The potential sale of The CW and what it means for its future (in-depth)

The Flash -- "Armageddon, Part 5" -- Image Number: FLA805a_0261r.jpg -- Pictured: Grant Gustin as Barry Allen/The Flash -- Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW -- © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved
The Flash -- "Armageddon, Part 5" -- Image Number: FLA805a_0261r.jpg -- Pictured: Grant Gustin as Barry Allen/The Flash -- Photo: Jack Rowand/The CW -- © 2021 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved /

News broke Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 that The CW is potentially up for sale. The leading report, by The Wall Street Journal, speaks of talks the broadcast network has had for months with potential buyers. The company most likely to buy a majority stake in The CW is Nexstar Media Group.

The potential sale of the broadcast network was confirmed the following day through an internal memo to staff by CW chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz. Deadline reports the memo said the following:

"First, as many of you are aware, over the past year or so, this transformative time in our industry has led to a series of business activity across media and content companies. Given that environment right now, ViacomCBS and Warner Bros. are exploring strategic opportunities to optimize the value of their joint venture in The CW Network.It’s too early to speculate what might happen, but we promise to keep you updated as we learn more."

However, no matter if it’s too early to speculate, it’s impossible not to wonder what the fate of The CW will be in the weeks and months to come.

What happened to The CW?

TV viewers and actors who remember the merger between ViacomCBS and Warner Media that produced the broadcast network have taken to social media to discuss the way some UPN and WB shows were dropped, left unsupported, or died on the vine in the transition, a good portion of which were led by primarily Black casts.

As The CW pivoted away from some of the shows that had been successful before the merger, they created a new brand. One that skews younger and is primarily led by White casts. They’ve worked to diversify over the past decade (to mixed results) and have championed their “dare to defy” motto in this diversifying effort.

Considering the broadcast network is home to some of the most influential teen and superhero television of the past two decades, news that The CW isn’t profitable rocked the Internet. It’s also been cited as the reason for the potential sale. What’s consistently been confusing since the news broke is what this all means for The CW.

While some rejoice over the potential downfall of the network for their history–which runs the gamut of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, the unequal treatment of actors and characters of marginalized identities, queer baiting and ship baiting–others lament the possible loss of some of their favorite shows.

For me, personally, I’ve wondered if this sale could mean the end of the hard won progress the broadcast network has made. It is in no way perfect, it is long overdue, and they’re still stumbling both in big and small ways, but behind-the-scenes talent, actors, and fans have been fighting years for The CW to be as progressive and diverse as it touts itself to be.

But, whatever camp you’re in, it’s important to know how the loss of this broadcast network could change the TV landscape as we’ve known it. I’m talking about the potential loss of one of the last bastions of on-air teen and young adult television, how this could affect streaming, future programming, and The CW’s current line-up.

First, let’s dive into whether it matters that the broadcast network isn’t profitable.

Is The CW bankrupt?

The CW isn’t bankrupt. In fact, in 2016, there was a Forbes article that argued it was never meant to be profitable as a broadcast network.

"Unlike the big four of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, The CW is not a network trying to make money on a grand scale off its live viewership. Rather, it was created as a vessel for 1st-run domestic broadcast. Why is that important? Because without somewhere to air first, there’s no way for television studios to achieve the syndication friendly number of 88-episodes necessary for profitable 2nd-tier syndication deals.The CW is a network created with the singular goal of getting the shows of its parent company to syndication qualifying numbers. That’s why most of its programming still runs traditional 22-episode seasons and why there’s never been outside programming from the likes of 20th Century Fox, NBCUniversal and ABC Studios featured on it.…Warner Bros. and CBS are paying to keep afloat a vessel for its off-beat programming that won’t do well with live viewers on traditional networks like CBS that do rely on live ratings to cover licensing costs."

So, what’s changed in the six years since this article was written? Both ViacomCBS and Warner Media have gotten into the streaming game with Paramount+ and HBO Max, respectively. It’s what killed the partnership between The CW’s parent companies and Netflix in 2019 after eight years of shows dropping on the streaming platform.

That was a one billion dollar deal struck in 2011, and it’s why Netflix became the home of CW content once its shows finished airing their seasons on television. If you’ve been wondering why new CW shows haven’t been dropping on the streamer since 2019, the dissolution of this deal is the reason.

All CW shows that began airing prior to the deal’s end are expected to stay on Netflix until five years after their season finale releases on the streamer according to a stipulation in the deal. As such, we’ll be well into the 2020s, if not nearly the 2030s before CW shows are no longer available on the platform.

The topic of streaming is a key component to this sale. The creation of Paramount+ and HBO Max means that neither ViacomCBS nor Warner Media need a third party streaming platform for the content they produce. However, they’re likely not going to bow out of The CW all together.

The broadcast network isn’t profitable, but its content is which means they can move to a minority stake in The CW and hand the reins of programming to another entity without suffering too much of a loss. Syndication, international licensing, and streaming makes this possible.

That’s why Nexstar being the front-runner in this potential sale is important.

What is the Nexstar Media Group?

According their website:

"Nexstar Media Group, Inc. is America’s largest local television and media company with 199 full power stations (including partner stations) in 116 markets addressing more than 68% of U.S. television households and a growing digital media operation. Nexstar’s platform delivers exceptional local content and network programming to inform and entertain viewers, while providing premium, scalable local advertising opportunities for advertisers and brands across all screens and devices."

Obviously, this is a company that would be invested in making The CW profitable. While this doesn’t automatically mean the broadcast network’s viewers should expect major shake-ups in the line-up in the short term, it does mean changes will come down the pipe if a majority stake is sold to Nexstar. I should note that the company has already invested in CW affiliate stations across the country and has had a vested interest in the broadcast network for years because of this.

What the sale could mean for The CW’s line-up

As Nexstar is the only company that’s been name dropped in coverage, speculation on what the sale could mean for The CW has been centered on ratings and the strong hold the older demographic has on television that the 18-34 demo doesn’t.

Like I mentioned before, The CW is one of the last bastions of teen and young adult programming on television. However, its ratings have continued to plummet. That’s not surprising since the demo the broadcast network skews toward has moved to next-day viewing and streaming of their shows.

Currently, that’s not an issue. The CW cares more about the conversation around their shows and their popularity regardless of what their ratings are because they can make up for the broadcast network’s losses with other revenue streams. If it’s sold to Nexstar, the importance of ratings comes back into the picture.

Variety has already posited the kind of programming shift that could happen under the company’s leadership with Nexstar “[f]ocusing on an older demo or taking the CW’s content in a more homey-heartland direction as the way to boost ratings and viewership, and thus ad sales.”

But the thing is though, The CW already has an established brand. This isn’t a merger between two companies. It also isn’t a hostile takeover, it sounds like a potential handing off of responsibility with ViacomCBS and Warner Media “retaining minority ownership and remaining suppliers,” according to Deadline.

Selling, however, does mean that both companies could lose creative control of The CW and that’s what has people questioning the broadcast network’s future. I’m of the mind that programming on the channel could pivot to encompass a broader demographic range, but I don’t think it’ll change drastically at the outset especially when it comes to the Arrowverse and DC TV.

Will Arrowverse shows and DC TV move to streaming on HBO Max?

In the wake of a sale, anything could change, but Warner Media has an established and fruitful brand on The CW with its DC properties.

It’s true that the Arrowverse is on its last legs on the channel.The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow are in their eighth and seventh season, respectively. Batwoman is on its third and has consistently been dogged by controversy. The rest of the Arrowverse have finished their runs.

What’s left of DC TV–Stargirl, Superman & Lois, and the upcoming NAOMI–is only tangentially connected to the Arrowverse or, in NAOMI‘s case, hasn’t been connected at all. Arguably, a sale could mean that these shows get pulled off the airwaves and put on HBO Max in the future.

Warner Media, however, has spent time building a TV brand for their DC properties. There’s even a Gotham Knights series currently in development for The CW that was announced in December 2021. Right now, there’s no reason to believe that the company won’t continue to utilize The CW’s draw in order to bring television viewers to their streaming platform.

But the days of The CW being a broadcast network that largely retains its line-up could be over.

Are CW shows in danger of getting canceled?

The short answer, if we’re taking a long term look at The CW’s future, is yes. Shows that are currently in their middle-to-late seasons will likely finish their runs. New series, however, will most likely be held to a higher ratings standard if Nexstar buys a majority stake.

Streaming has to be factored in as well. The CW has its own streaming arm. It’s a free platform and app that allows viewers access to the latest episodes released of the shows airing on the channel. Eventually, they expire and the entire season is released on Netflix or HBO Max.

There’s also The CW Seed which is home to past CW programming that, in some cases, aren’t available to stream anywhere else. The broadcast network has built quite the television empire over its 16 year run even though it’s never been profitable. That’s why it would be a valuable acquisition if sold.

Given the success of its shows after they’ve hit streaming, which can be accredited to Netflix for series like Riverdale, All American, and more, Nexstar may not be quick to cancel new shows that perform poorly in their first season but pick up a fanbase and audience once it lands on streaming.

One point of worry in the streaming conversation, however, is the possibility of programming opportunities opening up to more than just ViacomCBS and Warner Media. If other studios are brought into the fold to produce content that’ll be beneficial in terms of a continued diversification of stories being told, but it would also mean the end of The CW having three central hubs for streaming.

While that might not be a problem for U.S. fans of CW shows, it could become a headache for international viewers looking to watch their favorite series without having to hop all over the Internet to do so.

We’ll keep you posted on more news concerning the potential sale of The CW as it comes in. At this point, it doesn’t look like the broadcast network will be halting acquisitions or development deals. In the memo Pedowitz released to staff he stated:

"So, what does this mean for us right now? It means we must continue to do what we do best, make The CW as successful and vibrant as we have always done. We have a lot of work ahead of us – with more original programming than ever, this season’s expansion to Saturday night, our growing digital and streaming platforms – and we thrive when we come together and build The CW together."

So, at least for the foreseeable future, The CW will keep the track it’s been on. Time will tell if 2022 is the year that we start seeing major shifts in the direction the broadcast network is headed in.

Next. What's coming to The CW in January 2022?. dark