In the fifth network world, CW is now pinning its hopes on serving a narrower, yet desireable, slice of the demographic pie: women 18-34. COO John Maatta says he’s confident CW will weather the current economic storm and really start building on the audience now provided by millions of young woman through Dawn Ostroff’s programming lineup.
Can a cable network make it as a broadcast network?
That’s the difficult question that CBS and Warner Bros. seem to be posing with CW, the broadcast network they forged two-and-a-half years ago from the best parts of CBS’s UPN and Warner Bros.’ The WB.
Rather than chase the same relatively broad audience that every other network does (adults 18-49), CW is now locked into a cable-like demo of women, 18-34.
The strategy is yielding small, but growing ratings within the demo, and has brought some stability after a rough first two seasons, during which CW failed to equal the sum of its parts and there was periodic talk that CBS and Warner Bros. might pull the plug.
Thanks mostly to Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, its strong Monday night dramas, CW is up 13 percent in its target demo of young women, and flat in adults, 18-49, so far this season, according to the network. (The numbers don’t count Friday and Sunday nights, which are undergoing major overhauls.)
At CW, the programming calls are made by Dawn Ostroff, president, entertainment. But the sales, affiliate relations and other back-office functions fall to COO John Maatta.
Having the distinction of being The WB’s first employee in 1993, Maatta has now spent the better part of his career in the turbulent and challenging fifth network business.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Maatta expresses confidence that CW will weather the economic storm and really start building on the audience now provided by millions of young women.
An edited transcript:
Why the focus on women 18-34? Aren’t broadcast networks suppose to reach for broad audiences?
We were actually very strategic in deciding to target women 18-34. In today’s media environment, if you’re looking to build a brand identity and a business, the first thing you should do is look at the opportunity, or white space, in the marketplace. And what we found was of the 100 or so networks, only four other networks were specifically targeting women 18-34 [E! Entertainment, MTV, VH-1 and ABC Family].
This really played to our strength, since we had already found success reaching young women with our scripted dramas, such as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, and reality, like America‘s Next Top Model. And it’s the high-quality and highly rated dramas and reality shows that really set us apart from the other networks targeting young women.
So this season, we really zeroed in on strengthening and building on that established base. And you can see that pay off, especially Monday through Wednesday, where Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill have seen their ratings grow by 30-40 percent from a year ago, 90210 has improved its Tuesday time period by 60 percent over last year, and Top Model regularly winning its time period in the fall.
Women 18-34 is a relatively narrow demographic to chase. How does a broadcast network with its single revenue stream live on such a small audiences? For instance, are you able to charge advertisers a premium for your spots?
Because we offer a very targeted and incredibly engaged audience. The CW is a very efficient buy for advertisers who want to reach the highly desirable women 18-34 demographic. Our programming is in high demand from buyers who represent a wide range of categories such as consumer products, packaged goods, health and beauty, retail and movie studios, just to name a few.
What’s going to happen during the upfront selling this year?
Obviously, we’re in an economy that is challenging for every industry, including broadcasting, but, from what I’m hearing, I’m feeling very good about our place in the upfront progression. We are a very efficient buy for advertisers.
Does the fact that your programming is targeted give you an advantage over competitors that go after broader audiences?
Not trying to be everything to everyone is an advantage and speaking to a rather thin slice of the demographic pie serves our interests. We represent a very efficient and strategic buy and the advertisers get what we’re doing. They see that we have been innovative with content wraps and quickies and how our integrations work. The advertisers have been among our biggest supporters.
How can you be optimistic in light of what’s happening in the scatter market?
Look, we’re in a very hard marketplace, a marketplace that probably has not been seen in the last 35 years. I think we’re holding our own and, again, I think as the new market entrant, we’re doing really well.
You’re holding your own, but not really growing?
I wouldn’t exclude growth. I’m not in any way pessimistic about our prospects for going forward.
How’s the fall season shaping up? I noticed that you picked up some interesting pilots that fit your strategy, Vampire Diaries and Body Politic.
I really can’t say. It’s not my thing. But based on what I’ve seen, based on what I’ve heard, based on the scripts I’ve seen, I think we’re in for a very good fall programmatically.
Dawn Ostroff and the programmers have done an amazing job programming the network. They’ve hit a chord that’s resonated with the target audience we’re trying to reach. It’s hard to say there’s perfect pitch in any programmer, but we’re as near to perfect pitch as we’re going to get. I am not a programmer just like I am not a pianist. I really admire those who can do it.
CW and MNT have suffered from relatively weak affiliate lineups. Your affiliates tend to be marginal stations without news that are more vulnerable to economic downturns. How is that affecting you?
Our CW affiliate lineup is stronger than the lineup we had at The WB and I thought we had built a fairly good distribution system at The WB.
We announced The WB around Halloween 1993 and a week later UPN announced it was coming on the scene. So there was a scramble for affiliates in some markets. In some markets, The WB got the pick of the litter. In some markets, it did not.
We were in a much different position in the winter and spring of 2006 when we launched The CW. With rare exception, The CW got the strongest possible stations in each given DMA and that led to the creation of what is a strong distribution system.
We have affiliates that run the gamut from independent operators to stations owned by major corporations, but across the board our system is strong. Even in this weak economy, the programming we’re providing and the branding we’re providing to the local affiliates does nothing but enhance their operations.
Are you getting any push back from the affiliates on the reverse compensation?
No, we aren’t. The one thing the stations want is stay in good stead and keep the programming coming and the branding in place. The last thing a station wants to do is become an independent entity.
Do you have have alternatives in all of your markets?
It’s really situational. In some markets, there are alternatives; in others, there aren’t. It really depends, but the bankruptcy equation and the economic times for the stations have really not been an issue for us up to this point.
Last fall, you abruptly ended your deal with Media Rights Capital, which was programming Sunday nights for you. What’s the plan for Sunday nights? Is that going to be a repeat day, a movie day or are you going to try to go with original programming?
We’re going into the development meetings in March. We haven’t really set our firm plans for Sunday nights yet. The movies seem to be working and the affiliates seem to like them. Beyond that, the plans for Sunday night really haven’t gelled just yet.
Why Tyra Banks for the afternoon block?
A couple of things, America’s Next Top Model has been our No. 1 show and we love Tyra and we thought that there was a nice kind of symmetry between having her talk show in the afternoon and having America’s Next Top Model in CW prime. Tyra is also always really helpful to us in terms of promotions.
Going back, you may remember we had animation from 3 to 5, which the affiliates did not like, and then we tried sitcom reruns 3 to 5. The affiliates weren’t that enamored with that either. Judge [Jeanine] Pirro was a huge step up for us this season. We got that from our good friends at Warner Brothers Domestic Television Distribution, but when the opportunity came for Tyra, we thought that it would be another leap forward for us and the affiliates.
What do you think of MyNetworkTelevision’s lastest plan to program primetime with off-network sitcoms and dramas?
I see them going in the direction of being a syndication aggregator and there may be a place for that in the marketplace. I don’t see them really as a competitor. I have never seen them as a competitor. They’ve got a completely different business model and different plan. If it works for them, so be it.
It’s like asking me what I think about the plans at Goodyear Rubber. It’s a different business they’re in. The hallmarks for networks are the creation and distribution of first-run, world-class programming and branding and aggregating an audience through that programming and branding. MyNetwork is going in a different direction.
The one thing that MNT now has going for it is the wrestling. Do you regret letting it go?
Not at all. SmackDown was great for us while it was here and the easy choice would have been to keep it. When we didn’t pick it up again, we anticipated it would find a home at MyNetwork, but the greater good was served in not picking it up for a number of reasons. It no longer fit the brand. There was no circulation outside of that night and there was no promotional benefit during that night. In terms of strategy, it really didn’t fit with what we were trying to accomplish.
I see that you are streaming most of your programs on your Web site. What does that do for you?
This is an area where different people are going to have different points of view. I see it as mostly a promotional play. I see it as an audience-friendly kind of play. It’s a way to connect with our audience all during the week, a way to reach those viewers that want to come and see a show and make contact with The CW when their favorite show is not on. They can do it through the Web site.
As a financial matter, streaming has not yet become anything that’s material. It’s an adjunct to broadcast; it’s a consumer-friendly kind of platform.
Do you think it has that potential to become a “material” business?
There’s a book called In All His Glory by Sally Bedell Smith. It’s about William Paley and it talks about how, when he owned the CBS radio network, he did everything in his power to kill television because he thought it would hurt his radio business. Well, he was unsuccessful and he’s lucky that he was. Technology takes unanticipated forms and it goes in unanticipated directions. So it’s hard to know where streaming is going to go in the future. It could go the way of Betamax or it could become a very pervasive force.
Am I going to find Gossip Girls and your other shows popping up on other sites?
To date, the only place the shows are streamed are on cwtv.com and we have no plans to go anyplace else.
Affiliates have heard that streaming-is-promotional theory from all the networks, but they’re nervous about it. They would prefer the good old days of exclusivity.
This is one of those topics like reverse comp. The streaming issue is one that really hasn’t come up with the affiliates in this last year. Everybody kind of wants to see how it all works out. There is no point of contention or controversy with the affiliates over streaming, at least not on cwtv.com.
You’ve been around the TV business for a long time now. What going to happen to the station business, which is the TV segment that seems to be taking the full brunt of the recession?
When I got into this in the late 1980s, there was a whole wave of station bankruptcies. I can remember acutely the soundings of doom for the industry, but out of that time a whole generation of broadcasters and entrepreneurs got very wealthy turning underutilized, undervalued properties into major assets.
I am extremely bullish on broadcasting. It’s still the best mechanism for the dissemination of TV entertainment that’s ever been created. The economy is bad for everybody now, but broadcasting is going to be here and it’s going to be strong for the rest of our lifetimes.
I’m on the board of directors of a restaurant company and a white table restaurant company on a good night makes a margin of about 11 percent. You know, a broadcaster in their heyday was making 50 percent. What are they making now: 30 percent, 45 percent margins?
They’re not going to be getting those kinds of margins this year.
Well maybe not this year. But broadcasting is a great industry, but the growth isn’t there so analysts knock it.
Will you be going to the NAB Show in April?
I go every year. I’ll be there. I love the NAB. It’s really important. There’s no gloom and doom from this corner and no Pollyanna talk either. I just see a good future ahead for the broadcast industry.