MBPT Spotlight: New Categories Are a Silver Lining to The CW’s Upfront

What constitutes upfront success for a TV network is subjective. Clearly, taking in 10%-15% fewer ad dollars than the previous year can be problematic for any network, even in a soft marketplace. And that has happened to some of the networks in the current upfront negotiations.

However, upfront success cannot be measured by total ad dollar commitments alone. There are other factors that make a network’s outcome a positive one beyond dollar volume.

Case in point is The CW network, which, according to people familiar with the negotiations, took in about 5% less in upfront ad dollars than it did last year—about $390 million—but brought in new advertisers in categories that have not been staples on the network in the past, including auto, financial, fast food and different types of movies.

Some of The CW dollar decline can be attributed to marketers spending less on broadcast TV advertising in general. And some of it can be because the network has been adding more male-skewing shows and older-skewing shows to replace its traditional mostly female-skewing fare. With fewer female-skewing shows, there are fewer places for advertisers who want to reach that demo to advertise in.

But for the most part, that was compensated for by the addition of some new male-skewing shows, The Flash in particular, which drew a sizable amount of interest from media buyers and their advertiser clients.

Moving from an almost totally young-female-skewing network, as The CW has traditionally been, to a more balanced demo network while maintaining audience level and advertiser support is a tricky proposition, but The CW seems to be weathering the process.

“I think it’s fair to say that The CW has had a bit of a turnaround,” says Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis practice lead at Magna Global. “In the past they were focused on reaching women 18-34 and that wasn’t sustainable.”

Hughes says diversifying its audience by focusing largely on the sci-fi and action genre has not only brought in more males and a bit of an older viewer, but that type of programming lends itself well to digital extensions, which he believes “is a critical part of their strategy.”

About 20% of The CW’s viewership watches its programming via streaming on its website, and advertising is sold separately from the TV telecasts for that. And the commercials can’t be fast-forwarded.

The CW’s branching out into more superhero-type dramas made the network more appealing to movie studios releasing films in that genre, and there are more and more of those. An upcoming superhero movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy or the action movie Transformers: Age of Extinction are the types of films that The CW will be able to sell ad time to now that it couldn’t when it was mainly airing female-skewing shows.

Categorically Broader

Broadening its audience also allowed the network to bring in more advertising in this upfront by fast food restaurants, automakers and financial companies, which like to target audiences that include consumers beyond the network’s traditional 12-34 or 18-34 audience.

The CW quietly had a solid 2013-14 season, completing it in May up 2.9% in viewers and 3.6% among adults 18-49. It was the only broadcast network other than NBC to produce across-the-board increases in viewers and all demos. The network was up 6.8% in men 18-49 and 3.1% in women 18-49. And it increased its male 25-54 rating by 10.4%, largely due to a heavy influx of men in that demo watching superhero hit drama Arrow and its revival of improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? And for next season, adding superhero drama The Flash to its schedule is sure to bring in more men.

At the same time, The CW has enough programming on its schedule to appeal to women with Reign, The VampireDiaries and next season’s new hour-long comedy Jane the Virgin.

What’s hampered The CW a bit and perhaps kept its upfront take down is that its ratings, even though up, are small in comparison with the other broadcast networks.

Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat, says The CW’s ratings “are still not at the point that advertisers are going to throw lots of additional dollars its way like they did with NBC in this upfront.”

But Gold adds, “Still, with shows like The Flash, which is one of the most anticipated series for next season, The CW is building its presence; if its new crop of shows succeed, more advertisers are going to take a look at the network as a place to allocate male and older adult dollars.”

The CW’s low live-plus-same-day ratings that are published each day can be a bit deceiving because a sizable portion of its audience is watching on other devices. And while the network’s audience is getting older, even its median age viewer number can be deceiving because more viewers are watching online, and being replaced with live viewers who are older.

For example, Arrow is the network’s oldest-skewing show with a median age audience of 48. The series is watched by a sizable amount of younger viewers but many of them are watching that series online. That’s also why The CW’s 18-34 live-plus-same-day ratings are not as high as they once were.

Meanwhile, a significant number of advertisers and their media agencies seem to still consider The CW an upfront player that can’t be ignored.

After finishing its upfront negotiations first for two consecutive years, The CW rolled in fourth among the five English-language broadcasters this year. However, GroupM’s determination to negotiate deals using live-plus-seven-day ratings guarantees (C7) rather than the standard live-plus-three-day was a big part of that.

With only 10 hours of primetime programming a week and smaller nightly audiences, The CW is not a big enough player for the media agencies to set precedent with. So, The CW was pushed toward the back of the line this year.

However, as one network executive pointed out, “It’s pretty much irrelevant who sells out its upfront ad inventory first. It depends on whether a network meets its upfront selling goals.”

A CW spokesperson declined to comment on the network’s upfront negotiations.

Magna Global’s Hughes believes The CW has turned things around a bit and the future could be bright, but he does warn that the network has to make sure to maintain a balance of male and female viewers and not go from a predominantly female-skewing network to one that skews mostly male.

“I think there is always danger in putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak,” he says. “Its new sci-fi and action series are working for the time being, but they can’t get to a point where a female-skewing show feels out of place on the schedule.”