You know, if I put “Does Supernatural Need A Better Network?” up as a poll question, my guess would be the results would turn out 99% yes and 1% no. That 1 percent of dissenters would be likely due to a couple of trigger happy mouse clickers that hit the wrong button.
Considering that 75 percent of all new shows fail, and far fewer of what's left actually make it to season five, Supernatural can be viewed as a blazing success. Yet this show has never been a ratings smash. Many fans believe it could be if it were on a different network. Are they right?
It’s A Netlet
Networks are a strange breed, but none get stranger than The CW. It’s not really a network. It’s not a cable station either. It’s a Netlet. So what does that mean? Beats me, but I think it’s an excuse for not kicking the crap out of NBC's primetime with a better strategy when they’re too busy slitting their own throats. 
Mediocrity is the accepted norm at The CW, even if this Netlet is due to lose $69 million this year. 
So, how much of a Netlet is The CW really? Revenues are a way to put it in perspective. In last year’s upfronts, The CW (the fifth place network) secured $350 to $375 million in commitments for the season from advertisers. The fourth place network, NBC, secured $1.9 billion. Of course, NBC has NFL football and did air the Olympics, not to mention 22 hours of primetime, plus strong morning and late night programming, but that difference is still staggering. 
For a small struggling Netlet, the news doesn't get better. Ad revenues at the upfronts this year are projected to come in at 10-20% less than this year. That would knock The CW down to anywhere from $280 million to $338 million. Also the scatter market, or ads that are purchased closer to viewing time, has dried up considerably and pricing is now coming at a discount. 
Then there's ratings, which isn't even a contest. The CW is only averaging 2 million viewers a night. NBC for their size surprisingly isn't too far ahead at 6 million. What’s worse though is The CW is also getting beat by cable stations too, falling behind USA, Fox News, TNT and Disney in viewers. Those other channels are making money too, thanks to cable subscription fees as well as advertising. Even Univision is drawing more viewers. 
So how does The CW survive? Apparently, their strategy is a “laser focus” on the 18-34 female demographic. That commands a premium from advertisers. The way the network is promoted and branded creates the illusion that only young women between 18-34 watch shows on The CW. That's not really true though, for only 400,000 of the 2 million average viewers are in that category. Yep, 1 in 5. 
The criticisms are everywhere.  Most analysts think that by focusing on something so narrow that’s killing The CW’s chances for growth. It’s more than growth. Even in their target demographic, The CW can’t compete with other networks. Fox is the grand champion for those highly lucrative young demo viewers, especially when American Idol comes on. House, a big draw with females 18-34, was moved to Mondays at 8pm, opposite Gossip Girl. Since then it's been a slaughter. Gossip Girl's ratings and demos have been way down. Even on House's off weeks Gossip Girl's ratings have been down, because viewers have gotten accustomed to the DVR getting it. Since people aren't watching Gossip Girl, they aren't watching One Tree Hill either, which is interesting since there is no demo conflict during their time slot with other shows like 24. 
Then there’s 90210. The CW only needed one hit to get on the map, and rode all their hopes (and financial resources) this season on thatThat show was supposed to be the savior of the network. It premiered to 4.6 million viewers and tons of hype. Since American Idol came on though, the ratings have especially nosedived.  
The CW continues to spin though. As an example, a press release went out for 90210 after the April 14th episode when Tori Spelling guest starred, touting their best ratings in two months. The total viewers rose to 2.1 million viewers. 2.1?   The main crux was that the 18-34 demo was a 1.8, and the 18-34 demo for women was a 2.3. Adults 18-49 was a 1.2.   That previous week, the top rated scripted show, Smallville, got a 1.7 in the 18-34 demo, but a much higher 3.54 million viewers. Smallville usually gets a 1.9 or 2.0 in men 18-34, and 1.5 women. This was a lower than normal display for Smallville, but one can't help but wonder where's the logic when a show getting 1.4 million more viewers and has more young men watching gets less attention. Last I heard, a 40 year old man buys stuff too.
The latest episode of 90210 BTW had 1.8 million viewers with a 1.4 in 18-34, while Smallville had 3.4 million viewers and a 1.5 in 18-34. There was no press release.
Supernatural, even though it's The CW's third highest rated show and easily one the most consistent with total viewers, does the worst of the top shows in 18-34. Why? For one, it goes against The Office and Grey's Anatomy, two juggernauts in the 18-34 demo. The latter especially takes the female viewers. Just recently, when those two were in repeats, Supernatural got their highest 18-34 numbers in years, a 1.7 (and a CW press release). The norm is a 1.2. It should also be noted that Supernatural and Gossip Girl are the network's biggest draws for 12-17, averaging around a 1.9. Gossip Girl though is what gets sold to the advertisers at a premium.
Despite the "laser" focus, there's no evidence the strategy is working. All the financial resources to build the buzz for 90210 seem wasted, for the audiences tuned in for curiosity and never stayed, mainly due to it being a crappy show. Same thing happened to NBC with Knight Rider and The Bionic Woman. These networks are forgetting one basic concept when doing reboots of old shows. Viewers still want the show to be good, no matter what it’s called.
Also, recent DVR ratings show 40-50 percent of 90210 and Gossip Girl's viewers watch via DVR. The CW tries to spin that, saying their shows get more viewers than the ratings indicate, but so far advertisers aren't as impressed. The DVR is translating to buzz, but not money.
A Different Network?
So, given all this info, the case can be made that Supernatural deserves a better network right? One that will reward higher viewers, not higher young female viewers? 
Not so fast. Looking at season one, Supernatural’s ratings went from a high of 5.8 million (Route 666?) to 3.5 million on The WB. Granted much of that dip is because they moved mid-season from Tuesdays to Thursdays at 9pm, but on any other network those drops would be a sure case for cancellation. How it made the new CW lineup is anyone's guess, but theories lie with its perfect pairing with the flagship show Smallville and the fact it’s an in-house show. 
Look at Chuck on NBCThat show gets plenty of buzz and averages 6.5 million viewers. For NBC, that makes it one of their higher rated shows. Still, it's fighting for renewal. One reason is because it’s owned by Warner Brothers, and NBC wants a lower license fee. This is where being an in-house show is an advantage.
Let’s also remember, the big four have higher standards. Sinking ratings for a Warner Brothers show wouldn’t have gone over well on any of them. Moonlight, another Warner Brothers show, earned an average of 8 million viewers for CBS, and that was on a Friday night. Still, it was cancelled by CBS anyway after one season. What they’ve replaced it with has done worse, but CBS doesn't mind since they're paying less money for it too.
How about cable? The Sci-Fi network would be perfect for Supernatural, right? Believe it or not, The Sci-Fi network gets less ratings than The CW. Rather than turn into a great network for all things Sci-Fi, it’s been a mess. Even the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, a buzz worthy critically acclaimed show, only got 2.36 million viewers. This was Sci-Fi’s best performance of the year. Plus, Sci-Fi is owned by NBC Universal, so that whole in-house show thing again applies. 
It seems that the best fits would be TNT or TBS, considering both are owned by Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Brothers. Both cater to men too, and would seem like a good fit. TNT has The Closer, which is getting roughly 7 million viewers. So why doesn't Supernatural go there? Original programming is very expensive for cable and they can't carry a full load of shows. If they do, they won't be taking another network's leftovers, especially when they're trying to build their own brand.
Like it or not, Supernatural is stuck with The CW. However, The CW is stuck with Supernatural too. Rumor has it CW President Dawn Ostroff has never been a fan of the male skewed sci-fi programming she inherited, but both Smallville and Supernatural are consistent draws and the only shows on the network that do well in repeats. They form a stable Thursday night block that bring in more viewers than any other night, precious demo or not.  Plus they both make money for Warner Brothers internationally (especially Supernatural, which airs in 70 countries), so Warner Brothers as half owner of the network exercises their "influence" on that night. Dawn has no choice but to run with them to lure viewers to the network and keep affiliates happy. 
The CW is in its third season, and despite all their promotional efforts, four of their five top shows (America's Next Top Model, Smallville, Supernatural, and One Tree Hill) are leftovers from The WB and UPN. Only Gossip Girl is their top original show. It's understandable when promoting the network that they're desperate to make Gossip Girl and 90210 a success. If the other shows were gone (with Smallville and One Tree Hill both beyond their shelf life) the network wouldn't exist. They are desperately trying to build their future. Time is running out though, as well as money, so if the "laser focus" doesn't work, they're done.
Other Points of Confusion
Why do ratings always dip in the half hour for Supernatural?
I hear this one a lot, and suspect this happens with all 9pm shows for The CW. The trouble is, Nielsen tracks viewers who tune in all the way to 9:59. With The CW (Fox too), local news or local programming is next, so many change the channel a minute or two before then. If The CW ran Supernatural all the way to 9:59, that would fix things. They do so with Smallville, which always gives Supernatural a great lead in.
Ratings in fifteen minute breakdowns are more telling, but usually only the networks get those.
Why are some weeks significantly lower than others?
For one, The CW has affiliate problems. Many local affiliates find it’s more lucrative to show local sports than to air CW shows at their normal times. When a market like New York or Chicago shows sports, that's usually a healthy drop in the ratings. On my ratings chart, you'll see at least for the fourth season which weeks were interrupted for sports.
Also, and this is true for all networks, ratings are lower in the spring. The season low for Supernatural so far has been "Jump The Shark." On that night, eleven shows hit either season or series lows. Grey's Anatomy hit a series low with 13 million viewers (they have been doing 16-17 million) as did CSI with 15 million (they usually do over 20 million). The culprit, the first 80 degree day for most of the country this year. Yep, weather plays a role too.
It should also be noted "Jump The Shark" only had to best numbers for same time last year. Considering that was Ghostfacers, which hit a series low 2.2 million, that wasn't hard. So, it was really up half a million viewers, and the demo was much higher too. That's something advertisers notice.
As I've said before, Supernatural has managed somehow to succeed despite its crappy network. As fans we always hope for better, but it could be far worse. A fifth season is a huge reason to celebrate, and we don't need all young women 18-34 to do it. You’re welcome CW.