Netflix has "Friends." Hulu has "Seinfeld." Amazon has "The Sopranos." But where does one go to watch the all-but-forgotten cheerleading dramedy "Hellcats"?
The CW Seed app, of course.
The CW, the traditionally youth-skewing television network, has long recognized that young viewers are shifting away from the old-school television screen.
Now the Burbank-based CW, a joint venture between Warner Bros. and CBS Corp., is looking to build out a complementary channel for the digital space at a time when TV networks are trying to ride the Internet TV wave and stay relevant in an on-demand world.
The CW originally launched its digital channel three years ago to develop short-form comedy Web content that could migrate to television. But recently the CW has repositioned the digital offshoot as a second network, with a mix of short Web episodes and conventional series such as the teen soap "The O.C." that played on Fox more than a decade ago.
Driving the change is a desire by the CW to strike a balance between expanding viewership beyond the TV screen while also drawing younger viewers to its traditional television programming.
"We recognized this was a good place to have the CW Seed develop its own identity and, at the same time, trade off uniquely in the digital space as CW's brand," said CW President Mark Pedowitz.
CW Seed helps the network address some key challenges.
For one thing, the CW has far fewer hours to fill on its schedule — about 10 hours of content — compared to the main broadcast networks. The fewer programming slots makes CW Seed more important as an outlet to showcase content.
"They only have two hours a day on linear TV to really go after somebody," said Darcy Bowe, a vice president at advertising giant Starcom USA. "They're limited in the grand scheme of all the content that is being pushed out there. Any opportunity they can create to continue building loyal audiences and continue bringing fans back to the CW property on their downtime can't be a bad thing."
The shifting viewing habits of younger audiences pose another challenge for the CW and all TV networks.
A recent study by Defy Media, a digital content company, found that those ages 13 to 34 watch 11.3 hours of free online video and 10.8 hours of subscription online video weekly — much more than the time reported for free online TV offerings from broadcast and cable networks (6.4 hours) or for regularly scheduled TV (8.3 hours).
The CW has seen the effects. The network has steadily witnessed the median age of its traditional TV audience rise to 42. By contrast, the median age for CW Seed is 23.
But CW Seed faces plenty of competition. In addition to streaming pioneers such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, traditional media companies including HBO, Showtime, CBS, and NBC have augmented their strategy to more fully embrace the digital realm that had long been viewed as a threat.
Household penetration of streaming players such as Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast is projected to reach 40% by 2017, according to New York-based research firm NPD Group.
"Consumers can access almost anything they want almost anywhere they want, whether through a legitimate outlet or not," said Glenn Hower, an analyst with market research firm Parks Associates.
To meet these challenges, CW Seed has launched Web shorts that build off established properties already familiar to the CW audience. It put out "Play It Again, Dick," a spinoff of the former CW network series "Veronica Mars," last year. And this summer, CW Seed launched "Vixen," a DC Comics-inspired weekly animated show whose episodes run about three to five minutes, which served as a sort of buffer while CW hits "Arrow" and "The Flash" were on their summer hiatus.
"Things are moving so quickly, building off something that's already been established does help," said Rick Haskins, the CW's executive vice president of marketing and digital programs. The hope is that shows like "Vixen" will help market signature TV shows like DC's "Arrow" and "The Flash."
"We kind of built this ecosystem that first works for Seed, then moves back up on social — giving us something to talk about — that pushes us to the premiere," Haskins said.
The app has garnered nearly 300,000 downloads since May.
But can the CW maintain a level of interest beyond a DC property tie-in? Haskins said the network will soon see.
Production is about to begin on "Vampire: The Musical" (working title), which takes tropes from "The Vampire Diaries" and "The Originals" and puts them in musical form. Another show in its slate is "Saving the Human Race," which plays up the CW's "iZombie" and "The 100" shows.
Beyond the short-form content, CW Seed is giving new life to a slate of programs that might not otherwise have an afterlife. The CW looked to Warner Bros. to acquire a selection of long-form programs that would resonate well with its audience.
In addition to all eight seasons of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," which originally aired on ABC in the '90s before its recent CW reboot, CW Seed has become home to a number of programs. They include "Hellcats," the original "Flash," "Almost Human" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" — all of which ran for just one season each.
CW Seed will up the ante next month by adding to its lineup all four seasons of cult teen drama "The O.C.," at a time when nostalgia-tinged viewing is in full bloom, as well as short-lived ABC soap drama "Pushing Daisies."
The initiative also gives CW executives greater insight into online viewing behavior and another distribution outlet. The network has long relied on third parties to distribute its programming; Tribune Media carries CW programming on its stations, including KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles. Streaming services Netflix and Hulu have had deals for some of the CW's hottest shows, and those deals are set to expire.
It's still too early for CW Seed to serve as a viable revenue stream, Pedowitz acknowledged. But the hope is that it will reach such heights.
"We're at the nascent stages," Pedowitz said. "This is all part of where we're going. Give it a couple of years. This could be a great revenue stream for the CW."