Building a following for a TV show in its third season isn’t easy — especially if the show is part of a paranormal genre containing a mythology arc that has been slowly developing since season one. Another obstacle would be if it’s on a low-rated network that many people have either never heard of, or forgot was there. So, when a hidden gem that fits into both categories exists, it’s up to loyal fans to get the word out. So far, that has been the main key to this show’s success.
I’ll admit, this time last year I heard of the CW, but never thought to give it a try. After all, it was a network that aired soapy teen dramas and bad reality shows. In September, while hopelessly flipping through the channels of endless reruns, I stumbled upon a show I’d never heard of, and on that network I chose to ignore. I saw a scene where two brothers were facing the epic battle of their lives and how they dealt with the emotional ramifications afterward in front of one really cool car (I’m a bit of a car buff, being raised in Detroit). I had no idea what was happening, but the chemistry between these two actors instantly sucked me in.
Once I got the name of the show, Supernatural, I rented the first few episodes on DVD from Netflix and was so impressed I went out and bought the first two seasons. Considering my previous love of sci-fi shows like The X-Files and Star Trek, I don’t know how I missed it. My husband and I went through six thrilling and entertaining weeks of getting to know this show’s history on DVD. It’s easily one of the best television series I’ve ever seen. I launched a full scale investigation as to why I’d never heard of this show before now. The results were revealing, but not that all surprising given today’s state of network television. First, go to any website that gives the brief synopsis of the show. The general concept doesn’t sell it. Read this one from Yahoo TV:
Though he wants nothing to do with his family's paranormal investigation business, a Stanford junior pairs up with his estranged brother on a road trip from the Bay Area to Los Angeles when their father goes missing. Along the way, they encounter mysterious people and situations from American myths and legends.
Doesn’t sound very exciting does it? Another X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roswell, Everwood, etc ripoff, right? All anyone has to do is watch the pilot to realize this show’s main feature isn't really about hunting the paranormal. That’s just the backdrop. The show turns out to be a compelling family drama about the relationship between these two brothers and their very damaged lives as sons of a demon hunter. The main actors, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, have huge chemistry and sell the brother act extremely well. On top of that, it turns out the show’s writing is top notch, offering a brilliant mixture of witty dialogue, action, paranormal lore, humor, and many heartwarming moments between two brothers who have seen a lot of crap in their young lives. The directing is great also considering they snagged Kim Manners, an X-Files alum and Robert Singer, who has a long and impressive resume as director and producer of a variety of shows in this genre.
The show also celebrates the great American road trip. These brothers criss-cross the US hunting supernatural phenomenon in a black 1967 Chevy Impala (the unofficial third main cast member), finding adventures in just about any Godforsaken spot in the country. Another unofficial cast member, the hideously decorated and delightfully tacky motel rooms they stay in each week. My favorite is the Schlitz themed room in Milwaukee. Second place, the hunting lodge in Michigan (I've actually stayed in a few of those).
So why have so few people heard of Supernatural? My investigation found the other big reason.
The CW. To give a brief history, the CW was formed in 2006 by merging the UPN (United Paramount Network) and WB (Warner Brothers) networks. Both networks were formed in 1995 for the same purpose, to target younger audiences and to build a catalog of shows the studios could sell for syndication (and later DVD sets and iTunes). In the eleven years of their existence UPN reported losses of $1 billion, while the WB reported $700 million. These studios chose to fold their networks and create a new one in a joint partnership in hopes of cutting losses and building a stronger network with less overlap and competition for a smaller segment of the total audience.
In its second year, the CW has gotten off to a rough start. Ratings in the 18-34 demographic are down 21 percent, while ratings in the 18-49 demo are down 50 percent. The expected losses this year are in the $50 million range. When UPN and the WB started back in 1995, there wasn’t competition with over 250 cable channels for original programming, as well as other platforms such as iTunes, DVRs, and the Internet. Despite all that, the CW was formed with notion it could find an audience.
When the CW was formed, they started with a lineup of established shows with set production contracts, so that left them little money for expenditures like promotion. In the second season, a few of those expensive established shows like Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars are gone and have been replaced by three new critically acclaimed scripted shows, Gossip Girl, Reaper, and Aliens in America, but there is still only a small amount of money available for promotion. Most of the budget goes to promoting these new shows and cheaper reality series, so the older shows must thrive by word of mouth from the fans.
Believe it or not, many CW shows have been getting a good audience, but it’s in a way the network doesn’t want to see. The primary target demographic for the CW is the 18 to 34 age range. In the advent of DVRs, online streaming, and iTunes, this age group doesn’t turn on the TV at the scheduled times and instead watches their shows when they want at the click of a button. CW shows usually rank higher in DVR time shifted percentages and iTunes downloads. That’s great for the shows, but bad for networks that want to attract advertisers.
Despite all the efforts to build up the new shows, the top three rated scripted shows are Smallville, Supernatural, and One Tree Hill, all leftovers from the WB. Smallville is in its seventh season and creatively is in decline, and many are surprised One Tree Hill has made it this long, thanks to a season five creative surge. Of all the existing scripted shows, only Supernatural and Gossip Girl seem to be shows that can bring the network steady viewers beyond the next season. Supernatural is a weird fit for the CW, and it often is perceived not to get a lot of support from the top ranking people at the network. For one, their viewing audience skews higher, more in the 18 to 49 range, which isn’t as appealing to advertisers. The show also airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m., going against shows like Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, The Office, and for right now, Lost. To a show trying to find an audience, that slot is often labeled the “time slot of death”.
However, despite its network, the show thrives. Supernatural pulls in a consistent three million viewers every new episode, and around two million with repeats. The numbers for their repeats beat many of the existing CW shows first run numbers. All this happens in the so called “time slot of death”. Three million once upon a time at the WB would have gotten the show canceled, but at the CW, it’s a bona fide hit. Supernatural also does very well for Warner Brothers television, who owns the show. It’s proving to be very popular Internationally and is syndicated right now in almost fifty countries. In many of those markets it gets consistently good ratings. For example, Supernatural is one of the top shows in Russia right now, where unofficial reports have the ratings there higher than the US. It’s also a big hit in many Asian countries and Australia, and does well in bigger countries like Germany, Italy, and England. The DVD sales have been strong, as well as the iTunes downloads.
So why is this show holding its own in this time of declining ratings for all networks? Supernatural is the type of show that because of its cult status doesn’t attract casual viewers, and the people who do watch are extremely loyal. The rabid and active online community promotes the show in huge ways that the network couldn’t possibly do. For example, recently new episodes of Lost, which is a similar genre show, were scheduled to air opposite new Supernatural episodes. The fans launched an online campaign urging people to watch Supernatural live and tape Lost. The message was, “Don’t let Supernatural get lost.” A network can’t beg for that type of publicity. It seemed to work too, as the most recent episode pulled a season high in both key demographics.
Studios like Warner Brothers like having cult shows in their catalog because the fans assure the show sells well on DVD, can go for years in syndication, and the studio can make a lot of money on fan conventions and merchandising. Fans will keep buzz alive with a cult show for years. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, and The X-Files are prime examples of how a cult show will last long beyond the last episode. The latter has even ventured into feature films, with a new one due to shoot soon.
Finding this show by mere accident has given me a huge lesson in TV viewing habits. I can’t turn on the TV every evening now and check the TV guide to see what’s on. I need to seek out shows in other ways, via Internet buzz, Netflix rentals, iTunes, or just checking out episodes on websites. TV viewing habits are changing, and my choices are no longer limited. I found a hidden gem, so I challenge people out there to do the same and forget about the bad reality TV that has been dominant of late. Oh, and give Supernatural a try. You won’t be disappointed.