Summer Superhero Blockbusters Expose Comic Book TV's Weakness

Illustration by: Thomas Pitilli

As 'Avengers' flies high, Marvel's small-screen heroes battle a middling game against DC and broadcasters keep adding shows. Says one analyst, "We're getting where there might be too many options in the genre."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Glancing at the ratings for Agents of SHIELD, one never would assume it’s an official TV companion to Marvel’s multibillion-dollar film franchise. As The Avengers: Age of Ultron raked in a cool $191.3 million in its domestic opening weekend, the ABC drama is averaging a modest 1.5 rating among adults 18-to-49 on Tuesday nights. More surprising, SHIELD actually is one of the stronger comics-based shows in TV’s fastest-growing subgenre. Heading into the upfronts, many are wondering why network execs are so in love with superheroes.

"These shows sample well in the beginning, but the genre doesn’t seem to be drawing people back on a week-in, week-out basis," notes Sam Armando of media-buying firm SMGx. Regardless, the 2014-15 season alone saw seven hourlong series from Disney-owned Marvel and Warner Bros. Television’s DC Comics on the Big Five networks. None can be considered a massive hit. "They don’t appeal to a wide audience," gripes one top talent agent, noting the increasingly crowded marketplace as another problem. Armando agrees: "We’re getting to the point where there might be too many options in the genre — at least on broadcast."

Now that ABC’s Agent Carter, technically a spinoff of the Captain America movies, nabbed a renewal for another (likely limited) run, SHIELD won’t be the only Marvel act on ABC when it returns for its third season. 12 Years a Slave scribe John Ridley is developing a project at the network, said to be a reinvention of a familiar hero. And recent SHIELD cast additions Adrianne Palicki and Nick Blood were said to be toplining a proposed spinoff, considered a lock, but the project was not among the new series orders and ABC would not comment.

Since ratings clearly aren’t driving the sprawl, much of the push can be chalked up to politics. Marvel has been an ABC sister company since 2009, and SHIELD marked the first offspring in Disney CEO Robert Iger’s ongoing push for creative synergy. But Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb is not enjoying the type of success his film counterpart Kevin Feige does, in part because the TV shows maintain only a threadbare association to their big-screen brethren — not to mention the lack of actual Avengers and their blockbuster-budget effects.

DC is faring better than Marvel, if only in the number of series on the air (WBTV co-owns The CW, where three of the shows reside). Fox saw fall success with Gotham, a Batman origin story, though the procedural is finishing the season drawing half of the live ratings it saw in the fall. And even with a 70 percent boost from time-shifting, the pricey DC effort will end the season barely among the top 25 broadcast series. The CW has thrived with its own DC adaptations, first Arrow and now The Flash and iZombie. But The CW has a lower barometer for success than the Big Four. Flash is the network’s toprated series with an average 1.7 rating in the key demo (with time-shifting). That’s the same as Fox’s DOA freshman Red Band Society. (A spinoff of Arrow and Flash, focusing on guest characters, is considered a sure thing for next midseason.)

The volume of less expensive series on broadcast that outrate the comics fare is substantial. Sitcoms Mom and Black-ish and aging reality series The Bachelor and Big Brother top every broadcast comic series. One place where progress might be more feasible, if harder to measure, is in streaming. Netflix made a five-series pact with Marvel in 2013 and delivered the first show, Daredevil, in April. A second season already is in the pipeline, and researchers trying to decipher Netflix ratings have cited it as the most sampled original this year.

New superhero-fronted efforts likely will proliferate in the next round of series pickups (CBS’ Supergirl among them), though it’s only a matter of time before execs begin to take a hard look at the ratings. "Would any network but ABC order a spinoff of a show like SHIELD? Probably not," says Armando. He does see one rationale for doubling down on the Marvel gamble: "ABC wants to bring in men without alienating the women who contributed to their growth. This kind of program, especially something female-fronted, has the opportunity to do that. They see room for another swing to get it right and sustain some success."

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