I enjoy the CW. I think The Vampire Diaries is a genuinely great series, I still have fun watching Supernatural and I think Hart of Dixie is endlessly charming. I also think Arrow is the best new series of the fall.
But I also think the CW is dying.
The netlet that combined the WB and UPN began six years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. Its place as the fifth major network has slowly disappeared and now it feels more like a joke than a serious broadcaster.
This is not a judgment on quality, just on ratings. Monday marked the season premieres of 90210 and Gossip Girl, and the numbers were dismal. Both shows were watched by less than one million viewers, with Gossip Girl turning in a series-low 780,000 for its final season premiere.
How bad are these numbers? They’re about half of what shows like ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, AMC’s Hell on Wheels or Showtime’s Homeland pull in. The CW’s ratings for original scripted programming are lower than almost any other cable network, lower than shows on ABC Family, Lifetime, TNT, USA, FX, AMC, Showtime or HBO. New episodes of the CW’s Monday shows got lower ratings than reruns of Law and Order: SVU on TNT. The only scripted shows on television that get worse ratings than the Gossip Girl season 6 premiere would be Kelsey Grammer’s Boss on Starz and HBO’s Treme.
These are the facts. Gossip Girl‘s series premiere five years ago was watched by 3.5 million viewers, now the ratings are one-fifth of that size. 90210 started at 4.65 million viewers and now it’s under one million. The CW was never a huge ratings juggernaut, but things have gotten dramatically worse in recent years. Now if a show on the network gets more than 2 million viewers, it would be considered a massive hit.
How much longer can the CW exist as a broadcast network? If the numbers keep going down, not much longer. Shows like NCIS are getting 30 times the amount of viewers as Gossip Girl.
Perhaps the CW’s best hope would be to radically adjust its format and adopt the approach of cable networks like ABC Family, only launching original programming on one or two nights a week, targeting summer and winter instead of trying to compete with the major networks in the fall and spring seasons. It could fill the rest of its time with various specials, like Tuesday night’s TV debut of the Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. If the ratings for it are better than the original programming the CW is offering, this could be exactly where it’s heading.
Whatever happens, the CW needs to make a change. When an established franchise like Gossip Girl pulls in half a million fewer viewers than the iHeartRadio Music Festival special that aired in the same time slot a week before, the network has to take notice and do something about it.
(Image courtesy of the CW)