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The CW is using Netflix’s formula to dominate the superhero genre on TV

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It’s a collector’s world

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The CW announced on Sunday that it was going to make an animated Constantine series.

The show will star Matt Ryan, who played the exorcist-turned-occult-detective in NBC’s short lived, 13-episode series. The animated version will play out over five or six 10-minute shorts on CW Seed, the network’s streaming service. Although it’s not the same thing as the network bringing back Ryan and the character for a live-action series in the same block as Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, it’s clear what the network is trying to achieve.

Much like Netflix, the CW is willing to invest its money into purchasing properties with legions of fans and build its database upon preceding invested interest.

How the CW is changing the game

Here’s the thing about the CW: none of its shows perform particularly well. The Flash, Arrow, Supernatural and Jane the Virgin are arguably its biggest series, but they don’t even come close to competing with giants like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. In its midseason finale, for example, The Flash pulled in about three million viewers. In comparison, The Walking Dead had 10.5 million viewers tune in for its midseason finale. Arrow pulled in just under two million viewers. Even standard procedurals like Elementary, which airs on the CW’s parent channel, CBS, manage to pull around 5 million viewers.

With ratings that low, the question is why does the CW keep renewing the shows instead of focusing on other properties that might be more viable for the company? There are a couple of reasons, but the biggest is that other services, like Netflix and Hulu, have seen how valuable the CW and its programming are. In July, Netflix and the CW signed a deal that would allow the streaming service exclusive rights to carry new seasons of the network’s shows six days after a season finale. The deal reportedly fetched the CW, and CBS, about $1 billion.

It’s clear that there’s a desire for CW content, just not on traditional television. If your target audience is part of the primary cord-cutting generation, it’s easier to sell them on streaming. The question is not whether the CW should be putting out more DC shows, but rather how they should distribute them.

The CW knows it can’t compete with networks like AMC, HBO or FX when it comes to genre programming. For one thing, it’s a teen-centric network; it simply can’t show the type of content that other networks can. For another, the network is still in its infancy, trying to figure out what it wants to be 11 years in.

While certain strategies have failed, like trying to bring more traditional sitcoms into its lineup, others have succeeded. More specifically, making the decision to give creator and executive producer Greg Berlanti total control over its superhero empire and become the designated network for superhero content on television.

Since the launch of Arrow in 2012, the CW has become the go-to network for superhero and series Monday through Friday. Pedowtiz told Variety last year that was always the goal for both the network and Warner Bros. In fact, Warner Bros.’ CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, told Variety, “Having a lot of the DC shows on the CW has allowed us the flexibility to cross-pollinate within the shows. That’s exciting and important for us.”

The CW is one of the only networks that has access to DC characters and has partnered with Warner Bros. Berlanti has also managed to find a voice for the shows that resonates with audiences, meaning the CW doesn’t have to worry about ratings as much. Like Supernatural, the shows finally have a dedicated, invested audience who will find someway to watch the show and that’s the main aspect the network is concerned about.

In that regard, the CW has definitely made a statement. Between The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Vixen and Constantine on its streaming service, the CW is building up its collection of superhero shows. Although Pedowitz has said multiple times the network has no interest in producing a Batman series right now, it feels like it’s only a matter of time. Fox’s Gotham, which is down 15 percent in viewership this season, is one of the only Batman series on television. It makes sense for the CW to wait out the inevitable cancellation and move into that space, bringing Batman to its nightly programming block.

Like Netflix has done with Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls and Full House, the CW is interested in working with projects that clearly have an audience — people who will tune in no matter what. And much like how Netflix is the only way to continue watching those series, the CW has become the exclusive network to see the Flash and Supergirl team up.

On Sunday, the network announced that all four DC properties would be renewed for the 2017/2018 fall season, despite low ratings. When asked why the network chose to renew shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, Supernatural and, well, the rest of its roster, CW president Mark Pedowitz said it was never about the numbers.

“Sometimes with critically acclaimed, great programming, you just [renew it] and hope that it finds an audience,” Pedowtiz said, as reported by Variety.

Pedowitz reiterated that when it came to Supernatural, specifically, “as [long as] the show is performing and the boys want to do it and I’m sitting in this chair, the show has a long life.”

Both Warner Bros. and the CW have said they have long-term plans to go through DC’s vault and bring as many characters to the network. Whether that’s through Seed, the network’s streaming service, or to the main channel itself, is up to Pedowitz and other executives. But Tsujihara told Variety the CW remains “a really important strategic outlet for us.”

So no, the CW isn’t ever going to compete with HBO, FX, AMC or, really, even basic broadcast ratings, but that’s not what makes it a juggernaut. The network has figured out how to tap into an audience that will follow a series — and obsess over it — for years and years. It’s become the home for comic book lovers, and it’s only going to get bigger.

As CBS CEO Les Moonves told Variety when asked about the CW’s lineup of superhero series, “the shows have become stronger, and the rationale for us keeping it has become stronger and stronger.”