'Heroes' Needs More Action, Less Conspiracy

Media Reviews for Media People

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With the fall season in full gear, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. Next up: "Heroes," NBC's hit show about average people discovering they have above-average abilities.
'Heroes' salaryman Hiro.
'Heroes' salaryman Hiro. Credit: NBC/Paul Drinkwater


Where/when you'll see it: NBC, Mondays at 9 p.m.

What you'll see: Superman has kryptonite. And the superhero drama "Heroes" has critics who think the show isn't living up to the potential it displayed last season.

After being lauded as NBC's sole breakout hit in 2006-07, "Heroes" has fought a tide of negative comment. Last season, fans loved learning about Claire, a cheerleader who heals her own injuries, or Hiro, a Japanese salaryman who discovers he can bend time and space. What they haven't liked this year are slooooow-to-develop storylines, particularly one that sent fan favorite Hiro to feudal Japan for a while. A pronounced focus on some vague conspiracy that envelops all the characters but never really is described in full hasn't helped matters.

Why, it sounds just like the decline of a number of supernatural and sci-fi favorites. ABC's spy serial "Alias" focused on young Sydney Bristow, an agent who never was quite sure whom she worked for. When "Alias" focused solely on her adventures, it was great. When it got stuck sending the characters on the trail of some ill-described formula that might save the world, the drama became frustrating. You can follow the pattern in older programs in this genre, such as Fox's "X-Files" or even ABC's "Twin Peaks" (and, just maybe, "Lost"): too much back story, not enough personality. Even Tim Kring, the executive producer of "Heroes," recently told Entertainment Weekly he and his fellow producers had made mistakes earlier in the season.

More than any other recent drama about superheroes -- including "Smallville" and even "The Greatest American Hero" -- "Heroes" is able to bring in more than just sci-fi geeks. The characters are more human than superhuman; their individual stories are more intriguing than their abilities to fly, read minds or shoot fire from their hands. The show lost sight of that in its first few weeks this season.

Gone also are the intriguing network marketing ploys that gave "Heroes" such buzz last year. (Can't anyone at NBC come up with something that rivals "Save the cheerleader ... save the world"?)

All of this has surfaced in the ratings, which have dropped precipitously. Nearly 17 million people watched the Sept. 24 episode live or within 24 hours using a DVR, according to Nielsen. But only about 10.5 million tuned in for the Oct. 29 episode.

Emerging evidence suggests "Heroes" has begun to turn itself around -- at least storywise. The recent introductions of Monica Dawson (Dana Davis), a plucky New Orleans woman who discovers she can imitate anything she sees on TV, and Elle (Kristen Bell), a mysterious woman who can shoot electricity from her hands, have revived a sense of wonder in the program. Last night the show tried to start things over by explaining some of the more cryptic developments that have lingered since the end of last season.

It may not be enough. "Heroes" works best when it lets us see ordinary people struggling with extraordinary circumstances, not when it emphasizes nebulous threats they may encounter. More action, please, and less conspiracy.

What's at stake: For advertisers, "Heroes" is one of the most expensive shows on TV -- but it may not be for long if the network can't get its ratings up. Building on this program's momentum is key if NBC wants to develop at least one stable franchise while it continues to flail about in its efforts to replace hits such as "Friends" and "Frasier."

Who's onboard: Top sponsors of "Heroes" last season included Toyota Motor, Procter & Gamble, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon Communications, according to TNS Media Intelligence. One top sponsor, Nissan, purchased all the ad time in both season premieres of the program, then showed only its commercials (and got some pretty obvious product placements during the season to boot).

Your ad here? NBC has used "Heroes" this year as a launching pad for new ad concepts. One is a "hybrid" commercial that blends a promotional message from an advertiser with a short reminder to viewers to stay tuned. A 30-second ad from American Express, for instance, shows singer Beyonce drawn in comic-book form -- playing off the content of the show -- then tells viewers to stay tuned for an American Express ad featuring the celebrity and urges them to wait for "Heroes" to return. Another ad for Sprint tells viewers the show will be back soon and lets them know they can access scenes using Sprint services. These are early efforts, no doubt, to keep viewers from leaving during ad breaks and goosing results for new commercial ratings. It will be interesting to see if they are effective and gain traction.

Media buyer's verdict: "Heroes" better gain some super ratings strength -- and quickly. "I have a lot of patience, so I'm not that quick to be dismissive of it, but a lot of their viewers who jumped on this bandwagon because it was a hot show to be involved with have jumped off," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Carat. "There are a lot of twists and turns with the plot, which is more focused on mythology than the powers. Last year it was more powers and less mythology."
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