Brad Schwartz, who joined The CW as its entertainment president six months ago, hasn’t won over many diehard fans of the network after he canceled nearly all of its beloved scripted shows as part of a push by its new ownership, station group Nexstar, to make it profitable by 2025.
But what Schwartz has done, in a relatively short time, has been to position The CW in a place where the network can age up its audience, reduce overhead and secure the key rights needed to make it profitable for the first time ever.
To be clear, The CW was never designed to make money as a network. It was launched as a joint venture between CBS Studios and Warner Bros. TV in a bid to generate revenue for both studios through selling its programs internationally and to streamers. And with shows like The Flash, Riverdale, Nancy Drew and Dynasty, The CW delivered millions in profits to its ownership while creating a loyal audience of adults 18-34.
As the streaming wars intensified, The CW’s business model no longer made sense as CBS and Warners now needed to hold on to those same domestic streaming and international rights for Paramount+ and Max.
CBS and Warners sold a controlling 75 percent stake in The CW to Nexstar last year, prompting longtime network CEO Mark Pedowitz — who famously read every script for every one of the network’s shows that crossed his desk — to exit as part of a wholesale change in leadership. Nexstar turned instead to Brad Schwartz, the former Pop TV executive who acquired U.S. rights to Schitt’s Creek and who ultimately sold the show to Netflix, which helped it become both a critical and commercial success.
Now, Schwartz hopes to find fellow diamonds in the rough with similarly acquired foreign originals like Sullivan’s Crossing and The Spencer Sisters by using broad-skewing fare like Jesus drama The Chosen and a roster of sports including LIV Golf, NASCAR and more to bring in new and older audiences who may not have tuned in to DC Comics dramas and other genre fare.
In this week’s TV’s Top 5 podcast (episode 225 overall), Schwartz joins hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) to discuss the evolution of The CW. Other topics discussed in this week’s podcast include the latest on the Writers Strike, an August TV preview and Dan’s Critic’s Corner, in which he reviews The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, Strange Planet and season three of Only Murders in the Building.
But first, read on for an edited and condensed portion of our interview with Schwartz.
Shortly after taking the job at the end of last year, you described your approach to The CW as being “scrappy.” Since then, we’ve seen a steady flow of acquired scripted and reality shows as well as some sports deals. Was this always your plan for The CW? How much of your original plan was derailed because of the strikes?
Schwartz: Nexstar realizes what works for their stations and what doesn’t. One of the clear mandates was we need to act like broadcasters — we need to get bigger and broader. We need to find things that that attract a broader audience and a more linear audience. And at the same time, find shows that can serve a completely unduplicated audience in a streaming environment. The CW acted a bit more like a young adult cable network. I knew the strategy was going to be how do we get bigger and broader and I also realized that in the fourth quarter — six months from now — there was going to be color bars on the network if we didn’t start getting stuff going. I didn’t really have the strike in mind; I was focused on trying to fill 14 hours a week, two hours a night, seven nights a week of primetime programming in a world where a lot of the old CW shows are ending and we need to fill up a schedule. Phase one of that strategy was to go find great stuff that we could get on the air as quickly as possible. That meant getting involved into some unscripted that can be made a little faster, finding some great acquisitions from around the world and start assembling a schedule. The strike didn’t really come into play when we were first strategizing how to get bigger and broader and start in fall of 2023. But then, as the strike happened, it turns out that our full schedule will have more original scripted content on it than any other broadcaster.
To be fair, NBC has unaired new, original U.S.-produced scripted series (The Irrational, Found) and the stuff that you’re talking about is acquired content that has aired elsewhere.
Schwartz: Right. Our shows are original and have never been seen here before. And by the way, one of those NBC shows is Transplant, which is from Canada.
When I think about The CW and scripted originals, I think of the the big studios who have supplied content to The CW — former majority owners CBS Studios and Warner Bros. TV — whom The CW is still in business with — but I’ll admit that my expectation for The CW, under Nexstar and with you at the helm was for more studio-backed scripted originals. But what we’ve seen so far is that the content has already aired elsewhere. Can you explain why these big studio shows — like Riverdale and Kung Fu — don’t make sense for The CW anymore?
Schwartz: We haven’t announced a lot of this stuff but we have a lot of original homegrown scripted content coming. Some things are in production right now. It’s phase two, after we get through this fall. But working with the large studios, at the price points that we need to operate at, it’s hard to get all the rights that you need. They’ll give you your linear rights, a rolling five [episodes] on digital — a terrible experience so that they can monetize those shows into streaming and other platforms — and we can’t just be a place that monetizes with advertising one time a week in primetime; we need to be able to monetize our content in more places. The new season of Superman & Lois is coming and you don’t have seasons one, two and three on your streaming platform. It’s just a ridiculous experience and nobody else operates that way. If you go see the new season of Virgin River on Netflix, the prior four seasons are all there. Those were the rights that that The CW never had. The CW, for many years, operated almost like a movie theater, where CBS and Warner Bros. would make the movies, and they put them in the movie theaters for 13 weeks, and the movie theater would sell popcorn. And then they would monetize that content by selling it to streamers and selling it around the world. And it would leave the movie theater. We can’t operate that way anymore. So we have to find ways of making ambitious and great content — whether that’s scripted or unscripted — and doing it at a price point where we can make those shows profitable, and making sure we have all of the rights so that we can monetize the content in more places. That’s the goal. Now, if we can do that with a major studio, we’ll do with a major studio. If it’s a co-production with an international partner, we’ll do it that way. But we have to find content we love; you don’t do anything because it’s cheap. A lot of the shows on The CW are as expensive to make as any other show on broadcast. But we’ve done deals for those shows that allow it to be profitable for us.
Going back to that movie theater analogy, the various deals were not wholly one-sided — The CW shows benefited rather tremendously in terms of exposure and sometimes in terms of audience from the Netflix deal. Talking about your background with Schitt’s Creek, you know the possible ripple that that can have when you have that platform. What are you guys planning on doing when you don’t have that platform anymore?
Schwartz: The difference is those will now be our relationships. We have Sullivan’s Crossing, and it does well and we think that show can benefit from an exposure on Netflix, if Netflix wants that show — and why wouldn’t they because Virgin River is a big hit and this is from the same writer and the same executive producer. That would be our relationship to have with Netflix and that would be revenue that comes to us. Like with Schitt’s Creek, it’s very similar to when Pop TV licensed Schitt’s Creek to Netflix. Pop TV licensed episodes of Schitt’s Creek to Hulu for a second window. Those are all ways for Pop TV to make incremental money beyond just the advertising revenue. That’s why we need to have these rights: to monetize and make money so that you can actually afford these shows because advertising alone won’t just cover it.
Sullivan’s Crossing is not a show that is produced by Nexstar. How are you benefiting from that considering that The CW had no involvement in the actual making of the show vs. Superman & Lois, which was a show produced by Warners that was licensed to The CW and executives like Mark Pedowitz were directly involved in the creative.
Schwartz: We negotiated a deal where we got all rights domestically, and where we become co-producers and creatively involved in the future seasons. We are now co-producers of that show. There’s a second season and we’re creatively involved in that. When the first season hits, we’re using Fremantle to help have rights to sub-distribute that show. So should it be successful, we have another way to monetize that content. For all intents and purposes, there’s no difference to us having started that show from scratch ourselves or having acquired it in the first season. The rights we have allow us to monetize it in the same way.
So if these acquired shows cost the same, why not greenlight more of the shows that were already successful on The CW for the same money — especially considering that three of the acquired shows you’ve launched have already been pulled from the schedule?
Schwartz: They were not profitable for us. We were paying more for those shows and not having the rights to monetize them in other places. It’s not that we’re spending much more or much less for a Sullivan’s Crossing versus a Superman & Lois; we just happen to have more rights. We can have all the episodes on our streaming platform. When season two comes, we’ll have all the episodes from season one and season two on our streaming platform in success. We’ll be able to sub-license that to other places. We’ll be able to launch CW FAST channels on Roku and Pluto that will be able to operate like a business that wants to put CW content under a CW branded flag in many different places. And we never had those rights. Before, we couldn’t start a CW FAST channel and put Superman & Lois on it.
Is it fair to expect that The CW will not be buying originals from the likes of Warners or CBS and the other big studios like Sony and Disney and Universal?
Schwartz: We have three shows from Warners that are returning and one from CBS. [CW president] Dennis Miller and I had lunch with [CBS Entertainment CEO] George Cheeks last week and we’re trying to figure out how we can do stuff together. Everybody has an appetite to try and find ways to work together. We’re working on a negotiation with NBC on a series. It’s tricky because everyone has a way of doing things and we are trying to think differently. When you say we’d like to pay this and we want these rights, people look at you weird. We’re not going to win any bidding wars anytime soon. We want to find a piece of content that we really like, then we have to figure out how to afford it and to make sure we get the rights we need. Those are difficult conversations — and sometimes you can’t get there. Every conversation I have with [Warner Bros. president] Brett Paul is about how can we find a show that is a model that works. Maybe that means it’s not a $6 million an episode show. CW shows make money internationally because they’re on broadcast. There’s still a halo to being on broadcast. Companies like CBS and Warners know the value of CW shows and how much they make internationally. You just have to be entrepreneurial. Sometimes I call that scrappy. You have to think differently. And that’s always what I’ve done. I’ve seen some victories in my career by being contrarian and doing things a little different and finding hidden gems in places nobody else is looking.
Of the four studio shows that are returning — both All Americans, Superman & Lois and Walker — at least two of them have had their series regulars slashed as part of larger budget cuts that helped afford them to return. How do those four shows factor into The CW’s future beyond the upcoming 2023-24 broadcast season — assuming that there is, in fact, a broadcast season?
Schwartz: It’s obvious that those would be the four to come back; those are all million-viewer shows that do well in linear and on digital, we were able to work with our studio partners in both of those occasions [Superman & Lois, Homecoming] to make sure that the show is profitable for everybody. Sometimes when you when you re-address something like that, you have to make tough decisions. We’ve gotten those shows to a place where, why couldn’t they continue if they’re profitable? Those will be conversations we have with the producers to see the appetite to keep going. But if they’re profitable and successful, and some of our highest-rated shows, why wouldn’t they?
The CW name comes specifically from the partnership with CBS and Warner Bros, who each continue to have a 12.5 percent stake. Have there been conversations about a new name for the network? And if there haven’t been, what would you tell people at this point that The CW stands for?
Schwartz: There have been no conversations about changing the name. We’ve had conversations about how can we make The CW more elastic? We’re going to have 300 hours of sports on the air this year and we had zero hours of sports last year. In 2025, we’re going to have 450 hours of sports, with live sports 48 weekends a year. That is a drastic change in a very small amount of time. And you need to put a CW logo on that stuff that makes it feel like we’re a home for sports. Whether it’s comedies or dramas, or the young adult stuff that we still have, or sports, we need to make The CW feel like a brand that can handle all those different flavors of content. Maybe we redesign the network a little bit, maybe we make the logo, the fonts and the colors feel like it can wrap up this exciting new evolution of the brand. But there’s been no conversation at all about changing the name. I’ve gone through six rebrands in my career, so know the recipe for it. They’re difficult unless you have a ton of money and a ton of patience to completely shun an audience that was there and try and start again with a new name and a whole new thing. Evolutions are a difficult as well, but a little easier to pull off. So, we’re not going to change the name. We’re just going to make the name feel like something different. And we’re going through that process right now.
How do you reassure the people who have grown up with The CW that this is not about to become some very large bait and switch where Nexstar bought a platform and now they’re going to decimate absolutely everything on it?
Schwartz: It is certainly going to be different. You don’t want to shun an audience you’ve spent 20 years cultivating. Hence why you renew Superman & Lois, All American and Homecoming and Walker. We’ve announced a new version of The Librarians, which will fit into that audience. We have a couple of other shows that fall squarely into the YA space that I can’t mention right now. It’s going to still be a pillar of the network, it just won’t be the only pillar; it’ll be like one of five. I’ve been here six months and we’re still figuring out what does The CW stand for and figure out what our brand mission is. But in the meantime, it’s about evolving The CW brand to be a little more elastic so it can feel like a home for sports, drama and comedy, etc.
There’s always been a perception that in its former incarnation, The CW had a relatively progressive bent to its programming and the new ownership group has a reputation and a perception that it is a more conservative-leaning organization. Is it fair to expect that there will be a visible or notable shift in if not overall programming ideology?
Schwartz: No, not at all. What Nexstar is great at is broadcasting. We want to do things that help all of our local stations. I challenge the idea of any kind of conservative nature being across our programming. That is not anything that that I’m interested in. I want to keep making bold choices, keep investing in young talent. When I think of my résumé, I’m most proud of doing [Blindspot creator] Martin Gero’s first show [L.A. Complex]. I’m proud of doing Dan Levy’s first show [Schitt’s Creek]. I’m proud of doing Prentice Penny’s first show [The Hustle] and Billy Eichner’s first show [Billy on the Street]. That plays into the scrappy strategy of if you want to find ways of putting really ambitious and wonderful content on the air and do it at a lower price point, then you find the next Shonda Rhimes or the next Prentice Penny — you find the person who has a passion project and it’s their first project. That idea of trying to find ambitious new voices is something I’ve always loved to do. And it fits our business model.
If Jesus drama The Chosen is a success for you guys, would you then target a more conservative audience?
Schwartz: I think faith and family is an interesting opportunity that you don’t see across broadcast television. But I also think horror is an opportunity that you don’t see across broadcast television. I like trying to find the things that other people aren’t doing. I’m not one of those guys that says, “This is working, let’s make three spinoffs.” I’m a guy that tries to find things that people aren’t doing like when we did Schitt’s Creek, that was not a typical type of comedy that was on TV at the time. That kind of earnestness we’ve seen now in Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary and a lot of shows that have followed it. But it was a different thing when it when it first started. I see an opportunity in faith and family. The Chosen is a wonderful example of it working. So why wouldn’t we try to find a couple of more things? But that that feels like a Sunday night strategy, not an overall company strategy.
What is the calculus of getting a network into sports for the first time?
Schwartz: If you’re going to operate a successful broadcast business, you have to think about news and sports. Sports is a major anchor for all broadcast networks and we didn’t have any. LIV Golf was an interesting opportunity that came along at the right time. If that was the NFL, we wouldn’t be in the conversation. But LIV Golf was just starting and we could help grow each other. It also gave us permission to explore other sports and it started a bunch of incoming calls from all the other leagues that then wanted broadcast exposure. Unlike everybody else, we have shelf space. That led us to ACC football and basketball, the seven-year deal with NASCAR and Inside the NFL. And we’re not done. The CW now has afternoon programming on Saturdays and Sundays, which we’ve never had before. That brings more people to The CW who maybe had never been to The CW before. People that we can promote our primetime schedule to.
Some of the acquisitions — Down to Earth, Fantastic Friends and Barons — were pulled from the schedule almost immediately. You’ve been there for six months and have already made a lot of tough decisions. What have you learned about what works and what doesn’t work on The CW?
Schwartz: What I’ve learned is you can’t just throw stuff on; you’ve got to be excited about everything. It’s a tough environment with a ton of content to compete with. We have to make ambitious choices that can break through in culture and bring in a big audience. Some of those shows that we’ve pulled were shows that were in our library and we had to put them on. They didn’t work, and we move on. But I don’t think you can fill up a schedule just based on price and opportunity alone. We have to find stuff that we know will work.
What’s a CW show that you love where you think, “I have to find me one of those”?
When I think of the history of The CW, they have created some great cultural moment shows. And whether it’s Schitt’s Creek or Fleabag or Squid Game, these shows have just blasted into culture and they don’t come around very often. Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, The Flash and Riverdale each were cultural moments and we need some of those.
For more from Schwartz on the impact of sports on The CW and his hopes for acquired shows including AMC’s 61st Street, listen to the full TV’s Top 5 interview, above.
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