TV: An Identity Crisis at the New CW Network

Teen sleuth Veronica Mars knows how to crack a murder. Now she's fighting for her own life. "Mars" is among five or so series being considered for cancellation by the CW, the network launched this past fall with the merger of Warner Bros.'s WB network and CBS Corp.'s UPN. This week, series creator Rob Thomas will plead with network executives for a stay of execution. Veronica can be rehabilitated, he'll argue. If you don't like her Nancy Drew college act, we can tart her up in a "sexy pantsuit" and make her four years older, with a career as an FBI agent. Thomas hopes this new Veronica will appeal to network bosses who want a cop series as part of their lineup. "I'd be thrilled for her to come back in any incarnation," he says.

Veronica's identity crisis mirrors the network's own. The CW borrowed most of its lineup from the WB, home of "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity," and UPN, which counted African-Americans and women as its core audience. It was supposed to be the best of both worlds: a hip combo of urban sitcoms, teen soaps and backbiting reality shows. CBS chief Leslie Moonves even predicted last year that the CW could be profitable its first year. But the sum has been less than the parts—in spite of what Moonves and fellow execs might have hoped.

In a TV universe where networks are increasingly going niche, the mishmash of genres on the CW seems to have confused couch potatoes. With a lineup of series long past puberty, like "Gilmore Girls" and "Smallville," the new CW is averaging only 3.14 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's slightly less than what either network had managed on its own last year—and far less than the combined audience the merger had seemed to promise. Estimated ad revenue, $367 million from September through late February, was lower than the $409 million the WB had a year ago, according to TNS Media Intelligence. (The CW says its ad sales are up from the WB's, but wouldn't give specific figures.) Like Dawson and Joey, would the WB and UPN have just been better off apart?

The CW is scrambling to clear up its complexion in time for its big date with advertisers on May 17, when executives present their new lineup during "upfronts." CW head Dawn Ostroff is steadfastly upbeat, and explains that season one was about laying the groundwork: the big challenge was to get viewers to find the CW after its two predecessors merged onto a single channel. "We had to build the distribution network from scratch. That took a good amount of energy," she says. Ostroff has given the green light to 15 series pilots, more than the WB or UPN ever had. A third of them are reality shows, a genre she wants to exploit more; one of the CW's few success stories this season was the reality show "The Pussycat Dolls." Next season, Ostroff hopes viewers will flock to "Crowned," a series that follows mother-daughter beauty-pageant contestants. "It's tons of drama and cattiness," she promises. The rest of the lineup will be a mix of old UPN sitcoms like "Everybody Hates Chris," and new teen soaps that channel the WB angst. "The OC" 's Josh Schwartz is adapting the book series "Gossip Girl," about rich Manhattanites. And "Dawson's Creek" creator Kevin Williamson has "Hidden Palms," with teens and their dysfunctional parents (what else?) lying around swimming pools in Palm Springs.

But this mélange of shows doesn't answer the question that's dogged the CW since the beginning: who is its audience? So far, the answer is everyone—and hardly anyone at all. Its programming is all over the map, with shows grouped by genre: sitcoms on Monday, girly shows on Tuesday, wrestling on Friday. Even the CW's "mascot" is unfocused. It's not an eye or a peacock, or even a frog like the WB had. It's a color. Green, of the shade you find in kids' slime. "The color green means fresh, new, alive," says Rick Haskins, the CW's executive vice president of marketing. "And interestingly, in feng shui, it means good luck." And the CW needs all the feng shui it can get.