The WB was always an “also ran” compared to Big Four broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox. It lasted just 11 years, a span that’s already a sliver of those other network’s tenures. And it didn’t provide much ratings competition, having never scored a top-20 show. But for those viewers of a certain age — millennials, namely — the sight of the WB logo or the mascot Michigan J. Frog provides a pang of nostalgia, even now, 25 years after the network’s launch.
Time Warner teamed up with the Tribune Company to create The WB in 1993 after changes in television regulation meant TV networks could produce more of their own programming. Rather than worry about its programming getting pushed out by the other network’s’ in-house studios, Warner Bros. decided to create a new home for its productions. And thus, The WB hit the airwaves on January 11, 1995, kicking off with the series premiere of The Wayans Bros.
The network picked up steam in August 1996 with the premiere of 7th Heaven. The family-friendly drama — which starred Jessica Biel, Barry Watson, and Beverley Mitchell — cultivated a young audience (and the support of conservatively-minded parents) and eventually ranked as The WB’s top-rated show seven years in a row.
Months after introducing 7th Heaven, the network premiered Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s retread of his 1992 comedy horror film. With teen star Sarah Michelle Gellar literally raising the stakes as the Chosen One, Buffy vaulted into critics’ lists of best shows—of the year, of the decade, and even of all time—and spawned a popular WB spinoff, Angel. “If we really are in a golden age of television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a harbinger,” Stephanie Zacharek wrote for The Village Voice in 2015. And in the words of PopMatters’ Robert Moore, “TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards.”
The following January, and with great fanfare, The WB launched Dawson’s Creek, a teen drama with a quartet of then-unknowns — James Van Der Beek, Michelle Williams, Joshua Jackson, and Katie Holmes — all bound for stardom. If 7th Heaven was one of the Parent Television Council’s favorite series, Dawson’s Creek was one of its biggest targets, a show that didn’t shy away from the harsh, horny realities of teenage life. Young viewers swarmed to the series, so much so that The WB became the top network among teens after pairing Buffy with Dawson’s Creek.
“For The WB, [Dawson’s Creek] was a springboard upon which to build an entire programming strategy,” The A.V. Club’s Carrie Raisler observed in 2014. “For a generation of young adults who grew up on The WB, it created a sort of safe space on television that—if not exactly — at least somewhat mirrored their angst.”
Then came other hits: Charmed helped The WB more than double its advertising revenue in two years; Felicity offered a love triangle for the ages and launched the careers of Keri Russell and J.J. Abrams; Gilmore Girls offered a quippy mother-daughter relationship and inspired a Netflix revival a decade later; Smallville became the top drama among teen viewers years before the superhero genre took off; and One Tree Hill, Roswell, and Everwood only furthered the network’s millennial appeal. Plus, even in its twilight, The WB sagely gave the green light to Supernatural, a show that’s only airing its final season now, 15 years later.
The WB’s ratings eventually declined, however, and the network met its end on September 17, 2006, with select shows from both The WB and UPN moving to The CW, which launched the following day. The CW is endearing itself to Generation Z with Riverdale and the Arrowverse shows, but The WB’s legacy looms large. It’s no surprise The CW is currently airing reboots of both Charmed and Roswell, for example.
Indeed, for a network that lasted little more than a decade, The WB made an outsize impact on pop culture, on television as a medium, and on the hearts and minds of millennial viewers. To quote E! News’ Natalie Finn, “From Dawson’s crying face to the rapid-fire banter between Lorelai and Rory to the eternal question that is Angel vs. Spike, [The WB’s] shows subtly shaped what we think about when we think about what gave millennials all the feelings.”