Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Predictable Trajectory of Agents of SHIELD's Ratings

In the weeks since the arrival of the much ballyhooed Agents of SHIELD on ABC in September, the attitude of commentators has gone from bullish to bearish, in part because the show's initially impressive ratings have fallen markedly.

The truth is that the drop was only to be expected--for a reason that is familiar, but worth repeating all the same, given how many people in and out of Hollywood simply can't seem to wrap their minds around the dynamics of genre TV, and the ways in which it differs from genre film.

The Avengers, like just about every other big-screen spec-fic-based blockbuster of recent years, was sold to general audiences on the basis of spectacle above all else. It was also an event film, as an unprecedented teaming of superheroes from successful, ongoing movie franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) in the first film to truly offer the "feel" of a common Marvel universe--which also happened to be the first big summer "tentpole" of 2012.

The small-screen version cannot compete in the area of spectacle with a $220 million budgeted two hour film screened in IMAX 3-D. And a weekly show cannot sustain the feel of an event for long--especially as it will not bring Tony Stark and company along on a weekly basis.

In other words, Agents of SHIELD simply cannot offer those things that brought movie audiences to The Avengers in record-breaking numbers last year. Instead the goodwill shown that film brought a good-sized audience to the premiere of the series (the highest for a drama premiere in four years), after which viewership quickly dropped.

The real question was not whether that would happen--as was only predictable, given the differences between film and TV show--but the extent to which the drop would continue, and especially whether it would reduce the audience to a level below the minimum required to keep such a show on the air, as routinely happens with heavily hyped science fiction shows. (Like Terra Nova. And Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which had also been spun off from a successful film series. And so on and so forth.) While the show has been picked up for a full season, that does not seem at all impossible: by its fifth week the viewer share were down some 40 percent from the premiere (from 4.7 to 2.6), which left it with some 7 million viewers--well short of the 10 million-plus that secures a show's place in network prime time.1

Still, predictable as all this was, it still seems noteworthy that this drop in viewership has been accompanied by an increasing amount of grumbling about what the show is offering in place of The Avengers' CGI extravaganza and plethora of A-list superheroes. Indeed, rather than laments by fans that the general public is failing to appreciate the show's better points, recent weeks have seen a slew of pieces about "how to fix" Agents--like these pieces by Esther Zuckerman at The Atlantic Wire, and Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch.

Zuckerman suggests that the show move beyond the procedural format predominating to date, to a more arc-oriented format which has the titular agents up against a "Big Bad." Franich, more systematic and ambitious, offers options corresponding to three different "tiers of radicalness," ranging from a "Soft Touch" reboot that would have the characters spend less time looking at screens, to a "Total Reboot," which would see the story write in C-list Marvel superheroes and offer villainy from within SHIELD itself.

That very diversity of obvious options for those trying to elevate the show's interest seems indicative of how little the writers have really tried to do with its concept thus far. However, whether they will have the skill--and opportunity--to do so before the declining enthusiasm for the show becomes fatal is anything but certain, with the show's continued drop in the ratings this past week (to a new low of 2.5) boding ill for those prospects.

And there are, of course, limits to what can be done that have to be considered, even if the producers and writers are given a proper chance to turn things around. The fact remains that changes likely to please genre fans may not mean very much to--or even put off--the broader audience, one reason why networks so often favor standalone episodes casual viewers can easily enjoy over the arcs that more devoted viewers crave. Indeed, pessimistic as it may seem, the Los Angeles Times' Scott Collins may be more astute in wondering about not what would save the show, but if it is possible to save it.

1. Of course, Motley Fool's Steve Symington points out that the show's performance does not look so bad when one considers its tough time slot (it is up against longtime #1 drama NCIS), its success with a coveted demographic (it's now #2 with males aged 18-49), and the bump it gets when time-shifting is taken into account (boosting its viewership 62 percent by one measure). These are not unimportant qualifications, but the trend is still worrisome, and the show's position likely more precarious than ABC's programmers would like.

My Posts on Science Fiction Television
My Posts on Superheroes
The Cancellation of Terra Nova

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