Why Can’t Marvel Translate Its Netflix Success To Broadcast TV?

Yesterday was a bad day for Marvel’s TV division. Not only was the excellent Agent Carter canceled after two seasons, ABC decided not to go forward with Mockingbird: Marvel’s Most Wanted. That leaves Agents of SHIELD as the sole Marvel drama on broadcast TV, although at least it got an early renewal.

It’s especially glaring in light of the fact that Marvel is winning critical accolades and huge numbers of viewers on Netflix. Marvel’s original five-series deal with Netflix has grown to six with The Punisher, and of the two we’ve seen so far, both have done extremely well. If that weren’t enough, the Distinguished Competition keeps taking over network television. DC has two shows on Fox, Gotham and Lucifer, and five shows on the CW if you include Supergirl’s upcoming network switch. And there’s even more on the way: Preacher arrives on AMC May 22 and seems ready to become that network’s next big series, and Powerless got a full series order from NBC. Two more DC shows are either filming pilots or awaiting a network decision, and six more are in various stages of development.

Part of Marvel’s problem, at least on broadcast TV, is that ABC is more concerned with same-day ratings than the CW. In general, the CW seems more interested in building shows over time than delivering same-day ratings. Even shows like The 100, which don’t exactly burn up the ratings charts, can get multiple seasons where other networks would have canceled them long ago, thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and the CW’s own streaming site. This isn’t to say ABC drops the hammer indiscriminately, as Agent Carter was never a ratings juggernaut and got two seasons anyway. But networks need to deliver viewership for their affiliates, and ABC is likely feeling more pressure than the CW in that regard.

Another possible problem is Marvel’s strategy. Marvel has fairly strict “tiers” restricting what it does where. The high-powered superheroes are on the big screen, the street-level crime-fighters are on Netflix, and the ABC shows are about regular humans and authority figures dealing with the fallout of superheroics. Even Agents of SHIELD, which has steadily built up the Inhumans as a major plot point, is primarily about “normal” humans with the superheroes either off-screen or working closely with them. Audiences tend to associate Marvel with superheroes, and on Marvel’s broadcast TV offerings, there just weren’t a lot of heroes front and center. Even DC downplays its connections to its non-superheroic offerings; you’d be hard pressed to even know iZombie or Lucifer
were based on comic books just by watching the shows themselves.

Marvel is in no danger of going off the air, of course. It’s been consistently impressive on Netflix, and as Agents of SHIELD has mixed superspy drama and superheroics, it’s become a surprisingly compelling show. And things are changing, with the upcoming Cloak and Dagger on Freeform. Still, when it comes to broadcast TV, for now, Marvel is still figuring it out.