles out, what will the network have to show for it?
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of The CW's parent companies.)