For some reason I’ve been giving some thought to this brief report that, come Fall, the struggling television networks UPN (owned by CBS) and the WB (owned by Warner Bros., natch) will merge to form a new network “whose name, CW, is meant to be a combination of CBS and Warner”. Is it just me, or does “CW” (or “the CW”, like “the WB” is more widely known) just sound like a stupid name for a television network?

I ended up discussing this last night with a non-linguist friend, who shares my intuition, and we entertained the following hypotheses about why this new network name doesn’t work for us.

First of all, as my friend pointed out, the big three (ABC, CBS, <a href=”NBC) set the standard for three-letter names. This is undoubtedly why FOX works, even though it’s an abbreviation but not an acronym, and UPN also has this advantage. The WB, though, loses on this score, and yet it’s clearly superior to CW as a network name.

I suggested that this distinction between WB and CW has to do with the rhythm of the name when pronounced — a kind of textsetting effect. Basically, all of the major network names (with the notable exception of FOX) fit a rhythmic template like the following. (For those not familiar with this grid notation: higher columns of x’s indicate greater degrees of stress; the bottom row of x’s counts out beats. Counting just the non-bottom rows, this template can be summarized as secondary-tertiary-primary.)

x x
x x x
x x x x x x x
si bi ɛs = CBS
ɛn bi si = NBC
bi si = ABC
ju pi ɛn = UPN
(δə) bl̩ ju bi = (the) WB

It’s just not possible to fit “(the) CW” onto this template without badly disrupting the inherent primary-(unstressed)-secondary stress pattern of “W” [ˈdʌbl̩ˌju]: the primary initial syllable is mapped to the tertiary column of the template, and the secondary final syllable to the primary column:

x x
x x x
x x x x x x x
(δə) si bl̩ ju = (the) CW

My friend and I wondered why the folks involved didn’t think about this problem. Then again, we thought, maybe they did give it some thought, but were under the following overriding constraints: there must be a C (for CBS) and a W (for Warner), and they didn’t want their new network to be associated with a toilet.

7 thoughts on “UPN + WB = CW

  1. polyglot conspiracy

    I totally agree with Bridget that it may (happily) become “The C-dub,” especially since they claim to be focusing so much on the younger viewers. Which would map onto that stress pattern ok, right? If the “the” ends up getting a bit more stress than it was in the 5-syllable version. Or what about “C-dubya”?

    Semantic Compositions wrote about this a few days ago, and I just can’t see what everyone is so upset about. Fox is one of the most successful networks (isn’t it?), and it’s only got one syllable (you do well to point out that the “feeling” of wrongness has to do with syllables/stress, not simply number of letters). Likewise with E!, WE, and Starz with the one syllable, plus there’s FX, M2, HG, and Bravo for your two syllables (I know they’re not basic, but still). Particularly if it goes the way of “The C-dub,” I think it will be ok.

    I honestly hadn’t though about the unfortunate unavailability of “The WC,” but now I’m laughing very hard.

  2. Bob Kennedy

    I have to agree with Eric and Semantic Comp that the rhythm of CW is just awkward. SC has a list of other initialism networks that follow the same grid (like TBS, TNT, MTV, VH1 and so on) to which we can add PBS, NPR, CBC, CTV, and BBC.

    Seems like foot structure is active here, but the analysis is going to be weird. Let’s say the final foot must carry primary stress in the initialism – generally true of all initialisms regardless of the number of letters or syllables. (e.g., AC, ESPN, NAACP). (This is equivalent to Eric’s grid analysis, with feet instead of columns).

    If the last component of the initialism is W, we have a problem. Let’s parse [ˈdʌbl̩ˌju] as two feet: then as Eric points out, primary stress is moved off the final foot.

    To this we need to add the exception that penultimate primary stress is OK so long as the antepenultimate is weaker than secondary stress…only to allow POW (and ACW). The second letter holds the antepenultimate stress (penultimate being the [dʌb] of W).

    If you think a stipulation for initialisms like this is weird, consider a similar exception is needed to move the primary stress off the final syllable in AJ, CJ, YJ, and anything else ending in J.

  3. Eric Bakovic

    PC — thanks for the link to SC’s post; I had missed it. And Bob, SC mentions the three-letter factor but not the rhythm factor, and so it’s not clear why (or if) SC gives “the WB” a pass but “the CW” the thumbs-down.

    PC’s invocation of FOX as a counterexample misses my point: I think “the CW” fails because it is neither three letters (like FOX) nor rhythmically viable (like the WB). All the other examples PC mentions are cable channels, not broadcast networks, which must be a separate category (though of course there are HBO, MTV, VH1, and so on, that meet what appear to be the broadcast network naming conventions).

    And finally, for the record, I never said I was “upset” about this — I just find “the CW” (and also “the C-dub”, should it come to that) to be “a stupid name for a television network”, and I think there are semi-linguistic reasons for my intuition. I have no opinion about whether the network will succeed or flop, and if it flops, I have no doubt it’ll be because of more significant things than the name, stupid-sounding or not.

  4. Semantic Compositions

    Eric is right; I didn’t address the rhythm factor. This is largely because I was more concerned with the syntactic/orthographic template, although honesty compels me to admit I didn’t give phonology its due weight.

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply I though “The WB” was a good network name, though — it looks and feels wrong to me for all the same reasons I gave regarding “The CW”, including the brain trust that came up with it. Which, in the end, is the reason I predicted The CW to be doomed.

  5. Eric Bakovic

    Thanks for the clarification, SC. I guess I have a gradient sort of feeling about all this: NBC, CBS, ABC, etc. are all tops on both counts, FOX is OK orthographically but not rhythmically, the WB is OK rhythmically but not orthographically, and the CW is not OK either way.

  6. H.E. Jovel

    the answer is WBC (double U-B-C) it sounds even way better than any of the other networks, although CBS may consider it to be too WB and too little CBS, even if the two names are bound togheter by the one letter they have in common which is kinda cute, but if you really think about it, this name is a better choice. Has anyone else notice that the new networks potential line up is predominantly produced by Warner Brothers and not by CBS or Paramounth, what’s that all about?

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