Being Cool Is Hard Work at the C-Dub

Since the upfronts in May, advertisers have told us with their wallets that there are more than nine billion reasons network television is still the biggest game in town. But that still doesn't make it the coolest.

If you believe what you read, the younger generations just want to watch four-second-long user-generated videos on their iPods while they blog about it on Facebook and text each other with full sentences comprised of about three letters. To which an old-fashioned TV programmer might say, Huh?

That is the challenge facing the CW, which is targeting the 18-to-34-year-old demo to try to stand out from the broadcast competition. And while it says 18-34, it means 12-34, because the earlier the network ropes them in, the better.

But to do so, the network is going to have to know what these kids like and how they like it. And by the way, what is hip changes about every 30 seconds.

Plus, as CW marketing chief Rick Haskins says, “It's inherently uncool to try to be cool.”

Trust me, I know this. I remember high school.

But while I can get away with thinking MySpace is still the latest craze (apparently it's not), the CW does not have that luxury. If it wants kids to tune in, the network needs not only to follow the latest trends, it needs to set them.

And the stakes are high for the network this year, essentially its rookie season in my book.

Thrown together with a hodgepodge of aging shows from two failed networks, the newbie had a strong youth-oriented message at its first upfront in 2006. But having to play the cards it was dealt, later in the same presentation it trotted out sitcom star Reba McEntire. Nice lady and all, but not exactly who high-schoolers are clamoring for.

But this year the network has had a full development cycle, so while the excuses are gone, the early indicators are strong.

Gossip Girl, a teen angst drama seen through the eyes of a blogger, seems perfect for the target audience and has endless possibilities online. Also promising is Reaper, a fun dramedy about a kid whose soul got sold to the devil, with Beelzebub played in pilot-stealing fashion by Ray Wise. There are also shows like Online Nation that complement an aggressive Web strategy, and interesting advertising ideas to woo brands.

But the network still has to bring the cool. Among those on the hook for finding out what is “off the hook” are Haskins and Lisa Waggoner, a programming executive whose main job now is trend spotting. Her full title is “manager of trend analysis and development.” She says someone in the comedy department came up with it. Whether or not she was serious, I believe her.

Most of her job is to surf online for what is hip at the moment. She regularly hits sites like Ypulse and Filmoculous. Don't worry, I haven't heard of them either.

They also enlist a trend-spotting company called The Intelligence Group, as well as media agency OMD to help keep up.

Every Tuesday at the network's weekly programming meeting, Waggoner presents the latest. Haskins tells me one of the hot trends is bamboo. Great—another Web craze or dance step I haven't heard about.

Nope, turns out they just meant plain old bamboo. Apparently, it's the new wood. Shows what I know.

In fact, I am sure my use of the word “cool” has exposed me as anything but. I know Victoria Beckham, the latest arbiter of “cool,” uses “major”—but I have no idea if that is still hot.

Then again, if I am using it, the word isn't cool anymore anyway. And if Haskins and Waggoner do their jobs, it would have already come and gone from the CW lingo long ago.