EXCLUSIVE: By the time the Nexstar Media Group’s long-in-the-works 75% acquisition of the CW finally closed earlier this month, it was the height of pitch season, when broadcast networks buy scripted projects to develop as new series for next season.
On the morning of the August 15 deal announcement, Nexstar toppers said that, under the new ownership, the CW would be going for broader and cheaper programming, including syndicated fare acquisitions, with the goal to make the network profitable by 2025.
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Since then, sources tell Deadline that CW brass have reached out to the creative community, including taking agency meetings, to lay out their buying strategy going forward and tell everyone that the network is open for business.
On the original scripted programming side, in addition to the CW’s signature genre shows and teen soaps, which the network intends to keep doing — just not as many — it plans to broaden its slate by adding procedurals and other older-skewing dramas as well as half-hour comedies including multi-camera sitcoms.
The overall message was: bring us what you would’ve brought to the CW before but also bring us what you wouldn’t have brought to us in the past.
This jives with Nexstar brass’ comments that the demographic focus of the CW will change over time. Indicating that the new owners would be emphasizing the older-skewing linear network vs. digital where the vast majority of younger viewers watch CW shows, Nexstar president and COO Tom Carter noted that while the CW’s current slate of shows like Riverdale, All American and The Flash target viewers in the 18-34 demographic, the average CW linear viewer is 58 years old.
The network’s new programming strategy is looking to embrace these older linear viewers and trying to expand that pool. The network has done that occasionally with specials such as The Waltons holiday movies as well as the the Critics Choice Awards.
On the acquisition side, the CW also is expected to go for broader shows including procedural dramas. (For years, the network has been supplementing its originals with mostly Canadian and UK scripted series.)
The CW’s unscripted strategy is not changing; the network had been betting on broad shows such as Penn & Teller: Fool Us and World’s Funniest Animals, and there will be more of that going forward.
‘The Hatpin Society’ & Branching Out Beyond WBTV and CBS Studios
Following Nexstar’s acquisition, previous 50-50 owners Paramount Global and Warner Bros Discovery each retained 12.5%. Their broadcast-focused studios, CBS Studios and Warner Bros TV, respectively, have been the CW’s exclusive scripted series suppliers to date.
That will remain in place for the 2022-23 season as the vast majority of programming for it has been spoken for. Beyond that, Nexstar “will have the option to extend the partnership” with the studios, Carter said post-deal close, but noted that the situation is very much in flux. The company’s executives have indicated that the CW would be open to outside suppliers going forward.
One of the first projects that will test that new studio strategy is The Hatpin Society, a period drama written and executive produced by Elissa Aron (Humane Treatment) and executive produced by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator/exec producer and star Rachel Bloom and Dan Gregor. Set in 1909 New York City, it centers on a motley legion of suffragists who fight for equality by day and vigilante justice by night, seeking revolution through any means necessary.
The project was sold directly to the network, which plans to develop it in-house before finding a studio partner. That could end up being CBS Studios, which produced Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or WBTV, but doesn’t have to be — a major departure from the business principles on which the CW was founded as it ushers in a new era as an independent.
Inviting third-party studios into the tent will also likely alter the CW’s streaming profile; previous seasons of the network’s scripted series are currently available primarily on Netflix or HBO Max.
The Hatpin Society joins just a handful of pre-existing sales at the CW in the current development cycle as the network and talent had taken a wait-and-see approach while the Nexstar acquisition was still in progress. Probably the highest-profile one among them, as Deadline reported in June, is Archie Comics drama Jake Chang, from Oanh Ly, Viet Nguyen & Daniel Dae Kim’s 3AD, which is produced by WBTV. It is part of the CW’s core genre efforts and reflects the network’s push for on-screen representation over the last several years.
With the CW brass quickly getting out to present their post-acquisition programming strategy just days after the deal officially closed, the buying is expected to accelerate in the coming weeks.
The CW’s longtime chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz, who is remaining at the helm of the network under new owners, has extensive experience overseeing content for broad broadcast audiences, including in his stint as president of main ABC supplier ABC Studios (now ABC Signature).
“I think you will always see a decent amount of scripted programming on the network, I think you’ll see — and we already began the transition to — more alternative, and we will be bringing more acquired programming,” he said in May as the Nextstar acquisition was still being finalized. “I do hope that we will enter the world of half-hour sitcoms being produced for the network, and I do hope should there be a sale and if there is a sale, that it will open the avenues of other producers and studios to come to us besides Warners and CBS, which means more opportunities.”
Comedy had a strong presence on the CW at the time of its 2006 launch, including broad multi-cam sitcom Reba, which went on to have a long afterlife in syndication. Within a couple of years, the network got out of the comedy business.
Reining In Spending
At the time the CW acquisition closed, Nexstar said that to achieve profit, they are planning a significant reduction of spending.
Citing Kagan research, Carter said the CW spends “almost twice” what the other broadcast networks do on programming, a disparity Nexstar plans to eliminate.
“Over time, we will be taking a different approach to our CW programming strategy and will leverage our experience in spending approximately $2 billion a year on programming, attracting and monetizing viewers, and transitioning NewsNation, our national cable news network, from WGN, while maintaining a strict focus on cash flow,” he said.
The CW had previously operated at a loss as a network, commissioning a lot of scripted originals that generate value for WBTV and CBS Studios — and their parents, Warner Bros Discovery and Paramount Global, respectively — as they exploit them downstream, on streaming and/or internationally.
“Our approach will be unlike other broadcast network owners,” Carter said on August 15. The company would develop its programming “without a dual agenda of greenlighting programming with potential to cross over to SVOD.”
He projected “lower unscripted costs,” without elaborating, and said more syndicated shows would likely be added. The CW has recently been programming 13 hours across six nights in primetime.
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