CW’s New Bosses Bet on Linear: ‘We’re Not in the SVOD Business’

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President Dennis Miller and entertainment chief Brad Schwartz tell TheWrap about trading in YA to turn the CW into a “big five network”

Dennis Miller and Brad Schwartz of The CW
Dennis Miller and Brad Schwartz of The CW

While every other television network seems hellbent on keeping up with Netflix, the CW is playing a very different game. 

The biggest media conglomerates have thrown millions of dollars toward bulking up their arsenals for the streaming wars, as talk of potentially parting ways with their linear television efforts intensifies — particularly for Disney’s ABC and Paramount’s CBS. 

But for the CW’s parent company Nexstar Media Group, the largest TV station owner in the United States with 200 television stations, the future lies in wide-ranging programming that attracts viewers to the battlefield competitors are leaving behind.

“I’m so glad we’re not in the SVOD business,” Dennis Miller, the president of the CW, told TheWrap in an interview after the network’s press day at the Television Critics Association’s 2024 winter tour. “Unlike our peers out there, Nexstar has a wonderful cash flow and margin business and is not losing a half billion dollars a quarter competing [in streaming]. Everyone knows Netflix has won on a global scale, and has done a brilliant job of building that business.”

The executive emphasized that several networks and companies that have chased that approach have led to “great economic hardship.”

So what does the network that used to be defined by its young adult programming look like in the wake of the bloodbath that took out 10 shows in 2022 and four in 2023? After roughly five months of experimental battle tactics, the network is introducing a strategy specifically designed for the Nexstar audience.   

Miller, who served on Nexstar’s board of directors from 2014 until he was named CW president in 2022, had a special “vantage point” as he took over the company. 

“[Nexstar chairman and CEO Perry Sook] and team were like, ‘OK, what if we control our destiny here?’ We don’t own Fox or ABC networks themselves,” Miller said. “The CW affords us an opportunity to play offense and defense. We can broaden the programming.”

Here’s exactly how that expansion has succeeded and failed, as well as what’s ahead for the broadcast network hoping to turn TV’s Big Four into the Big Five. 

Restarting the CW

“If last year was a time of reinvention, this year is a time of breaking through.”

That’s how the CW’s president of entertainment Brad Schwartz laid out the network’s goals during its executive session at TCA. But getting to a place where breaking through was even an option took a great deal of work. Nexstar acquired a majority share of the network with 75% ownership in October 2022. Its two founding co-owners, CBS Corporation and Warner Bros., retained a 12.5% ownership stake in the asset. 

“The business we inherited lost a lot of money. Maybe it did very well for Warner Bros. and CBS, but the actual business itself lost money,” Schwartz told TheWrap. “That’s not anyone’s fault. That was the model.” 

After taking control, the executive team examined the network’s slate of scripted originals and came away with four that were well-watched enough to be worth the investment — “All American,” “All American: Homecoming,” “Walker” and “Superman & Lois.” The rest were scrapped. 

The reasons why these particular shows made the cut are clear. Both “All American” and “All American: Homecoming” were the CW’s most-watched series when it came to the adults 18-49 demo (0.14 for Season 5 and 0.11 for Season 2, respectively). “All American” was also the network’s most-watched series on digital and had the largest total audience across all platforms, according to Schwartz. As for “Walker” and “Superman & Lois,” those shows were the network’s biggest in terms of total audience (690,000 and 819,000 average viewership for their third seasons, respectively). 

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All American: Homecoming — “No More Drama” — Pictured: Netta Walker as Keisha McCalla — Photo: Troy Harvey/The CW

“We went to our partners at CBS and Warner Bros., and we just were like, ‘We’re partners on these things, you sell them randomly around. Here’s our economics…’ We can’t keep losing the amount of money we were on the shows,” Schwartz explained. “Very collaboratively, everyone got together and we pushed these four shows forward.”

Schwartz noted that if these four series continue to perform from a ratings perspective, and at their current cost, “there’s no reason why you wouldn’t keep doing them.”

(Schwartz clarified that, despite how well “Superman & Lois” has performed, the decision to end the DC property came from Warner Bros. — “They don’t want a competing Superman product in the marketplace,” Schwartz said, referring to James Gunn’s 2025 movie “Superman: Legacy.”)

The slashing of the network’s pre-Nexstar slate left a haunting question: What do you schedule to fill a coveted primetime spot on broadcast television? 

The CW 2.0: What worked and what didn’t

Miller and Schwartz first looked to fill air time via the live sports market, a landscape Miller felt was “the easiest place to start” building up a distribution lineup. 

“Sports is what local stations really, really care about. They want simultaneous viewing of a lot of people at the same time, and nothing does that better than sports,” Schwartz said. “That was very obvious to us. Although I don’t think either of us thought we’d be getting into sports as quickly as we did.”

This investment in sports also fit in with the network’s Big Five dreams. “You can’t be a broadcast network without sports,” Schwartz added. “You absolutely need it.”

That started with a partnership with LIV Golf and the rights to ACC football and basketball games, which has seen “very competitive” ratings with ESPN as well as the other four networks. This investment in live sports has only grown from there. WWE NXT is set to come to the network in October 2024, and streaming rights to the NASCAR Xfinity Series will follow in 2025. There’s also “Inside the NFL,” a weekly look into the league hosted by Ryan Clark that moved back to broadcast for the first time in 46 years last September.

Sports programming allows the network to attract an audience that typically doesn’t watch the CW and promote other programming to them, Schwartz noted. A NASCAR viewer could be persuaded to watch an ACC game or an episode of “All American,” thereby keeping them for longer. 

The network has also invested in several other live events, from the Critic’s Choice Awards to the Miss USA pageant. The former awards show brought in 1.04 million viewers based on live-plus-same-day numbers, a 14% increase from last year’s ceremony; and the pageant saw 2 million viewers, according to Schwartz. But the network’s most successful live programming play to date came together in a short three weeks. NewsNation’s RNC debate, which aired last December, reached 4.9 million viewers, one of the biggest viewership numbers the network has seen in a decade. 

Though there isn’t a specific political event on the docket at the moment, Miller emphasized that the network has “an ongoing daily conversation” about potential collaborations with NewsNation, one of the three pay TV networks under Nexstar’s umbrella. NewsNation, the CW and former ABC News President James Goldston are currently partnering together on the upcoming true crime series “Crime Nation.”

“We know this election is pretty crazy. None of us know what this is going to look like come November. But if there are more opportunities to do that with NewsNation, we’d be very, very interested,” Miller said.

There’s another Nexstar political property in the CW’s crosshairs: the Washington D.C.-based media company The Hill. 

“We are currently talking about… a weekend Sunday show for The Hill, and putting it on CW stations across the country,” Schwartz said. 

The president likened the move to CBS’ “Face the Nation” and noted that the potential show would air in the mornings and be branded as a Hill CW show on CW stations. The series would come from and be produced by NewsNation, which currently airs a series from The Hill on weeknights.

Moving away from live entertainment, Schwartz noted that “blue sky procedurals”, such as the Canadian shows “Sullivan’s Crossing” and “Wild Cards,” also proved to work for the network. Schwartz believes these series succeeded for CW because “the world wants them” and cable networks, such as USA and TNT, are no longer making them like they once were. There’s also a certain kind of nostalgia around these series. 

“They kind of remind you of old CW, like pre-superhero CW — ‘Gilmore Girls,’ ‘Hart of Dixie,’ ‘Everwood,’ ‘One Tree Hill,’ ” Schwartz said. “We were like, ‘Those are working. Let’s do more of those.’ ”

But not every bet worked. Case in point? “FBoy Island.” 

“I was very bullish on it. It was a big budget, big swing,” Schwartz said. The network shot two seasons of the series at once and moved forward with a gender-swapped spin-off, “FGirl Island.” Though Schwartz praised host Nikki Glaser and said he was “very proud” of the show, he noted that it didn’t perform as expected. 

“Maybe the title turned some people off in a linear environment. Maybe it was a little too young for linear,” Schwartz said. By his estimates, the series was “huge” on streaming but “not enough to pay for it.” (A decision on future seasons has not been made.)

Despite this flop, the CW hasn’t completely given up on reality dating programming. At TCA it announced “Lovers and Liars,” a rebrand of the “FGirl Island” spin-off, which will see three male contestants trying to determine who among 24 women is there for love and who’s there to win money. The network also announced “Patti Stanger: The Matchmaker,” bringing the Bravo personality of “Millionaire Matchmaker” fame back to television. 

“I think ‘FBoy Island’ turned some advertisers off. And maybe turned some viewers between the coasts off,” Schwartz said. “Let’s call [the spin-off] something different, that was a little more advertiser friendly and maybe was a little less provocative. But the show is still the same.”

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FBoy Island’s Nikki Glaser. (STXtelevision)

“Smart, slow, steady growth”

Looking to the future, Schwartz and Miller face an uphill climb to reach profitability but they already see the needle moving in the right direction. They boast growing viewership for new shows like “Wild Cards,” a co-production with CBC Television averaging a .06 demo rating and 516,000 total viewers in the middle of its first season. 

“All American” and “Walker” will be the first of the legacy series to return in April, while “All American: Homecoming” expects a summer release date and the final season of “Superman & Lois” is set for fall of 2024. Schwartz also shared big hopes for the upcoming series “Joan,” a British coproduction with ITV starring “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner, which he describes as a HBO Sunday-style show.

Beyond getting to the green, network leadership hopes that the CW, after years of making shows that become hits for streaming partners such as Netflix, gets its due for the content it’s putting into the marketplace. 

“We’re not going to be the size of CBS next year… I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon. It will be smart, slow, steady growth,” Schwartz said. “That’s going to take a couple of years, but if we’re here three years from now and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that show is on the CW!’ I don’t care where you watch — wherever is most convenient for you — but that we have built a brand that people know and come to more often… that’ll be the big one.”

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