And it isn’t just the visuals that make The CW’s programming so effective. Unlike some of the more procedural dramas on other networks, The CW’s shows all make character-driven storytelling a priority. Even on the most formulaic of its shows—i.e. The Flash, which employs both a police procedural and supervillain-of-the-week structure—character rules.
The CW has a reputation for and history of romance drama, and perhaps this is directly related to its prioritization of character over action. Last week, NPR’s Linda Holmes lamented the dearth of family drama on television today. She dug out Ken Tucker's decades-old assessment of TV drama for Entertainment Weekly as divided into two categories: the drama of action and the drama of emotions. Most of The CW’s programming employs both kinds of TV drama in fun and compelling ways, but—when it comes down to it—these shows care about emotion first, and that’s what makes them great. And, until recently, unfairly stigmatized.
Catering to a younger, often female audience.
The CW manages to stay on television despite relatively low ratings because of its success in the coveted 18-49 demographic. And though the network has increased the number of men watching with the introduction of Arrow and The Flash, a majority of those viewers are still women. Perhaps this is why The CW is full of female characters and that shows with female leads don’t become That Show With the Female Lead.
On this network, central female characters are a given. Better than that, they talk to other women—and often times not about men (hi, Alison Bechdel!). The 100 regularly features scenes in which female leaders sit around discussing decisions that will influence the future of humanity. The same goes for Reign, in which arguably the two most compelling and powerful characters on the show are Queen Mary and Queen Catherine. These characters are not only allowed to lead unapologetically and (usually) without comment, but they are allowed to make mistakes, be villainous, and put themselves first without punishment.
Writing to and for young women isn’t a secondary feature of The CW like it is on many other networks, and this is reinforced by the number of female showrunners active behind-the-scenes. Julie Plec and Caroline Dries run the ever-popular The Vampire Diaries. Laurie McCarthy runs Reign. Jennie Urman runs Jane the Virgin. And, even on the shows that have men in the lead writing position, the writers' rooms have a gender balance that is all too rare on TV.
Filling the feel-good gap.
TV has recently been characterized as The Era of Gritty Anti-Hero Television so much so that the balance between feel-good television and dark, gritty drama has been lost, with the latter becoming synonymous with “good” television and the former dismissed as vapid fare. But two CW freshman dramas—Jane the Virgin and The Flash—fall firmly into the feel-good drama department (especially Jane), and are also recognized as two of the best new shows of 2014. In a television industry that is trying to copy the Breaking Bad grittiness, The CW is trying something different with these shows, and it is paying off.
It's also worth noting that Jane the Virgin is one of the few shows on TV with a main character who not only speaks solely in Spanish, but is an undocumented immigrant, which not only increases this network's diversity in important ways, but makes me feel good about the show on a meta level, in addition to feeling good about the delightful narratives it delivers week after week.
Launching successful spin-offs.
Though The CW has fewer primetime shows than its "Big Five" counterparts, it still has an incredible amount of diversity. Though it may have some of the best feel-good dramas on TV, it also has one of the most brutal in The 100. And, while the network may be launching new and exciting shows, it is also doubling down on proven favorites.
It isn't easy to launch a successful spin-off, but The CW has done it twice in the past two seasons—in 2013 with The Vampire Diaries' spinoff The Originals and in 2014 with Arrow spin-off The Flash. Both are successful enough to warrant renewals for fall 2015, with the latter boasting the most-watched premiere in network history.
Flash and Arrow are not only solid programs in their own right, but they have also seemingly figured out the secret to crossover success, sharing a two-hour event this season. The episodes were a success in the ratings, but also creatively, expanding the fictional universe in a way that other spin-off ventures have either failed at or not even attempted. In the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Arrow and The Flash have done for TV what The Avengers has done for film (when it comes to pushing the boundaries of the fictional universe), and is a model for what other television franchises could accomplish.
A shift in critical weight.
The truth is: The CW—and, before it, The WB—has always had some great television. Gilmore Girls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Veronica Mars (originally on UPN before the merge). Dawon's Creek. Felicity. These have all become classics, and many of them changed what television was doing in interesting and progressive ways, while still telling compelling narratives (with, might I mention, some of the best female TV characters ever).
Though the network is enjoying a particularly excellent period in its history, I would argue that it’s not that The CW has gotten so much better, but that mainstream criticism has accepted that youth-geared media is worthy of attention and, in some cases, acclaim. There has been a lot of attention paid in the last year to the rise in popularity of young adult entertainment for adults, and much of it has been negative. Critics worry that adults are consuming more "dumbed-down" television and books meant for their children, but many of these youth-geared entertainment properties are complex, ground-breaking stories in their own right with only the age of their protagonist separating them from their more "mature" counterparts. The CW, and The WB before it, has always known this. The bulk of mainstream television criticism is just catching on now.