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Hungry for a Hit, CW Bows Its 4th Season

Big Hopes Rest on ”Melrose Place,“ ”Vampire Diaries.“


It’s game time.
Sure, in this era of year-round programming, it’s easy to argue that networks really never stop competing with each other for eyeballs. But summer is still the slow season, still dominated by repeats and a sense that none of what happens between June and August is make or break to a network’s long-term health.
The real war resumes Sept. 21, when Nielsen once again begins officially keeping track of ratings (and net execs begin complaining about how inaccurate the ratings giant’s methodology is). Every night of the week — even Saturday — represents a chance for broadcasters to score points.
Over the next two weeks, TheWrap will be breaking down the various networks’ strategies. We’ll look at how they stand overall at the dawn of the season, which shows have the best odds of breaking out and how top execs at each network view the battlefield.
We start early with the CW — which isn’t really in direct competition with the Big Four. It plays its own game by kicking off two weeks before most of the other guys.
Headed into its fourth season, the CW is alive, kicking — but very much hungry for a new breakout hit. If the buzz for its new fall shows can be translated into ratings, it’ll get one — or maybe more.
"Gossip Girl" remains the CW’s signature series, but translating that soapy energy into similar successes with the network’s core demo of women 18-34 has been tough. Last season’s "90210," which in theory should’ve been an instant hit, is just now starting to find its audience (following a creative shakeup).
The CW also continues to do well with "America’s Next Top Model"– this season’s theme: short girls! — while "Supernatural" has a fan base that can’t be underestimated. "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville" are solid but aging, and it’s not impossible to imagine this year being the last for one or both shows.
Last year’s decision to get rid of wrestling helped clarify the CW’s mission. Now, by getting out of the hopeless Sunday night business, the network is hoping to finally establish a five-night flow.
"We just need to keep building the CW brand," Dawn Ostroff, president of CW Entertainment, told TheWrap.
"Melrose Place" and "The Vampire Diairies" (tie). As evidenced by extensive marketing, the CW considers both of these the keys to fall success.  
"Melrose," the natural companion to "90210," is broader and has built-in name recognition, factors that should help it find an audience. While the writing doesn’t come close to that of "Gossip Girl," it’s got the trashy fun thing down pat — and it’s miles ahead of where "90210" was at this time last year.
"Diaries," meanwhile, is hoping to ride the wave of interest in all things vampiric, even while establishing itself as something other than "Twilight: The Series." Teen king Kevin Williamson’s track record tapping into the Zit-geist  ("Dawson’s Creek," "Scream") will need to deliver once more.
"Life Unexpected." This quirky drama isn’t scheduled to premiere until midseason, but advance buzz is overwhelmingly positive. A departure from the CW’s primary formula of sassy sudsiness, "Life" is, according to early reports, a well-written, high-quality teen drama that could be to the CW what "7th Heaven" was to the WB or "Party of Five" was to Fox. But will the OMFG crowd appreciate its subtle charms?
Ashton Kutcher is behind the awkwardly named scripted drama "The Beautiful Life: TBL," a "Top Model" companion that has been getting more attention for its behind the scenes drama (read: Mischa Barton) than for its on-screen action. There’s also a reality show called "Blonde Charity Mafia" that CW insiders hope might be the network’s answer to "The Hills." 
Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff says the CW crowd now knows what to expect from the network. 
"Our audience looks to our programming, and our marketing for that matter, for something with an edge, with a wink and a nod, with those OMG moments that get people talking, texting, tweeting, however they want to communicate," she says.  
As for the media’s obsession with positing whether the CW can survive long-term, Ostroff isn’t worrying.
"Everybody loves a good storyline, and pressure is just part of any job," she says. "All I can tell you is that we grew our ratings last year, we feel very good about our new shows and optimistic about the future."
The CW knows where it’s going and has the right shows to build on whatever success it’s had to date. The only question is whether the young viewers in the CW’s audience can be bothered to watch television at all. 
Come back next week for a look at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.