January 7, 2007
Merging WB and UPN into the CW Network: What Did the Fans Have to Say?

For my final look back at some of our early work from the C3 Weekly Updates internal newsletter and where we are now this weekend, I was interested in revisiting this piece I wrote in the first quarter of last year about the formation of the CW Network and what it might mean for the shows then airing on UPN and The WB. I looked in particular to see which shows seemed to have more ardent online followings than others based on fan sites surrounding the media properties and fan discussion groups that I could find that were explicitly for fans of that show.

Writing just days after the announcement that WB and UPN would be merged, I wrote that "fan communities surrounding the various WB and UPN shows have begun writing, wondering what these changes could mean for their shows, whether they will make the cut, and the potential benefits for the amalgamated network if their shows do make it onto the CW.


According to posts from various Veronica Mars fan community message boards at the time, the majority of Veronica Mars fans were fairly confident that the show would be renewed. The initial press release named Veronica Mars as a hit on UPN by name, and the show has received critical praise in addition to its popularity among cult fans. The series is doing well in DVD sales for season one as well.

Fans were already discussing what this could mean for ratings on the new network, as the CW Network would presumably be available in more markets and reach more homes than either WB or UPN. "I think its gonna be MAJOR...both networks major in the teen and young adult 'scene' and putting their hit shows together in one place is gonna be HUGE!" one VM fan wrote. Another said, "All I can say is this: One network that has Veronica AND Gilmore Girls on it is automatically going to be AWESOME." For the VM fan community, they saw the merger as a way to lock in even more mainstream popularity for their show and to solidify CW as a viable fifth network for their show to be featured on.


On the other end, there was not much celebrating in what exists of a fan community--what looked more like a site set up to discuss the show but which just garnered occasional comments rather than an actual "community" of any sort but had one or two very active fans still voicing their support for the show--surrounding Fran Drescher's Living with Fran, which then aired on the WB. The show has already been swinging back and forth on the "cancelled" line after being on hiatus for a couple of months. The majority of the messages on the fan forums for Fran consisted of a few ardent supporters being heckled by various people questioning the quality of the show, but there is already major fear amongst the very small Living with Fran fan community I observed that the show is doomed by the news.


As with WB's Living with Fran, one indicator aside from ratings is how active of a fan community a show has. While Veronica Mars, Friday Night Smackdown, America's Next Top Model, Everybody Hates Chris, and Girlfriends all have fairly active posting boards, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone out there writing about and commenting on Half and Half, Eve, or Love, Inc.

At time time, I wondered:

How much will network executives take the depth of interest, the "expressions," of fans under consideration when trying to decide what to do with the television schedule? If one follows the UPN ratings, most of the shows are toward the bottom of network ratings lists--and there are times when shows like Eve are not that far away in ratings from Veronica Mars, for instance. Yet, if the fan communities are any indications, the viewers who watch VM are much more deeply involved than Eve viewers. Will this play a role in deciding who does and does not get the axe?


Another interesting example is Charmed, a show which had been struggling to stay on the WB and which was already rumored to be a victim of the merger at the time I wrote this, especially since there had been rumors of cancelations beforehand. While there could have been external and internal forces leading to the cancellation of the show that has nothing to do with its online popularity and/or its ratings, I wrote at the time about the hot debates on fan sites as to what the CW Network might mean for Charmed. The show did well in DVD sales, has a fan magazine sold on stands, and a vibrant online community, yet how strongly do executives consider strong online fan communities as a benefit (is there an explicitly tangible one?), and how will issues like DVD sales be taken into account?

At the time, I concluded:

These are a few of many examples of debates that are being sparked up from WB and UPN shows. There are many WB hits such as Gilmore Girls, Smallville, and many others with vibrant online fan communities, but also decent ratings that seem to indicate a continued life for these shows. For active online fan communities, this corporate merger is a big deal for the continued existence of their community. For shows that don't have an active community of viewers, though, even if there are almost as many people watching, having the show fade into obscurity might happen with silence, as shows like Eve and Half and Half do not seem to inspire a very deep viewing experience. How much should the executives at the new CW take "expressions" into account as compared to viewer impressions when making programming decisions for the fall? Several fan communities are wondering and waiting with nervous anticipation.

I was looking at the ratings for the end of September 2005 here when doing research for the intiial piece in the newsletter. At the time, Sex, Love & Secrets was the lowest-rated TV show, from UPN, with One Tree Hill second to last. Veronica Mars and Smallville were tied in the ratings with Eve and Cuts from UPN, only .2 above Living with Fran.

It's clear, though, that the active engagement and rallying of some fans, the hope of sales on DVD, etc., made the difference for some shows making the cut. VM and Smallville certainly have a long tail future that the fans of Living with Fran to this day realize is very limited for a show like that.

The difference is between shows that attract the fans flipping through the channel and shows that people actually seek out to watch. When you value all shows equally, the ratings can't tell the difference. It appears that the involvement of viewers did make a difference when making the decisions for which shows to keep on the CW, however.

Any thoughts?