TV Upfront

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: How Superheroes Are Saving TV

Networks Embrace Genre as Buyers Demonstrate They're Willing to Pay Big Bucks for Ad Time

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With more than a dozen superhero dramas locked into the fall schedule or in various stages of development, TV is beginning to resemble a convention center that's been overrun by rowdy cosplay enthusiasts. At present, there are seemingly more comic book vigilantes stalking the prime-time schedule than there are doctors, lawyers and traditional flatfoots combined, and the cape-and-cowl crowd will only become more ubiquitous in the coming year.

Of course, there has to be some sort of superhero event horizon, a point beyond which it will be impossible to introduce any more comic book adaptations without bleeding the supply chain dry -- unless demand fails first. (Outside of the odd school of mackerel, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch "The Aquaman Show.") But as long as the networks don't completely OD on spandex, the fundamentals of the genre have become too solid to ignore.

Fox's "Gotham" is as good an argument as any for the rise of the superhero show. During last year's upfront, the Batman origin story was Fox's second-most-expensive scripted drama, as buyers plunked down north of $190,000 for each 30 seconds of airtime. (Units in megawatt megahit "Empire" last spring were priced about $50,000 cheaper than "Gotham" -- no one could have possibly predicted the hip-hop soap's meteoric ascent -- but Fox was able to secure exponentially higher rates in scatter leading up to "Empire's" March 18 season finale.)

"Gotham" held up its end of the bargain, premiered to 8.31 million live-plus-same-day viewers and a 3.3 rating in the adults 18-to-49 demographic. (As each ratings point represents 1% of the 127 million TV-owning members of the age bracket, the "Gotham" opener delivered some 4.06 million advertiser-coveted viewers.) Despite having to contend with a late-season hiatus and its attendant strain on the ratings, "Gotham" held up well enough, finishing the season with an average 2.2 demo rating and satisfying Fox's guarantees to media buyers.

Because so many fans catch up with the show via video-on-demand platforms that prevent ad-skipping, moreover, "Gotham" is one of those rare properties that sees a significant improvement upon conversion from live-plus-same-day to the C3 currency. Per Nielsen, the premiere improved nearly an entire rating point to a 4.2 in the demo, furthering the show's value to advertisers.

Looking ahead to 2015-16, while Fox doesn't have any superhero stories in development -- "Lucifer," based on Neil Gaiman's DC Comics series, doesn't really count -- the network is in talks with Marvel for a show based on the X-Men franchise. "24" producers Evan Katz and Manny Coto are said to be attached to the project.

With two Marvel series ("Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Agent Carter") already locked in for return engagements next season ABC as many as 35 superhero hours in play for next year. Its synergistic commitment to the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- ABC parent Walt Disney Co. in 2009 acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion -- has sheltered "S.H.I.E.L.D." from the vicissitudes of the ratings rat race.

"S.H.I.E.L.D." to a large extent exists as a promotional vehicle for the MCU. The show was developed in 2013 as a means to ensure weekly exposure for the Marvel brand, with the understanding that it would still be on the schedule when "Avengers: Age of Ultron" landed in theaters. Though it's impossible to quantify the boost "S.H.I.E.L.D." may have lent "Age of Ultron," which raked in a staggering $191.3 million in its opening weekend this month, Joss Whedon's show was a lock for a third season.

The definition of a bubble show, "S.H.I.E.L.D." is ABC's tenth highest-rated scripted series, averaging 4.53 million viewers and a 1.6 in the demo. In light of the huge numbers it put up in it series premiere (12.1 million viewers and a Hulk-sized 4.7 in the demo), "S.H.I.E.L.D." hasn't lived up to its potential. (Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that the Avengers aren't exactly falling all over themselves to pop in for a visit to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.) That said, the show still commands a pretty penny in the marketplace; with an average upfront unit price of around $158,000 per :30, it's ABC's second-priciest drama after "Scandal."

As for "Agent Carter," a zippy period piece that drew more viewers (5.02 million) than "S.H.I.E.L.D." in its eight-episode midwinter run, its renewal effectively put the kibosh on a hush-hush "S.H.I.E.L.D." spinoff that had been in development at ABC Studios.

If it's impossible to quantify the impact Marvel TV has on the movies (and vice versa), there is nothing ambiguous about the role superheroes have played at the CW. At the risk of trafficking in hyperbole, the genre has all but overwritten the network's DNA, transforming it from a sleepy backwater populated by angst-ridden, abundantly-cheekboned vampires, venomous Upper East Siders and Tyra Banks to a destination for fans of DC Comics.

"Arrow" was an unqualified success from the get-go, drawing more young males to the CW in its first season than at any time in the network's history, and "The Flash" has been nothing short of a revelation. With an average draw of 3.86 million viewers and a 1.4 in the 18-49 demo, "The Flash" outrates no fewer than 43 scripted series on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. It now stands as the all-time most-watched CW show, and will be the net's biggest moneymaker when this year's upfront negotiations begin.

The CW will add another DC series in winter 2016, when it bows "Legends of Tomorrow," a straight-to-series spinoff of its two flagship shows. Starring "Superman Returns" lead Brandon Routh as the Atom, "Legends" was developed by "Arrow" and "Flash" producer Greg Berlanti. The CW will make a formal announcement about the new show during its New York upfront presentation on May 14.

And corporate step-sibling CBS will take a crack at a superhero-driven drama for the first time in 25 years (the first incarnation of "The Flash" had a 22-episode run on CBS in 1990-91) when it takes to the skies with "Supergirl." Executive-produced by Mr. Berlanti, who has become the Shonda Rhimes of DC Comics TV adaptations, "Supergirl" is expected to alight on CBS's fall lineup, where it should draw a much greater cohort of younger viewers. (The median age of CBS's prime-time audience is 59.)

While NBC's "Heroes: Reborn" doesn't have its origins in the comic book universe, it certainly emulates the format. In fact, along with the revenue-generating opportunities and promotional aspects cited above, the fact that TV drama and comic book narratives both tend to embrace serialization goes a long way toward explaining why the genre is enjoying such a resurgence. Even a theatrical with a bloated running time is only going to allow for so much character development before the punch-ups and explosions shove their way back into the foreground.

A reboot of Tim Kring's 2006-10 sci-fi ensemble, "Heroes: Reborn" is currently NBC's only superhero-leaning project. After averaging a mere 0.9 in the demo in its inaugural run, the Friday night strip "Constantine" would appear to have no chance at a second season, although showrunner Daniel Cerrone last week claimed the show still had a shot as a midseason replacement.

NBC will present its fall schedule Monday morning, from the stage at Radio City Music Hall.

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