Ahead of another season of fresh US studio dramas, TBI Vision’s Jesse Whittock investigates the role superhero programming will play as different forms of the genre proliferate on channels and platforms around the world.
“Nearly every major network in the US has a superhero show,” observes one senior European acquisitions executive. Recent broadcast seasons in the US have seen ABC running Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel’s Agent Carter, CBS play Supergirl, Fox score with Gotham, NBC reboot Heroes as Heroes Reborn and try and fail with Constantine, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow join Arrow and The Flash on The CW.
Since the Walt Disney Company paid US$4 billion for Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Time Warner established DC Entertainment as a home for DC Comics in the same year, both the film and television worlds have seen an explosion in superhero franchises, programming and character development.
“The Flash, Supergirl and Gotham are the sort of shows that networks like to keep around, as loyal fans mean steady ratings.”
Glossy broadcast network series were soon added to the ever-present animated kids superhero series of the children’s TV networks, showcasing an array of superhuman crime fighters and their villainous counterparts. “Arrow was the one that made us all sit up,” says Catherine Mackin, director of programme acquisitions at UK channel operator UKTV.
Since The CW show’s launch in 2012, superhero programming has been the domain of pay TV giant Sky in Britain. “These stories are all about a crusader righting the wrongs that other people can’t,” says the European paycaster’s director of acquisitions, Sarah Wright, who joined from UKTV the same year Disney bought the Marvel universe’s 5,000 (and now 8,000)-strong stable of characters.
“The big hitters of the genre – like The Flash, Supergirl and Gotham – are all solid performers, and the sort of shows that networks like to keep around, as loyal fans mean steady ratings,” says Dan Whitehead, head of drama and digital at UK-based programme-trends analyst K7 Media.
“Superhero shows have been working for quite some time for us,” adds Sky’s Wright. “They are much-loved brands, and that creates a feeling of knowing what you’re getting. They are here to stay: look at all of the comics, the fanbases and the conventions.”
More recently, a new type of superhero genre has emerged following the original series-output deal Disney and Marvel secured with subscription on-demand service Netflix in November 2013. These shows, which begin with the release of Marvel’s Daredevil a year ago, take a tone Disney Media Distribution’s senior VP and general manager, EMEA, Mark Endemano describes as “more noir-ish and closer to the original graphic novel source material than the network stuff”.
“Those shows are given the ability to tell a story that has such high production quality and to really go in-depth into the characters,” he adds.
Netflix being an on-demand platform was also a factor in the deal to create Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Iron Fist, according to K7’s Whitehead. “Episodic TV maps closest to the format of monthly comic books, and the SVOD binge-watch mentality has echoes of the trade paperback market, where fans wait for storylines to be collected into a single volume,” he says.
Daredevil, which follows a blind lawyer who becomes a fearless crime fighter, has been praised for its serialised format, plotting, brutal fight scenes and the performance of Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays villain Wilson Fisk.
Jessica Jones, meanwhile, has been among the buzziest dramas of the 2015-16 season. The show has a female lead, played by Krysten Ritter, and besides the standard superhero trope of good-versus-evil, deals with topics such as rape, assault and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Iron Fist and Luke Cage-themed series will follow, before a miniseries involving all four lead characters, Marvel’s The Defenders, debuts.
“The Netflix deal with Marvel could set a template for the future – where development deals encompass a package of linked characters, each of which is expected to sustain their own show,” says K7’s Whitehead. “But it remains to be seen how that will pay off.”
He adds: “Certainly Jessica Jones trended hard and reviewed well, as did Daredevil to a lesser extent, but as with all binge-worthy shows the impact tends to be a big social media splash that vanishes after a few weeks, hence the need to keep launching new series.
“Marvel’s character catalogue means the material is there, but it also means more pressure to deliver quality shows.”
Sarah Wright – who now oversees acquisitions for Sky’s UK and Irish, Italian, and German and Austrian units – says that darker-themed shows can work on linear platforms, too.
“Arrow isn’t always light,” she says. “The Flash (above) and Supergirl generally are, but Arrow can be more uncompromising. You could put darker themes on Sky 1, but the real question is, how much is too much superhero?”
Disney’s Endemano says the “concept of superhero has changed” through the Netflix shows, which have a three-year global SVOD window before they can be sold through linear channels, and through darkly-themed films such as DC’s Dark Knight franchise. “These are darker characters who you grow real emotional attachment for,” he adds. “There is a far more sophisticated TV and film-going audience, and that means the superhero is not just someone in a suit.”
“The Netflix / Marvel deal could set a template – where development deals encompass a package of linked characters.”
“Are you making something like The Flash or Supergirl, which both have a sense of fun, or are you selling an Arrow or Daredevil, darker and more violent fare that is unlikely to cross over into the family primetime market?” asks K7’s Whitehead. “Marvel and DC have both defined their respective universes on the big screen with very specific and deliberate tonal choices, to which audiences have responded.”
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