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Why did The CW skyrocket to the top of the App Store?

All American, Batwoman, Riverdale, and Netflix may have contributed

Image: The CW

Some people may have been surprised to see The CW’s app sitting atop the list of free apps available on iOS devices, passing YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and more.

The CW noted in a statement that this is the third year in the row it reached the top of the charts during a premiere week, despite earlier data from SensorTower claiming it was the first time in three years. Screenshots provided to The Verge from The CW show the app hit the top of the app store every week, with the exception of 2020 because the premiere week was moved to 2021 due to production issues brought on by the pandemic.

For people without a cable subscription who want to watch Riverdale, All American, Batwoman, and more, The CW’s free, ad-supported app is an easy option. On January 18th, the app saw approximately 36,000 installs in the US App Store and Google Play, according to SensorTower. That’s seven times as high as the week before it, a spokesperson for SensorTower added.

Like most things in the entertainment industry these days, some of the answers may lie in Netflix and streaming-at-large. After many of those shows air their season finales, they end up on Netflix about a week later — and having people discover series via the streamer has created a Netflix Effect, according to CW chairman Mark Pedowitz. Just last week, Pedowitz told Variety that its free, ad-supported CW streaming platform “has been enormously successful for us,” although he didn’t say exactly how many viewers the app was actually drawing. Pedowitz added that The CW has seen “great increases in Batwoman, Nancy Drew, and Stargirl in terms of what we would have done in a rolling five [most recent five episodes of a season that aired on TV] for Netflix.”

A couple of important notes about The CW: it’s not a ratings juggernaut. Compared to other cable channels — and the big networks — The CW isn’t competing as a heavyweight contender week after week. In 2016, however, Netflix made a deal with The CW to carry a number of its shows. In international territories, those shows (like Riverdale) were labeled Netflix originals. Pedowitz claimed in 2019 that having the Netflix deal “gave the chance for the CW to breathe.” By 2017, Pedowitz pointed to the Netflix deal for Riverdale’s stronger second season start.

“We came back so strong that second season, because of the binging that was going on the first,” Pedowitz told IndieWire. “The key for us, when that happens, is to try to bring them back into the in-season, and remembering that it’s a CW show, and that they’re more than welcome and they can watch all the original episodes throughout the year.”

It’s the second part of that sentence that’s most important — “they can watch all the original episodes throughout the year.” SensorTower’s above data points to a number of downloads on January 18th, the day of All American’s third season premiere. All American is a series that seems (it’s impossible to know without actual viewership data from streamers) to have benefitted from the Netflix Effect.

The series, which follows a high school football star uprooting his life to move to a wealthier part of Los Angeles in order to play for a better team, saw an “explosion” of interest when the second season landed on Netflix, showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll told BuzzFeed in May. Prior to it landing on Netflix, All American was already seeing growth in linear ratings, according to Nielsen data, partially due to it following Riverdale on TV and possibly finding an audience on Netflix. Following the show’s second season debut, it sat in Netflix’s Top 10 list in the United States.

“It’s important to note that the CW is a vital part of their ecosystem,” Pedowitz told Deadline in 2019.

The third season didn’t premiere on Netflix, but it did put Pedowitz’s “Netflix Effect” theory to the test. Again, while it’s impossible to say for certain that people downloaded the app for one specific show without any data, the linear ratings do tell an interesting story. All American’s third season premiere brought in four times The CW’s average since the fall season began in September 2020. All American also saw a massive spike in data on January 18th, according to Google Trends. The show’s premiere far outpaced its first season, which Pedowitz has pointed to the Netflix Effect for other shows.

All American may not have driven swaths of people to download the app, but considering that Batwoman premiered to expected ratings the night before and Riverdale is returning tonight, it may have created the perfect cornucopia of series to drive people’s downloads — especially at a time when people are still stuck at home with nothing to do but watch TV. Now, many of these shows are heading to HBO Max instead of Netflix after their seasons are over. If that same streaming effect continues, there will be similar questions about whether The Office will find the same type of viewership on Peacock as it did on Netflix.

Update January 19th, 5:29pm ET: The story has been updated to include a statement.

Update January 19th 6:34pm ET: The story has been updated to include additional data from The CW. A representative told The Verge the app reached the top of the app store for a third year in a row, not for the first time in three years, as stated by SensorTower.