Fall TV 2016: Comic-book shows are all over broadcast TV, but none of them are hits
Shows based on comic books did not exist on network TV in the 2011-12 season, the year between the end of “Smallville” and the premiere of “Arrow” on The CW. Even during “Smallville’s” decade-long run, only three other shows based on comics aired on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and CW forebear The WB — the final two seasons of “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Birds of Prey” and “Human Target.”
This season, there will be 10 shows based on comics, on four of the five networks. That’s an explosive amount of growth in just five years, and one that mirrors the way movie studios (which are, by and large, other units of the networks’ corporate parents) have come to rely on comic properties to fuel their summer slates.
Here’s the thing, though: None of those 10 shows is going to be a big hit, based on recent ratings history.
In the 2015-16 season, the average episode of a network show drew a 1.39 same-day rating in adults 18-49. Remove live sports, and the average is 1.31. The nine comic-book series on the air averaged 1.15.
That average is dragged down some by the fact that four of the nine — “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Legends of Tomorrow” and “iZombie” — aired on The CW, whose ratings are well below those of the Big 4. You could call “The Flash” and its 1.37 rating last season a hit relative to other CW shows, since it was the only series on the network to score above a 1.0 in the 18-49 demographic. But in the larger broadcast universe, it’s not.
Remove The CW’s shows from the comics average, and the remaining series — “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” on ABC, “Gotham” and “Lucifer” on FOX and “Supergirl” on CBS — averaged a 1.35. That’s just barely above the five-network, non-sports average.
So what’s the appeal? Well, Disney owns ABC and Marvel and has often treated “Agents of SHIELD” like a brand extension of its Marvel Cinematic Universe. The DC shows on The CW make a little more sense, as Warner Bros. (which owns half of The CW and all of DC), has had more success with its comic shows than anything else in recent years, and they can run without interrupting the movie version of the DC universe.
“Gotham” is a Batman show without Batman, which probably sounded good in concept to FOX (but has caused some problems in execution). “Lucifer” seemingly served FOX’s current desire to procedural-ize nearly all of its dramas.
One thing the comic series have in common with their movie counterparts is (often) big openings followed by sizable declines.
“SHIELD,” “Gotham” and “Supergirl” all had 18-49 ratings of 3.1 or higher for their series premieres, and all had Season 1 averages at least 33 percent lower than that. On average, the nine shows on the air last year had Season 1 averages 31.5 percent lower than their series premieres. None of them increased their numbers in Season 2.
A random sample of seven other dramas (“Once Upon a Time,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Quantico,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Scorpion,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “Chicago Fire”) showed an average dropoff of 21.5 percent from series premiere to first-season average.
A big drop after the opening weekend is survivable, and often expected, with a big movie. TV isn’t built that way. Losing 30 percent or more of your debut audience, followed by the inevitable declines later in a show’s life, doesn’t suggest a great future.
In 2016-17, two new comic shows — The CW’s “Riverdale,” based on the Archie comics, and NBC’s “Powerless,” a comedy set in the DC universe — will join eight returning series. Whether they stick around for longer than that is anyone’s guess, but history suggests neither one will have a massive audience.