Once dismissed as a pipsqueak in the television world, the CW broadcast network quietly has been bucking an industry trend by growing its audience — and its ambitions.
Beginning this fall, the CW will expand its prime-time schedule 20% by adding two hours of scripted programming on Sunday nights. By adding Sunday to its schedule, the CW will field 12 hours of scripted shows each week — Sunday through Friday nights — up from its current 10-hour slate.
"This will make us a more robust and healthier network," Mark Pedowitz, president of the CW, said in an interview Wednesday. "It gives us the ability to go out in the marketplace with more scripted programming than we've had."
The move is a reversal of fortunes from 2009, when the then-fledgling network — which is a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. — was on its heels. That year, the CW surrendered Sunday nights, turning over those prime-time hours to affiliate TV station groups that carry its programming. Back then, the CW appeared to be in a death spiral: It was bleeding viewers and losing money. Cable TV channels, not broadcast networks, were in vogue.
But the script has been flipped. The CW has been profitable for more than five years, thanks to a deal with Netflix Inc. that Pedowitz structured shortly after arriving at the network in 2011. Wall Street has become more bullish on broadcast networks because the audience for cable channels continues to erode as pay-TV subscribers cut the cord in favor of streaming services. Broadcast networks remain more widely available.
The CW has carved out a niche on the strength of such shows as "The Flash," "Riverdale," "Jane the Virgin" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," and it has been growing its television audience. Compared with last year, its prime-time viewership this season has increased 3% to 1.8 million. By contrast, other networks have been experiencing double-digit declines. The CW runs on Tribune Media Co.'s KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles.
The network's advertising-supported digital platform, the CW Seed, has been growing more dramatically.
Since Pedowitz took over, the company has increased its programming to more than 300 hours a year from about 220.
Providing programming six nights a week, rather than five, "gives us greater girth in the marketplace for advertising revenue," Pedowitz said.
"As one of the largest CW affiliate groups, we are excited to see the CW Network reaffirm its commitment to broadcasting by expanding its schedule to Sunday night," said Chris Ripley, chief executive of Sinclair Broadcast Group. "We value our relationship and look forward to an even stronger audience following with more of the CW's popular prime-time programming."
Sinclair is trying to buy Tribune Media stations, a deal that would make Sinclair the largest station affiliate group for the CW. (The Los Angeles Times shared a parent company — Tribune Co. — with Tribune Media properties until 2014.)
The CW's expansion comes as Rupert Murdoch's Fox Broadcasting is shifting gears by striking a deal with the NFL to bring "Thursday Night Football" to Fox. The move, which begins to lessen Fox's reliance on scripted programming, was part of Murdoch's strategy to refocus the Fox broadcast network around sports and news following a sale of other assets to Walt Disney Co.
"We are very pleased with the growth and success of the CW over its 12-year history and look forward to welcoming the expansion of the Network's prime-time schedule to 12 hours," said Peter Dunn, president of the CBS Television Stations. "We are excited to partner with them to grow our ratings and revenue by adding original series programming on Sunday nights."
Still, the CW faces challenges, including a possible ownership change if AT&T is allowed to buy Time Warner Inc., which owns one of the CW's parent companies — Warner Bros. AT&T has not articulated a plan for the CW stake, which adds to the uncertainty. The U.S. Department of Justice is challenging AT&T's takeover of Time Warner, and a trial is set for next month.