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Youth must be served

The revitalized CW seeks to regain the 18-to-34 crowd.

July 11, 2007|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a unicorn protruding from the wall in the lobby of the CW's headquarters in Burbank. A colorful gummy bear sculpture occupies a corner nearby. Dozens of trendy terms -- such as "freeganism," "ghost riding" and "VM-ing" -- are written on one wall in the form of a subway system map.

This is not what the offices of a broadcast TV network typically look like. White walls are usually covered with giant photographs of hot stars, such as Kiefer Sutherland and Eva Longoria.

But the CW, an amalgam of the now-defunct WB and UPN networks, has devoted its first year to recharging its internal culture in the hopes of keeping up with the fast-changing world of its 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

It's the only way, CW executives have determined, that the network stands a chance of landing more of the 70 million viewers in a competitive landscape that extends far beyond what is offered on broadcast and cable TV, with the Internet, cellphones and iPods all striving for the same audience.

The strategy emerged, in part, out of the growing pains of the first year. Although the CW registers 3 million viewers, an average of 900,000 people, ages 18 to 34, watched the network in prime time in its first year, according to Nielsen Media Research. In their last seasons on the air, the WB registered 850,000 of those viewers and UPN had 890,000.

Figuring out where the rest of those viewers went -- and, more importantly, how to get them back -- has been priority No. 1 for the CW.

Last season, many of them went to Fox, which was the top network in that demographic with 2.2 million viewers, due in large part to "American Idol," the top-rated show among 18-to-34-year-olds. On cable, the largest chunks of that audience for the 2006 calendar year went to USA, TBS and ESPN, with an estimated 500,000 viewers apiece.

The CW's president of entertainment, Dawn Ostroff, thinks the station shuffle triggered by the merger between WB and UPN, which forced viewers to search for their favorite shows on new channels, was responsible for most of the network's ratings blues. (The network airs on TV stations owned by CBS and Chicago-based Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)

"The first year was a bear," she said. "Changing people's habits was a bear. Some of our shows did get older but that doesn't mean anything because long-running series have peaks and valleys. Now that we have the space for new shows and the foundation of the first year, people hopefully have heard of the CW in some way."

Only one of the three new scripted shows, 'The Game,' is returning. And even popular, long-running series from the WB and UPN rosters saw declines in their audiences, as viewers opted for "Idol," "Grey's Anatomy," "House," "Heroes," and "NBC Sunday Night Football." But fans of the CW's top-rated show, "America's Next Top Model," and reality series "Beauty and the Geek" had no trouble finding their favorites, which in turn helped to give the network its first big reality hit in "The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll."

With holes left by the ending of "7th Heaven" and "Gilmore Girls" and the cancellation of "Veronica Mars," the network with the youngest median age -- 32 -- knows this is the year it has to make a name for itself. Early assessments by critics and advertisers are crediting the network with some of the most promising scripted fare of the new season. In the fall, the CW will launch three new dramas -- "Gossip Girl," "Reaper" and "Life Is Wild" -- and one new comedy, "Aliens in America."

"Last year was really about building the affiliates and doing the name change and creating this entity from scratch," said Shari Ann Brill, director of programming at the ad-buying firm Carat. "This year, they are really tapping into the fact that their target audience is very interactive. I was firmly convinced that they know exactly who their viewer is and are seeking ways to program accordingly to that audience."

But what does any of this have to do with hipster words scribbled across a wall?

In its research, which began with the hiring of a programming executive-turned-trend-spotter, the CW determined that its audience has a penchant for creativity and entrepreneurial zeal.

As "the cultural attache" for the network, Lisa Waggoner spends her time reading blogs and checking websites to see what people are buzzing about, searching for emerging actors, writers and directors and informing producers and executives of the new hot thing, such as the latest texting acronym, LQTM (laughing quietly to myself).

"I'm looking for things that are culturally relevant to our demo because our producers are great but they're in a room 80 hours a week," said Waggoner, manager of trend analysis and development. "So [Ostroff] wanted to use me so that I can be online and telling them about all of the things that move so quickly through the online world."

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