Warner’s DC Comics enjoys boom

Andy Fry
By Andy Fry
November 11, 2016

Hit & Miss
Arrow
Arrow is now in its fifth season

A couple of months ago, we looked at the success Disney has had with its Marvel acquisition. So it seems only fair that we also shine a spotlight on DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros that has spawned dozens of films, scripted shows and animation series.

Characters from DC, formed in 1932, have formed the basis of hit TV series since the 1950s. After early outings for Superman and Batman, DC properties gave us iconic shows like Wonder Woman, Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville.

The latter ran for 10 seasons (2001-2011) and 218 episodes, first on The WB and then on its replacement network The CW (which is 50/50 owned by CBS and DC Comics owner Warner Bros).

While DC properties remain an important part of the feature-film landscape, it’s The CW that continues to provide the major platform for DC Comics’ success on the small screen.

A key landmark was the launch of Arrow in 2012. Adapted for the screen by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, the show is one of The CW’s top performers and is currently in its fifth season, attracting just under two million viewers per episode.

The importance of Arrow goes beyond its ratings, however. On the one hand, it has encouraged The CW to back a number of DC-based franchises, with Berlanti and co in charge of the creative. On the other, it has persuaded some of the larger US networks to tap into the company’s pool of comic book IP.

Supergirl
Supergirl, starring Melissa Benoist, moved to The CW after starting life on CBS

Looking first at The CW, 2014 saw the launch of The Flash, which is part of the same mythological universe as Arrow (known to aficionados as the ‘Arrowverse’). Now in season three, The Flash is currently The CW’s top-rated show with around 2.8 million viewers per episode. And earlier this year, the network launched another spin-off based on the ‘Arrowverse’ pool of characters. Called DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, it is currently attracting a steady 1.8 million and has been renewed for a 17-episode second season.

In addition to the above shows, The CW is also home to Supergirl, a DC-based series that was originally aired on CBS but then shifted to The CW for season two when its ratings started to decline. In the less exposed world of The CW, the show has thrived and is now its second most popular series, averaging 2.6 million viewers.

The relationship with DC has also allowed The CW to segue into the ‘Zombieverse’ with iZombie. Loosely based on a comic book series that came out of DC’s Vertigo imprint, the show has a third season on the way and averages around 1.2 million viewers.

The rise of DC’s stock has also encouraged some of the Big Four US networks to sample the company’s wares. The stand out example of this is Fox’s Gotham, which delves into the backstory of the young Batman, focusing its energy primarily on Commissioner James Gordon and the origin stories of some of Batman’s most famous enemies. Now in its third season, the show is currently attracting an OK-but-not-amazing 3.4 million (down from four million in season two and six million in season one).

iZombie
iZombie averages 1.2 million viewers

Echoing its growing relationship with Disney’s Marvel, Fox has adapted a second DC property, Lucifer, based on a character that appeared in comic book series The Sandman (created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg).

The show debuted last year and did well enough to get a second season. Currently averaging around 3.5 million viewers, the second run was extended to 22 episodes last month – though the jury is still out on whether it is doing well enough to secure a third outing.

Without being overly critical, there is a pattern with DC properties – they perform strongly on The CW but modestly on the Big Four. Gotham and Lucifer have done OK but not fantastically well, while Supergirl’s strong start dissipated quickly, hence its move to The CW. To this list should be added Constantine, which aired for a single season on NBC before being axed.

The main reason for this is The CW is a narrowly focused youth channel while the Big Four are mainstream, so are probably trying to reach an audience that is more ambivalent about superheroes and fantasy adventure series. Nevertheless, there are more planned DC shows in the pipeline for the Big Four.

NBC, for example, is developing a sitcom rooted in the DC universe. Called Powerless, the shows is “a workplace comedy set at one of the worst insurance companies in the US – with the twist being that it also takes place in the universe of DC Comics. The show is about the reality of working life for a normal, powerless person in a world of superheroes and villains.”

Gotham
Batman prequel series Gotham airs on Fox

Fox, meanwhile, is reported to be piloting a show based on Black Lightning, one of the first African American superheroes to appear in DC Comics. This is a welcome trend, echoing the recent Marvel/Netflix tie-in on the new Luke Cage series.

Of course, the fact that The CW does so well has not been lost on cable channels, which have a similar kind of niche profile. So we’re also starting to see more DC properties populate this part of the TV business. AMC, for example, is doing pretty well with Preacher, another idea from DC’s Vertigo imprint. The first season attracted around 1.68 million per episode and a recommission followed.

Other pilot orders include Scalped for WGN America and Krypton for Syfy (the latter set in the Superman universe). There are also reported to be several other titles in development including DMZ and Ronin for Syfy and Amped for USA Network. FX is also believed to be developing a series based on Y: The Last Man.

For those unfamiliar with the world of comic books, the DC/Vertigo dichotomy is interesting. While the former is home to mainstream franchises like Superman and Batman, the latter was specifically set up to publish more hard-hitting, adult-themed franchises. This is significant, because it opened up the range of opportunities for DC.

Supergirl, for example, might fit on CBS or The CW but would look tame on AMC. Preacher, by contrast, would not go down well with a more mainstream audience. That said, Constantine and Lucifer were both born into the Vertigo family, which shows that the Big Four networks have been exploring the potential to soften Vertigo shows for their demos.

Preacher has been given a second season on AMC
Preacher has been given a second season on AMC

It’s also worth noting that there have been other DC subsidiaries down the years that are still providing IP for film and TV. For example, DC acquired an imprint called WildStorm in 1999 and shut it down in 2010. During that time, WildStorm created Red, a franchise that was subsequently turned into two successful films. Recent reports suggest NBC is now planning a TV version.

One obvious final question, of course, is how DC-based shows fare internationally. Well, not too badly actually.

Gotham has been licensed to platforms including Globo Brazil, Pro7 Germany and Netflix in Poland, while Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have both been acquired by Italia 1 among others.

Lucifer has also travelled well, to platforms such as Amazon UK and Viasat 3 in Hungary. On UK pay TV channel Sky1, latest ratings figures put The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl as the top three shows, underlining the global appeal of the dynamic DC business.

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