ABC has renewed Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter for a third and second season respectively, the latter most likely again acting as a bridge series with a limited number of episodes. The Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque SHIELD spin-off for Adrianne Palicki’s Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse and Nick Blood’s Lance Hunter is reportedly not moving forward, but American Crime’s John Riddley is still working on reinventing a familiar Marvel hero (we’ve heard rumors about the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel, but nothing’s official yet). So, Coulson and pals will be back to lay even more groundwork for the Inhumans and answer apparent plot holes in Marvel movies like Age of Ultron, and Hayley Atwell gets another crack at defeating 1940s era sexism.
This is great news. If you go by the quality of the shows, both SHIELD and Agent Carter more than earned their renewals, each displaying a gradual improvement over time which promises even better things going forward. However, by major broadcast network standards SHIELD is a very low-rated drama, to the point that the mere idea of ABC mulling over a spin-off, the Adrianne Palicki show I had taken to calling “Agent Mockingbird,” was mildly stunning. Agent Carter, which is technically a Captain America: The First Avenger spin-off, was similarly low-rated and thought to have no shot at renewal. Yet ABC opted to bring back both SHIELD and Carter. Yay! But do you mind if I ask why?
The answers are actually pretty simple: A) Synergy; B) ABC has to find some way to attract male viewers.
But first the ratings:
Of all the superhero comic book shows currently on TV, Agents of SHIELD is the second-most watched behind Gotham, with the Marvel effort averaging 7.3 million overall viewers after DVR time-shifting and Fox’s much-maligned DC origin story pulling in 7.6 million viewers after time-shifting (according to THR). That just barely ranks Gotham among the top 25 broadcast series, and it “is finishing the season drawing half of the live ratings it saw in the fall.” Sound familiar? It should since that’s pretty much exactly what Agents of SHIELD did during its first season, opening to huge first week numbers before steadily declining from that point forward, making the show’s pricy per-episode budget more and more suspect.
But advertising don’t really care about total viewers, and they’re really, really not fond of DVR time-shifting. They mostly care about ratings in the key adults 18-to-49 demo, where SHIELD has been averaging a very modest 1.5 rating this season. For its part, Agent Carter hovered between a 1.9 and 1.3 across its 8 episodes. As a point of comparison, three of the shows ABC just canceled had a better key adult demo rating: Forever (1.9), Resurrection (2.0) and Revenge (1.9). Furthermore, The Flash, airing on the lowly CW, often equals and sometimes beats a 1.5.
And that’s where synergy comes into play. What SHIELD has going for it which Forever, Resurrection and Revenge did not is that it is building upon decades of comic book history from one of ABC’s sister companies, Marvel, which has been under the Disney umbrella since 2009. Disney’s current CEO Robert Iger has consistently pushed for creative synergy, which has been very evident in the way Star Wars has been re-launched as a deliberately planned cross-platform product with an animated series on DisneyXD going along with a new trilogy of films and two planned, slightly more stand-alone anthology films. This strategy has already extended to ABC, where Once Upon a Time plays out like a live-action Disney fairy tale with signature Disney characters on a TV budget much in the same SHIELD sometimes comes off as a Marvel comic book movie on a TV budget. Once Upon a Time quickly added Maleficent and Elsa to its cast in reaction to the Disney films Maleficent and Frozen.
There’s also the fact that Agents of SHIELD is produced by ABC Studios and Marvel Television, and we are now in an era where all of the networks are giving preferential treatment to the shows they actually own as opposed to leasing from a different studio (Fox wants shows from 20th Century Fox, NBC from NBC-Universal, CBS from CBS Studios, The CW from Warner Bros., etc.). Such an arrangement is preferable because it allows you to double dip if your show reaches syndication whereas when a network airs a show it does not produce it does not actually make anything from that show’s eventual syndication deal (e.g., Modern Family airs on ABC, but it is syndicated on TBS in a deal brokered by 20th Century Fox since they’re the ones who actually produce the show).
However, synergy doesn’t always pay off. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, an attempt to capitalize on Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, was a ratings disaster. SHIELD has consistently failed to register significant ratings gains for its Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now Avengers: Age of Ultron cross-over episodes or guest appearances from Jamie Alexander’s Lady Sif. Still, ABC was comfortable enough with the DVR-boosted ratings for SHIELD to try to turn it into a franchise with Agent Carter, and they’re not giving up.
Then there’s the gender component. ABC is the only major broadcast network which does not carry any traditionally male-leaning sports programming, an identity somewhat forced on them after Monday Night Football shifted to corporate sibling ESPN in 2006. Ever since then, ABC has turned into the leading network for female viewers, anchored by soapy dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and family sitcoms like Modern Family and Blackish, the latter of which along with Fresh Off the Boat represents a new push for racial diversity. However, as of a couple of years ago their area of concern was gender. By the close of 2013, “ABC finished a clear first among women 18 to 49 — and dead last in that category when men were counted.” That’s great in the sense that it carves out a clear identity for your network, but it borders on becoming the Lifetime Channel of broadcast TV.
The CW used to be similarly front-loaded with female viewers, but thanks to Arrow and The Flash it has gone from 70% of its total viewership being female to somewhere closer to 60%. That’s sort-of what Agents of SHIELD was supposed to do for ABC, and the female-led Agent Carter was supposed to split the difference. Yet at this time last year when SHIELD‘s chance of getting a second season was still up in the air, an advertising executive told the outlet AdAge, “ABC needs a complete and total refresh of the network. There’s no upside for advertisers relative to the programming currently on the air […] ABC attracts the lowest common denominator — women 35-to-64 — which is the easiest target to reach on TV.” Wow, huge unexpected slam on women 35-to-64 there, but it is a window into how TV advertisers talk.
SHIELD ultimately survived to a second season largely because of its ability to skew younger and male along with achieving a “too big to fail” status due to its association with Marvel. Sam Armando of media-buying firm SMGx sees similar forces at play in SHIELD getting a third season and Agent Carter a second, telling THR, “Would any network but ABC order a [female-led] spinoff of a show like SHIELD? Probably not. ABC wants to bring in men without alienating the women who contributed to their growth. This kind of program, especially something female-fronted [like Agent Carter], has the opportunity to do that. They see room for another swing to get it right and sustain some success.”
The part working against them is the odd inability of any superhero comic book show to actually sustain long-term growth since according to Armando, “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.” Instead, they drive people to DVR/Netflix/Hulu/whatever binge-watching, possibly a by-product of skewing younger and thus appealing to viewers who are more accustomed to Netflix-all-at-once-rollouts instead of watching week-to-week. That’s why if you follow the Twitter accounts of the people involved with Flash, Arrow, SHIELD, Carter, etc. you’ll often see them plead with their followers to please watch a certain episode live or at least later that same day. The Agent Carter people had actually devoted some considerable social media effort to rallying their followers to let ABC know they wanted to see a second season.
Industry insiders highly doubt any kind of fan campaign had anything to do with the Agent Carter renewal. An anonymous talent agent told THR, “It seems really bizarre how beholden ABC appears to be to the Marvel brand. Those shows [SHIELD, Agent Carter] are getting beat by everything, including the DC shows on The CW. That just feels like it’s happening at a very high level corporately, and it’s not good for ABC.” It is obviously good for those who’ve stuck with SHIELD as well as those who gave Agent Carter a chance. Now, Hayley Atwell will continue to be the only woman leading her own comic book film or show (and her show will continue to be run by two women, Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters).