While the bigger networks were fretting recently over the now-you-see-them, now-you-don't issue of vanishing young male viewers, the WB was wondering whether its young female audience had run off with the guys.
For a network that targets viewers 12 to 34 years old, with programming that appeals largely to women, a decline in viewership by young females is a "yikes!" situation, particularly when you don't know what to blame or how to fix it. With Nielsen numbers down as much as 7.5 percent last season among females 15-24 - "a sweet spot for us at the WB" - the network's youthful programming chief, Jordan Levin, found himself aging fast, right along with the WB's median audience.
Like NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, the WB blames a change in Nielsen methodology for a big chunk of the decline. When the ratings-measurement service changed its sample size this season, the result was (as WB communications chief Brad Turrell puts it) "the largest year-to-year anomaly in (Nielsen) history."
In other words, something's off-kilter somewhere, but nobody knows yet whether young women really are turning off the WB or whether, next season, the missing gals will have returned as mysteriously as they vanished.
"There are a lot of numbers out there," Levin told TV critics meeting in Los Angeles. "You've got to decide what you do with them. Do you do everything by the numbers, or do you trust your gut?"
The WB does know, however, that its viewership is down for the season, that no new series has broken out as a hit, and that some - including the high-profile "Tarzan" update - simply flopped.
Levin and WB co-chairman Garth Ancier have some ideas for regrouping, and the most surprising may be the most old-fashioned: With other networks increasingly getting out of the movie-of-the-week business, the WB is establishing a movie division to make original films.
"There's a whole generation of viewers who haven't experienced certain genres of programming in certain ways," says Levin, pointing out that much of the WB's target audience doesn't remember when made-for-TV movies were among the most popular network fare.
WB movies will target younger viewers and family audiences, Levin says, with the first based on the "American Girl" series of dolls and books.
In addition, the WB will acknowledge that reality programming is here to stay and add it to the network's mix.
"It's not going to be the dominant part of our schedule," Ancier says. "But it is a very helpful scheduling tool." Currently, the network has the second edition of "The Surreal Life" and a second round of "High School Reunion," with a third in the works.
Most radically, Levin and Ancier are considering turning the whole concept of a network schedule upside-down to get around audiences' increasing aversion to reruns.
"Used to be, you would play a show twice a year, maybe three times a year, and people would watch it all three times," Ancier says.
Now, with a multitude of entertainment choices, viewers are reluctant to watch a repeat even if they didn't see the episode the first time around. At the same time, a network has to air a show at least twice to get its money's worth.
Levin and Ancier suggest that the WB could turn to a schedule that follows the cable model, with an episode of, say, "Everwood" airing two or three times in the same week. The series would run 22 weeks, with no interruptions, and then go off the air to be replaced by something else. In that case, "Reality becomes spacer programming," Levin says.
The WB is happy with the performance of "Angel" this year and still has high hopes for the family drama "One Tree Hill," which was rushed onto the schedule with little promotion last fall after another show fell through. After a slow start, the drama is beginning to catch on with female teens, Levin says, adding that "a lot of people forget that 'Buffy' and 'Gilmore Girls' and '7th Heaven' were all in the cellar of network TV, but there was a loyal core audience."
Speaking of "Gilmore Girls," Levin admits being concerned about the direction the show took in the first half of the season, when daughter Rory went off to Yale but kept popping up at home. The transition was difficult, but "I think we're settling into episodes that feel more connected in a real rather than a manufactured way," Levin says.
Would Rory Gilmore, off at college, watch much television? If so, would she watch the WB, or would she be one of those vanishing young female viewers?
Unable to guess, Levin has to go with his gut. "At the WB, most of the decisions we make are based on what we're excited about, what we like, what we're passionate about," he says. "We don't make a tremendous number of decisions based solely on numbers."
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