After the Worst-Rated Debut of All Time, Is the CW Even a Network Anymore?

Sometimes just saying something is enough, right? Major League Baseball calls its championship the World Series, despite only representing teams based in North America. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sketchy husband claims to be a Prince when he merely kicked a soccer ball with some royal kids. As Canadian rapper Drake put it, “I’m the greatest, man, I said that before I knew I was.” Self-definition is a bedrock promise of the American dream.

It’s becoming more and more clear that only by using this click-your-heels-three-times logic can The CW still consider itself a major broadcast network. Earlier this week the mashed-up union between the equally ill-fated WB and UPN debuted The L.A. Complex, an imported drama about sexy Canucks trying to make it in the dogsled-eat-dogsled world of Hollywood. The show made history, but not the good kind: with only 646,000 viewers, The L.A. Complex was the lowest-rated drama debut of all time. This could be written off as an isolated disaster until you realize that the show Complex replaced, the Sarah Michelle Geller soap Ringer, was averaging barely double that. The memorably titled April 10 episode (“It’s Called Improvising, Bitch”) pulled 1.1 million viewers, which is large for a city in Switzerland, but outrageously small for a broadcast audience. By way of comparison, Ice Road Truckers garnered 3.4 million sets of eyeballs on the History Channel last summer. And over on the Food Network, an episode of Chopped All-Stars attracted 6.3 million people. True, these are niche networks but, then again, so is The CW: its sole successes (using the term as gently as possible) are aimed at underage Cosmo swillers and Wiccans. Safe to say neither demographic is highly prized by the Nielsen company.

Of course, narrowcasting isn’t exactly a bad word anymore. As ratings for the people-pleasing Big Four continue to drop faster than Chuck Bass’s silk boxers (amirite, ladies?), the idea of programming for a specific group looks more and more attractive. The real problem for The CW is that it finds itself living an episode of Ringer: A bitchier twin is making hay with its identity. Cable net ABC Family has a full slate of glossy teen soaps, the most successful of which, Pretty Little Liars, bears a title that could also double for a network mission statement. Unshackled by a broadcast channel’s need for universality, ABC Family can go whole hog and wallow in the semi-scrubbed sin of The Lying Game (notice a theme?) and The Secret Life of the American Teenager — the latter of which averages 3 million viewers an episode, more than last week’s installment of Mad Men. The CW, in the meantime, hopes to make good this fall with The Carrie Diaries, a young take on a creaky franchise and exactly the sort of having-it-both-ways thinking that might have made sense in an older era, but is suspect today. (In fact, it’s been suspect since the last two times The CW tried it, with the barely-hanging-on 90210 reboot and the DOA new Melrose Place.) Outflanked by cable and demolished by the networks, The CW’s situation is quickly approaching critical. (It’s doubtful even fashionable surgeon Dr. Zoe Hart could work miracles here.) Perhaps the only consolation is that Michigan J. Frog isn’t around to see his proud legacy end like this. Though it might be fun if someone can convince him to dance at the funeral.

Filed Under: Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, The Cw

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald