From ‘Gossip Girl’ to ‘Riverdale’: Inside The CW’s Unlikely Road to 15 Years on Air

When The CW was announced in January 2006, the idea was to take the two smallest broadcast networks (UPN and The WB) and combine them into one less-small network with the backing of two media titans, UPN owner CBS and WB namesake Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Fifteen years and several sea changes in the television landscape later, The CW is still a broadcast network, though its stewards would prefer it to be called a “multiplatform network.” It has weathered the rapidly transforming landscape by adding digital platforms and committing to on- and offscreen diversity — and has even added nights of programming in the past few years, becoming a seven-night network for the first time this season with the addition of Saturday programming.

“We understood that the audience that we were playing to was moving quickly into a digital social media world, and that the key to [our success], despite what everyone else thought, was that we wanted to hit them no matter where they were, we wanted to engage them no matter where they were and we wanted to be there in a place where they knew that they could come to us,” says CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz of the network’s younger-oriented viewership. “So the creation of the CW app, the creation of the second app, CW Seed, [and] the combining of these apps to make it have more girth, have all led us to interesting places.”

Rick Haskins has been with The CW from day one and recalls some early growing pains in the weeks after the merger of UPN and The WB was announced in January 2006 at that year’s NATPE (National Association of Television Program Executives) convention. “It was very secret as they were trying to build this new network,” says Haskins, who’s now streaming president and chief branding officer at the network. “They didn’t want anybody to announce it until after NATPE. The sense of surprise is always a good thing when you announce something as big as this. What that did is it put us behind the eight ball. We really had to scramble to get everything ready when we presented for the first time to the advertisers and the affiliates.”

When former ABC Studios head Pedowitz joined The CW in 2011, the network had transitioned to having mostly homegrown series as opposed to holdovers from its predecessors (though it was a year away from the premiere of Arrow, the launchpad for its interconnected DC universe). It entered the streaming world the following year with the launch of CW Seed, a digital studio that eventually became part of the network’s full-fledged streaming offering. The network similarly made a groundbreaking deal to stream its series on Netflix in 2011, putting its shows in front of millions of Netflix users. That led to a “Netflix bump” for eventual shows like Archie Comics soap Riverdale and football drama All American, which saw their audiences grow in the seasons following their first time on the streamer. The network ended that deal in 2019, and while shows that fell under the prior pact, like The Flash, still stream on Netflix after their seasons finish, newer series are housed at WarnerMedia’s HBO Max — and, crucially, The CW now has full seasons of newer series, including Walker and Superman & Lois, on its in-house free streaming platform, rather than only the five most recent episodes.

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Sports drama All American (2018-present).
Courtesy of Bill Inoshita/The CW

“They don’t have the same reach yet as Netflix does, but we saw some very promising things just recently on the digital play over there with Superman & Lois and Walker, Kung Fu and Stargirl,” Pedowitz says of HBO Max. “We are hoping to see that bounce when we premiere Walker later this month and Superman & Lois next year for their second seasons. We’re pleased with what we see so far.”

Pedowitz’s tenure has also seen The CW commit to diversity and inclusion on a higher level than many of its competitors. For the 2021-22 season, two thirds of showrunners, writers and directors are women or people of color, and more than half of its series regular actors are people of color.

“We believed that there was an unserved audience who wanted to see themselves on the screen, whether it be a digital screen or a TV — they just wanted to see themselves,” says Pedowitz. “So it was a concerted effort made by the entire company to really alter who was writing, who was directing, who appears on that screen.”

The CW was born at the start of the social media era, and its sweet spot for viewers encompassed those young adults who were more likely to be early adopters of those platforms. “I think part of our success has been that we grew up with social together, so we knew how to use it probably better than a lot of other people,” says Haskins. “It was perfect for the audience that we were trying to reach, that 18- to 34-year-old, and it was also much easier for us to transition from completely linear to linear-digital multiplatform than a lot of other networks because of the social media piece of it.”

Haskins and Pedowitz are both industry veterans who have seen broadcast networks go from undisputed rulers of the TV landscape to old news as the streaming era has taken hold. The CW’s first-day ratings typically measure in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. Yet in the past three years, the network has added programming on both weekend nights, which not only increases The CW’s on-air footprint but also helps feed its digital platforms more content.

“There have been growing pains, but ultimately people understand it because they as consumers look at how they watch TV, how they use social media, and understand that it is incorporated into their life, so why shouldn’t it be incorporated into The CW?” Haskins says. “It has been interesting to see people that have been in linear TV for so long stretching themselves, learning new things and saying, ‘This is more fun,’ rather than ‘This is hard.’ “

2 Key Hits Worth Revisiting 

Of his many past series, CW CEO Mark Pedowitz says there are two he’d bring back — if he could

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Supernatural; One Tree Hill
SUPERNATURAL: Sergei Bachlakov/THE CW/courtesy everett collection. Hill: Fred Norris/Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection.

SUPERNATURAL (2005-20)

“If the boys want to come back, I’m always open to do some more,” Pedowitz says of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, who called it a day after 15 seasons of Supernatural a little more than a year ago.

ONE TREE HILL (2003-12)

“I think there is a time and place for One Tree Hill in some way, shape or form again,” he says of the soap, which launched the career of Sophia Bush. “People underestimated it when it was on the network in many, many ways.”

This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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