THE CW IGNORES FANS AND THEIR OWN WEBSITE WITH DIGITAL SERIES BOOST
by Alan Kistler | 11:00 am, April 21st, 2014
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Recently, The CW network announced that an online show featured on their Seed website will become a full TV series, then acknowledged the show selection ignored the online programming their viewers actually preferred.
CW Seed features original online content. According to the site itself: “CW Seed is The CW’s digital-only network. It’s where we blur the line between television and the web and experiment with high-quality original series in smaller sizes. Basically, it’s where we go digging for what’s next.”
I’m honestly surprised more networks don’t do this. What a great way to see what people respond to and then work off that information. Along with seeing if a show is going to tank before you invest in a full season, there’s the advantage of building a fan base before your content airs on television. By streaming the content and then coming back for more episodes, viewers are effectively voting for what they like. Netflix has shown great success in paying attention to online viewership and catering to what the numbers tell them. This is so essential in an age where many viewers prefer to watch things on their own schedule, using DVRs and online services, only to then be frustrated by the fact that networks will cancel shows because they often use depressingly outdated models which don’t take DVR or streaming content into account.
On April 8th in Variety, The CW announced the online sitcom Backpackers will graduate from CW Seed to television as a full series. Cool. Then I came across this sentence: “While ‘Backpackers’ wasn’t actually CW Seed’s most-watched series, the network realized early on that its story had a broader-based appeal than others and would translate well to TV.”
I’m sorry, what? The numbers told you what show people watched the most and you knowingly selected something else? I’m not saying Backpackers should have any offer rescinded. That’s a great opportunity and everyone involved with the show should be proud. The CW itself has brought up a problem with its selection process, though. If you’re going to ignore viewer numbers, what is the purpose of creating CW Seed in the first place? What exactly was the “experiment” of “blurring the line between television and the web”? To mess with the audience?
“Here’s what we have , tell us what you like. That’s nice, this one here? Huh. We were going to pick something else. You know what? We’re picking something else. Thanks for telling us what you like, though. Come again!”
On top of telling us the viewership numbers are being ignored, the network says it came to its selection “early on” in the experiment. So CW had already made the decision before all the content was released and the shows had a chance to build their audiences? I’m guessing none of the folks making these shows were told that would be the case.
In response to the Variety article, many commenters asked why Husbands hadn’t been given a similar offer to come to television and a fan campaign followed in support of the series. If you’re not familiar, the online newlywed sitcom Husbands started on its own website as the brainchild of Brad Bell (VH1′s Pop-Up Video) and Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Caprica,Once Upon A Time). The show stars Bell and actor Sean Hemeon as unlikely newlyweds who run into hilarious situations and confrontations as they try to make their marriage work.
I’ve personally been a fan of Husbands since it began and think it definitely fits the bill if you’re looking for an appealing show that comes comes prepackaged with a fan following. When CW Seed launched, several reports considered Husbands its flagship show, as it already had an audience and two successful seasons under its belt, one of which was fully funded by fans eager for more. It has won multiple awards and gotten several positive reviews from publications such as Time, The Huffington Post, Wired, The Inside.com, The Guardianand The New Yorker. Many episodes are directed by Jeff Greenstein, known for his work onWill & Grace and Friends. It’s had a spin-off comic book series published by Dark Horse. It’s featured talents as Alessandra Torresani, Amy Acker, Joss Whedon, Tricia Helfer, Mekhi Phifer, Nathan Fillion, Jon Cryer, Magda Apanowicz, Felicia Day, Emma Caulfield, Amber Benson and others.
Following the announcement of Husbands not being selected, the Husbands TV Now fan campaign launched. The site encourages fans to use e-mail and social media to speak their minds and support, such as tweeting to the CW that they want the show on their televisions. With this proven fan base and all other things considered, it seems like an easy decision to just give Husbands a full TV series treatment already. You’d have to drop certain words from the dialogue (it’s The CW, not HBO), but that’s easily achieved and the rest of the series could be left as is. But since the Variety announcement two weeks ago, nothing has changed.
I keep going back to the comment about deciding early on that certain shows didn’t have broad appeal. What was the basis of that conclusion? Maybe we have different ideas of appeal, The CW and I. Perhaps there’s a fear that only gay men will watch a show featuring two gay men as its main protagonists unless they have more heteronormative elements around them. As a straight male, I’m confidentthis fear is invalid and silly. Sure, some can’t directly relate to being in a gay married couple. Most of us probably can’t directly relate to vampire lifestyles either, but The CW currently airs two shows featuring near-immortal blood drinkers. Husbands is about relationships and delivers stories which apply to many.
It’s true no matter how funny, poignant and relevant I and others think the show is, some people won’t want to watch, for whatever reason. Guess what? That happens no matter what show you have. As huge as M.A.S.H. was, some people never cared for it. That’s part of why this phrase “broad appeal” is a problem. It doesn’t really mean anything beyond “generic.” It’s an idea created by marketing-based fear and laziness. Networks want to make a profit, that’s fine, but this thinking and reliance on older models just limits new business opportunities as much as creativity. Television shows which target a specific idea and audience, and do their job really well, successfully strike a chord with viewers. Series such as Star Trek and Breaking Bad were turned down by some because they didn’t fit a traditional mold and weren’t geared to have the broadest appeal possible. Those became the same reasons people were interested to check the shows out, and then the quality made them stay on as fans.
Husbands isn’t the only CW Seed show to fall into a category of not fitting a traditional idea of “broad appeal.” Very Mallory (which is incorrectly titled Gallery Mallory on the CW Seed’s About page) is a witty cartoon centered around frustrating celebrity egos by Robot Chicken writer and voice actor Rachel Bloom. The P.E.T. Squad Files is an absurdist mockumentary take on ghost investigation reality shows and includes Russ Cundiff (Chosen) and Milo Ventimiglia(Mob City, Heroes) among its producers. It’s a shame to think these series weren’t given a chance to show what kind of audience they could build because a decision was made early on by people who decided to ignore and dismiss viewing figures. Historically, ignoring clear facts and evidence is not a great strategy for anyone involved in business, science, the arts or general human-based societies.
I’m sitting here wondering why the CW network created CW Seed and then acted against its apparent purpose. Which show had the highest numbers? What criteria was used to deem that one or more of these shows wouldn’t appeal to people? Why is it a smart idea to tell viewers to watch online content and then later tell them their efforts and opinions didn’t matter? Why, when you’re trying to profit from building up an audience, would you deliberately ignore the same audience?
I’d like to know.
[EDIT: Steph Ouaknine of SmokeBomb Entertainment has claimed on Twitter that Backpackersdid get the highest viewing numbers of the shows that debuted on CW Seed (which doesn’t include Husbands). Representatives of Husbands have told me that they have not been given any hard viewing numbers.]
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is an actor and freelance writer who sometimes plays the role of comic book historian and geek consultant. He is the author of Doctor Who: A History.