The CW becomes a survivor

Last week, the CW network launched its fifth season — a feat that some in the television industry once thought improbable. The network will air 10 hours a week of original prime-time programming, including two high-kicking new entries: "Nikita," a drama about a rebellious spy, and "Hellcats," a show about a young woman trying to pay for college with a cheerleading scholarship.

In its four-year uphill slog in an increasingly fragmented media world, Burbank-based CW has made substantial gains, though it is not yet profitable. CW has, however, created significant revenue for parent companies CBS Corp. and Time Warner Inc.' s Warner Bros. through international distribution, syndication and DVD sales of CW shows.

The network has also tapped the vein of youth culture, setting fashion trends with shows such as "Gossip Girl," "90210" and "The Vampire Diaries." Despite modest ratings, CW sold about $380 million in commercial time for the upcoming TV season.

We caught up with Dawn Ostroff, entertainment president, to discuss the challenges and rewards.

What were some of the tough lessons that you had to learn?

We learned how hard it is to launch a new network. The marketplace is cluttered and we are in the middle of a digital revolution. Here a new network came along that had to change its entire TV station affiliate body. People who used to watch the WB on a certain channel had to change the channel to watch their shows. The UPN people had to find their shows on different channels. It was a very big undertaking, much larger than what everybody realized. It is probably the last broadcast network that will ever be built.

How did you decide which viewers to target?

We looked at the landscape and said, where is the white space and how can we carve out a niche for ourselves, not only for viewers and affiliates, but also for advertisers. It was a challenge to just get CW recognized by people. In four short years, we have accomplished a lot in terms of creating a network that people now know, creating a clear brand and creating programs that have become part of our cultural vernacular.

There was some speculation that people under 35 were interested only in reality shows. How have you gotten traction for scripted programs?

People want to see themselves reflected on television, or an aspirational version of themselves. And one of the secrets about CW is that, although we appeal to young viewers, the median age of our audience is 33. And although we target a core audience of women 18 to 34, more than a third of our audience is men. We have also found that people wanted shows they could escape in, such as "The Vampire Diaries," which became our No. 1 show at the network.