On May 17, the season finale of Supernatural aired on the CW. The last remaining series from the network’s earlier iteration, the WB, Supernatural closed out its 13th season (having already received a green light for season 14) with 1.6 million viewers and a cliffhanger that’s been in the making since season five. The hour-long sci-fi dramedy centers on two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, as they road-trip around the country fighting basically every monster, legend, deity, or heavenly host from modern and ancient mythologies. Or, as any member of the show’s considerable fan base will summarize it for you, the brothers are involved in “Saving people, hunting things—the family business.”
Supernatural has always been the little show that could. No small feat, it has balanced lowbrow zany comedy, where the brothers battle clowns, save imaginary friends (a sort of twist on the Zână from Romanian folklore), and get stuck in a parallel universe, with darker dramatic arcs (the brothers have died more than fifteen times, not including an episode styled after Groundhog Day in which Dean perished more than 100 times). Anyone just tuning in to Supernatural in 2018 might very well wonder, given its low-budget campy nature, how the show has lasted for 13 years.
The answer: fandom. It seems that most networks and showrunners, with a few exceptions, are only now discovering the value and power of fan-driven communities. For instance, this May, when Fox announced that it would cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a quirky police/office comedy, its fans protested the decision on Twitter with the hashtag #renewB99. Within 31 hours, the show found a new home at NBC for its sixth season.
Often the butt of jokes, the CW can be considered something like a younger sibling to the Big Four broadcast networks (though it’s partially owned by CBS). It’s known for being home to teen-angst-driven zeitgeist shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Riverdale. Nevertheless, unlike the major networks, the CW has figured out how to develop shows that achieve astonishing popularity. In their 2007 book Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington describe the media technique that the CW has excelled at:
As we have moved from an era of broadcasting to one of narrowcasting, a process fueled by deregulation of media markets and reflected in the rise of new media technologies, the fan as a specialized yet dedicated consumer has become a centerpiece of media industries’ marketing strategies. Rather than ridiculed, fan audiences are now wooed and championed by cultural industries.
By 2007, the CW had been narrowcasting for years. The concept was proven successful in commercial terms when the network was still the WB, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, Roswell, Veronica Mars, and Gilmore Girls. (The latter two have since been revived with their original casts on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, while Charmed and Roswell are being rebooted by the CW itself next season.) The WB (owned by Warner Brothers) was conceived in 1995, the same year that another broadcast network, UPN (the United Paramount Network, owned by CBS) came into being. Both took what, at the time, were considerable risks for scripted television: the WB for its unconventional genre shows like Buffy, Felicity, and Roswell, and UPN for its primarily black sitcoms like Girlfriends, All of Us, and Moesha. With both networks struggling to make a profit after a decade on the air and facing tough negotiations with station affiliates, they quietly started talks in early 2006 to merge into one network aimed at capturing younger audiences.