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WB Gets Down to Reality

Facing declines in all its key young audiences, The WB is changing the way it does business. The network, which prides itself on developing scripted dramas with hot young stars, is turning to reality to shake the ratings doldrums.

"Starting this summer and over the course of next year, you'll probably see 10 short-order reality series from us," says Co-CEO Jordan Levin. "What we want to do is use reality to keep our schedule fresh on a year-round basis and to get us more in line with what young people are watching." If the network can get viewers to show up for reality, he says, it has a better shot at keeping them for scripted shows.

That's a change for the nine-year-old, youth-oriented network, whose executives said as recently as last month that they intend to use a limited amount of reality as a place-holder between scripted series. But with ratings down 23% season-to-date in adults 18-34, 18% in persons 12-34, and 18% in females 12-34, it's time for a makeover, Levin says.

"The audience speaks for you and defines who you are," he says. "I believe we are choosing products that fit into our overall brand and are not going to radically alter it. We have a responsibility to all the partners of this network to deliver to them, and it's a balancing act."

Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcomm Entertainment, agrees with the strategy. "I think they missed the reality boat and did not realize the impact and the draw that reality would be for their 12- to 34-year-old audience."

The fact that scripted, serialized dramas aren't repeating well helped seal the fate of Angel, which The WB won't renew for a sixth year. In repeats, its ratings fell 50%. Even in originals, it has lost some 20% of its audience since November, making it too costly to keep on the air.

"We are hoping this scheduling model will drive the cumulative ratings of those two airings more than if we stayed in the traditional cycle of airing repeats," Levin says. "If it doesn't work, then scripted dramas are under even more economic pressure than they are now."

The WB has reality shows in development from top producers Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor), Bruce Nash (For Love or Money), and Michael Davies (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire).

Already announced are Fleiss's Big Man on Campus, a college dating show, and Jamie Kennedy's Wannabes, about actresses trying to land a career. Levin says The WB also is in talks with Mark Burnett, who executive-produces reality hits Survivor: All-Stars
and The Apprentice
on CBS and NBC, respectively. And live music show Pepsi Smash
is likely to return.

But Levin's strategy goes much further than just adding more reality to prime time. He also plans to change the traditional scheduling model: Series will play out in short runs of original episodes, with prime time encores scheduled the same week. For example, if the network runs an original episode of Everwood
at 9 p.m. ET on Monday, it would replay the same episode on Thursday or Friday night.

After the run of original episodes, the series would be replaced by another that would run for several weeks. That way, the network would never be in repeats. Ratings for each week's two plays would be cumed for advertisers, which ideally would keep ad rates up, since repeats' poor ratings drag them down.

The WB is using that strategy now with unscripted comedy The Surreal Life. A replay of Sunday night's original episode on Thursday night is delivering better numbers than the comedies scheduled there.

Surreal Life
and others in its genre are set to become The WB's new reality.