How ‘Supernatural’ Outlived The WB and Learned the Secret to Immortality

Laura Prudom

When “Supernatural” premiered on The WB on September 13, 2005, few could have imagined that the show would not only outlive the network that birthed it, but also go on to survive the exits of three showrunners and two network presidents to become the longest-running sci-fi series in U.S. television history. It also has the distinction of being the only show from The WB’s lineup that’s still on the air, following the network’s transition into The CW in 2006. Stars Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles have also remained with the series throughout its run, long after most leading men would’ve thrown in the towel (see: Chris Meloni, Michael Weatherly, David Caruso, William Petersen et al).

“As long as ratings stay stable, and they want to do the show, and I’m still in the chair, I’m going to be their biggest supporter to continue,” CW president Mark Pedowitz says. “I think ‘Supernatural’ is going to be around in some form long after I move off this chair, and the best thing I can do for the guys, and for the studio, and for the showrunners is basically make sure we don’t mess them up.”

Much like its protagonists — monster-hunting brothers Sam (Padalecki) and Dean (Ackles), who have quite literally been to heaven, hell and everywhere in between over the course of the show’s run — “Supernatural” has time and again proven its resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, becoming an anchor of The CW’s lineup. “People really forget what a bubble show ‘Supernatural’ was in those first four years,” notes series creator Eric Kripke. “We would have these incredible end-of-season meetings every year with the network where the public intent of the meeting was ‘pitch us your thoughts for the following season,’ but the implied intent of the meeting was ‘plead to us why we should keep you around for another year.'”

Kripke admits that it took several seasons before he felt like the show was on solid ground; The WB amalgamated with UPN to become The CW in September 2006, when the show was just about to embark on its second season, and Season 3 was abbreviated to 16 episodes because of the Writers Guild strike that stretched from November 2007 to February 2008.

“In my wildest dreams, I was hoping we would get to a fourth season. Sure enough, it was probably right around the fourth season that I think we finally started to relax and realize that we had a certain amount of stability,” Kripke says. “And that was the introduction of Misha Collins [as the angel Castiel], and that was the time that I probably started sleeping at night. But I’ll tell you one thing, the fact that we always felt we were on the edge and one breath from extinction was really good for the show creatively in those early years. We took risks that we probably wouldn’t have taken had we felt more stable. We used to say in the writers’ room all the time, ‘Look, we’re getting canceled next year, so smoke them if you got them.’ We really encouraged everyone to take big swings because we really, sincerely believed that we were about to be canceled, and so why not spend all the story you could spend? And I think that led to a lot of exciting moments.”

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After Season 5, Kripke left the show to develop other projects, and showrunner duties passed to writer and executive producer Sera Gamble for Seasons 6 and 7. She was succeeded by Jeremy Carver, who stayed with the series through Season 11, before handing over the reins to Andrew Dabb for Season 12. Through it all, the show has maintained a steady audience — now standing as the fourth highest-rated show on the network behind superhero series “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”

As actors, Padalecki and Ackles concede that they’re used to a certain amount of career uncertainty, but the transition from The WB to The CW was undeniably unnerving — in part because both stars had history with The WB and Warner Bros. Television, the studio that produces the show: Padalecki with a role on “Gilmore Girls” for its first five seasons, and Ackles with recurring stints on “Dawson’s Creek” and “Smallville.”

“I started with the WB officially in 2000, straight out of high school, and in all honesty I was so wet behind the ears and green,” says Padalecki. “I basically just made sure to learn my lines and show up on time and hit my marks. I didn’t know about what a studio was, what a network was, the part they played.”

As for Ackles, “‘Supernatural’ started the last year of The WB, and I was kind of surprised that the network was going through such a change,” he says. “I had no idea. I was just kind of working as usual and at that point in my career, I was a lot less involved or even paying attention to the politics behind the network, and all that goes into that, so I was just happy to have a job at that point.”

Padalecki agrees, “I think I was just concerned; I had a TV show, I was so excited and I loved the character, and I loved the writers, and I loved the stories I got to tell and my co-star, and I was having fun up in Vancouver, and I think it was a lot of fear in general in that first season… I think right towards the end of our filming season [they] made the decision.”

After the merger between UPN and The WB, UPN president Dawn Ostroff was chosen to lead the fledgling CW network, with The WB’s David Janollari exiting the company. While The WB’s programming was typified by a mixture of high-concept genre shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Smallville” and more family-friendly fare like “Gilmore” and “7th Heaven,” UPN and, by extension, Ostroff’s version of The CW, skewed more towards soapy, scandalous series like “Gossip Girl” and a short-lived “Melrose Place” reboot.

Kripke recalls of the transition, “It’s a strange announcement to hear that the network you’re on is going to be discontinued at the end of this year … [Executive producer] Bob Singer and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘did we kill the network?’ It’s an odd situation and obviously creates a lot of insecurity. I do remember that [Warner Bros. studio president] Peter Roth and everyone at Warner Bros. was really great about reassuring us that we would be surviving the transition into The CW. But look, any change is rocky, and obviously, it all worked out great, but it takes a bit of adjustment, because, suddenly, there’s a new network president, and Dawn was terrific, but we had to get to know her. She came to love the show, and we came to greatly appreciate her support, but it took a minute.”

Ostroff left The CW in 2011, and Pedowitz says he was already a fan of “Supernatural” when he assumed control of the network.

“Prior to my coming to CW, I was a normal television watcher in the sense I would watch an episode periodically,” he says. “I was always intrigued by the show, but I had another job at ABC Studios. The only time you binged in those days was if someone gave you the whole set of DVDs.”

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The show had been bounced around The CW’s schedule for much of its run, and had been relegated to Friday nights when Pedowitz joined the network.

“It’s generally where shows go to die, and we stayed there and not only did we not die, we actually survived and somewhat thrived,” Ackles notes. “And then I think when Mark came in and took over for Dawn, he looked at the numbers and looked at what was working and said, ‘Why is this show on Friday nights? Not only is it working there, let’s give it some prime real estate and see how much better it can be.'”

It was the emergence of “Arrow,” The CW’s first foray into a grittier brand of superhero series, that gave “Supernatural” a new lease on life.

“We didn’t have anything compatible for ‘Arrow,’ and we thought there was still life in the show, and we thought what better way to do it than by giving it the time period after ‘Arrow’?” Pedowitz says. “And as luck would sometimes have it, a confluence of events happened. The first Netflix deal was done, so all the past seasons went up, and all of a sudden, you saw an influx of viewers that had not seen the show before.”

In fact, all of The CW’s most successful series have enjoyed scheduling stints with the show, Pedowitz points out: “‘Supernatural’ was paired with ‘Vampire Diaries’ for its first season; ‘Supernatural’ was paired with ‘Arrow’ for its first season. ‘Supernatural’ was paired with ‘The Flash’ for its first season. ‘Supernatural’ is now back on Thursday at nine, and we believe it’ll be a great boost to ‘Legends of Tomorrow.’ So ‘Supernatural,’ in a weird way, even though it’s the lead-out, has had a direct impact on some of our bigger hits.”

The show is now one of the most popular on social media, regularly selling out conventions around the world. “I would much rather have our devoted fan base than 20 million people just casually watching,” Padalecki says. “The word of mouth has been a huge part of ‘Supernatural.’ I feel like sometimes people [think], ‘hey, that show has 20 million people, we don’t need to talk about it,’ but when there’s something that you feel like, ‘hey, this has two million people, I want my friends to know about it, I’m not going to assume that they know about it.'”

After so many seasons of feeling “on the verge of unemployment all the time,” Ackles says Pedowitz and Roth have given him a true sense of security.

“It’s an incredible support group that we have, not only the network but with the studio as well. I wish I could work with Mark and Peter for the rest of my life — I’d be happy. They’re just quality, smart people and they’re champions for our show and have been for many years now, and it is a huge vote of confidence to have your bosses in your corner,” Ackles says. “Peter’s been saying we’re halfway there since episode 100 and then we get to 200 and he’s like ‘oh, still halfway there,’ so he’s obviously stoked that the show’s still going on. The fact that Mark says that we’ll keep going as long as we’re happy… I don’t even know how to qualify that. It’s awesome, especially when it has to do with a program that I’m so proud of and a story that I still enjoy telling and a character that I still love playing.”

Both Ackles and Padalecki insist they’re not putting an expiration date on the series. “Jared and I talked and we’re going to just keep going,” Ackles says. “He and I, we talk about getting to episode 300 and that’s just another milestone… and then when we get there, we’ll keep going and see what the next milestone is. One of the many reasons we’ve managed to get to where we are is, I don’t think we really set parameters or limits or any obstacles. It’s just like, ‘Let’s keep our heads down and let’s just do the best work that we can and hopefully, people will continue to watch and we can keep telling these stories.”

Says Kripke, “I’m proud that it’s the last surviving WB show, but I’m also really proud that it’s just a sign of how durable ‘Supernatural’ has turned out to be. And obviously, the show itself is the thing I’m most proud of.”

 

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