Superhero TV series are nothing new. Over the years we’ve seen small-screen versions of Batman, The Hulk, Wonderwoman and Superman (in both Smallville and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), not to mention an endless array of animated series based on DC Comics or Marvel properties.
In fact, those of us around at the time will recall that ABC’s Lois & Clark was a genuine TV phenomenon, capable of attracting audiences of around 18-20 million at its peak in the mid-1990s – though the show’s ratings fell off a cliff in season four and it was rapidly cancelled.
But right now the industry is in overdrive. Not content with their domination of the feature-film arena, the supers have expanded their influence across both mainstream TV and the subscription VoD market.
The show everyone is talking about right now is Supergirl, a Warner Bros-produced series that will debut on CBS in the US on October 26. The story of Superman’s cousin, it imagines the central character as a 24-year-old woman called Kara (played by Glee’s Melissa Benoist) who is trying to come to terms with her superpowers while also trying to find herself as a woman. In terms of pacing and characterisation, it feels like a superhero version of The Devil Wears Prada, with Kara alternating between saving planes from disaster and agonising over her wardrobe.
Deadline has given the show the thumbs up, calling it a “bounding, deceptively breezy and eminently watchable addition to both the superhero universe and primetime.”
But an early IMDb score of 6.2 (presumably based on the trailer and some access to the pilot) suggests the jury is out. What’s hard to tell at this stage is whether the show will appeal to both the superhero and the romcom audience – or neither of them.
It’s also questionable whether the show will do much for empowered female leads. IGN’s assessment (based on the trailer) is that: “It’s really disappointing that the property is being treated with the flowery touch we often see in romantic comedies aimed at a female audience. It’s disheartening when the material has a segment showing the hero struggling to find something to wear for a date.”
Having said all this, Supergirl has Greg Berlanti behind it, which is a good thing from a slick storytelling point of view. Berlanti also created The Flash and Arrow for The CW Network, both of which are top performers for the channel. And there’s no question that Supergirl has a warmth and wit that make it easy on the eye.
One person impressed by the series’ potential is Adam MacDonald, director of UK-based pay TV channel Sky 1, who has just picked it up for his network. He says: “We’ve already seen in the success of The Flash and Arrow that comic-book characters are a big hit with our customers, and with this fresh, fast-paced new series we’re giving them another sure-fire superhero smash.”
To give this some context, The Flash generates around 500,000 to 600,000 viewers for Sky1, which is well ahead of the channel’s slot average of 320,000.
Interestingly, Supergirl’s first episode in the US will be up against Fox’s Gotham, another Warner Bros TV show. The gothic procedural takes place in the Batman universe and focuses mostly on the activities of police chief Commissioner Gordon. Now in season two, Gotham seemed to be wobbling at the start of its new run but its figures look much better once time-shifted viewing is factored in. It is currently attracting just over seven million viewers when you factor in all platforms (Fox, Fox NOW and Hulu) across the first three days of viewing.
The show has also been doing well for Viacom-owned Channel 5 in the UK. After drawing in just under two million for the first episode of the new season, Gotham has settled in at around the 1.35 million mark (not including time-shifted viewing) on C5. This is a pretty good performance for the channel compared with key rivals Channel 4 and BBC2.
Other superhero-related shows on the market right now include ABC’s solid but unspectacular Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now in its third season, the series is currently attracting an audience of 3.7 million per episode (same-day figure), which is down on its season premiere of 4.9 million. Nevertheless, orthodox thinking is that the show is a certainty to be renewed.
A leading authority on this is Zap2it’s TVbytheNumbers, which explains why: “It’s a near-ironclad rule of broadcast TV that if a show will end its third season with 66 episodes (give or take one or two) and it’s produced by the sister studio of the network where it airs, then it will be renewed for a fourth season. Media conglomerates make more money selling 88 episodes of a show into syndication than they do with 66 episodes, thus the incentive to keep rolling into a fourth year.”
Then there is NBC’s Heroes Reborn, an unusual show in that it isn’t part of the DC or Marvel stables. A reboot of Heroes, which ran for four seasons between 2006 and 2010, Reborn is currently in its first season and is doing OK. Four episodes in, it has seen its same-day ratings slide from 6.6 million to 4.4 million, but with time-shifted viewing adding around 40% to the total, the show seems fairly well set for renewal. That would be welcome news for Global Canada and Seven Australia, which were among the first international channels to acquire it.
A number of superhero shows are also being generated as the result of a pact between Netflix and Marvel – the first of which was Daredevil, whose second season is coming soon. As Netflix doesn’t release viewing statistics, we have to content ourselves with the fact that this show has an 8.9 rating on IMDb and has generally been well received by critics.
Next up from the Netflix-Marvel deal is Jessica Jones, a 13-part series that will be made available in one go on November 20. This is a show that might do more for the cause of female empowerment than CBS’s Supergirl. After Jessica Jones will come series based around existing Marvel characters such as Luke Cage, Iron Fist and – if you believe the latest Hollywood rumour – Moon Knight.
You’d think by now that Disney-owned Marvel would be running out of characters and worlds to work with. But FX and Fox are also planning two new series based on Marvel’s X-Men franchise.
For the first, Marvel is joining forces with Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley and FX to produce Legion, a story that has already been produced as a movie. Based on Marvel comic characters, it follows an army of angels who have waged a war on mankind.
Meanwhile, Marvel TV and Fox are developing Hellfire, based on the Marvel comics group The Hellfire Club. Patrick McKay and John D Payne (Star Trek 3) will write the script for the project.
The big question, of course, is when will the super trend run out of steam as a TV staple? It’s fair to say the performance of Supergirl will affect the answer to that. CBS will be hoping Melissa Benoist’s character will generate as much of a cult following as the formidable Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark.