Models, vampires and spoiled brats

The CW is the go-to channel for young women. Too bad its programming has become so shallow

Published August 5, 2009 9:40PM (EDT)

I've taken my share of shit for enjoying "Gossip Girl" and "America's Next Top Model." And I have often defended my guilty pleasures by explaining that watching those shows is like digging in to a big, fat issue of Vogue: My mind goes more and more blank until all I can see are the pretty clothes and addictive story lines. I know these shows promote gross materialism and unrealistic beauty standards. But after a long day of work, it's cheap therapy.

So it isn't surprising to hear none other than Dawn Ostroff, president of entertainment at The CW (the station that airs both "Gossip Girl" and "ANTM"), describes her network in similar terms: "Our audience doesn't only watch CW for entertainment," says Ostroff in an interview with Reuters. "It's almost like we're a magazine. They come to us to find trends in fashion, music and technology." The audience Ostroff is referring to is, of course, young women. As Jill Serjeant reports, although its viewership dropped 22 percent during the '08-'09 season, The CW is thriving as the "go-to TV network for advertisers who want to reach the lucrative market of women aged 18-34." And how does The CW key into this desirable demographic? Well, duh: They run shows about "vampires, fashion models, wannabe starlets and plucky teens."

This isn't exactly a new strategy for The CW. The network launched, in 2006, as a combination of similar networks UPN and The WB, with the express goal of reaching young women. Both had been successful with the demographic in the past: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a show that Salon's Heather Havrilesky loved so much she named an annual award for "the most underrated, overlooked show on television" after it, spent five seasons at The WB before moving to UPN in 2001. Another Salon favorite, the girl-detective drama "Veronica Mars," spent two seasons on UPN but was abruptly canceled in 2007 after making the jump to The CW. And who could forget the long-running, fast-talking "Gilmore Girls," which began on The WB in 2000 and ended its popular run on The CW the same year "Veronica Mars" bit the dust.

But since then, the network's track record has been spotty and the quality of the shows aimed at teen girls (that is to say, all of them) has gone downhill. 2007 brought the premiere of "Gossip Girl," high school as high camp, followed a year later by a drearily boring "90210" revival and a new series called "Privileged." Even though the latter was canceled after one lackluster season, The CW's spate of upcoming shows seems to be veering from its inventive history and sticking to its new, teenage wealth-porn formula, bringing back yet another Aaron Spelling classic, "Melrose Place" and debuting "Blonde Charity Mafia" (yes, that is really the show's title), a reality series about the lives of "Washington D.C.'s most influential 20-something Alpha Girls. The BCM runs the D.C. social circuit from charity events to society parties." Sounds thrilling! Meanwhile, the network is of course launching its very own vampire show, "The Vampire Diaries," and building on its successful "ANTM" formula with "The Beautiful Life," a drama about teen models. And there you have it, The CW's fall '09 line-up.

I haven't seen these fall shows yet, so I can't say if they're as bad as they sound. Hell, on paper, "Buffy" was a show about a cute blonde who stakes vampires in her spare time. But it grew to be much more than that, as Buffy Summers became both a rare superheroine that girls could look up to and comment on the prevailing media depictions of the young and pretty. "Veronica Mars," which premiered soon after "Buffy" ended its run, built on that message. While the mother-daughter team that made "Gilmore Girls" great didn't solve crime or slay demons, it did offer some of prime-time's wittiest, and most culturally literate dialogue. And all three shows thrived on compelling plot lines and smart, strong female characters. Rather than reinforce stereotypes, they tweaked them -- even exploded them. Meanwhile, this new spate of CW shows sounds suspiciously hackneyed and shallow.

It's disappointing to see a network with potential (and a history of genre-busting shows for young women) stuck in a rut. I don't anticipate breaking it off with "Gossip Girl" any time soon, but the series and its many copycats haven't done much to raise the level of discourse. Sadly, I fear that glamor, wealth, beauty and supernatural romance will have to stand in for good writing on shows that, as Ostroff says, are designed to tell young women what to be -- and buy.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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