Marvel Television's approach to their superhero shows is evolving to suit the 2020s. Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment in August 2009, and it didn't take long for Marvel to recognize some of the new opportunities they were afforded. In June 2010, the company announced the launch of a new division, Marvel Television, which they originally intended to have the closest possible relationship with Disney network ABC. That ultimately led to the launch of Marvel's flagship TV show, Agents of SHIELD.
Marvel was quick to recognize the potential of streaming, and by October 2013 they'd prepared a package of four drama series and a single team-up miniseries. Netflix, Amazon, and WGN America all expressed interest, but in the end the Netflix bid won. That led to the hugely-popular Marvel Netflix range - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders; although the partnership between Marvel and Netflix has now dissolved, in the end viewers were treated to no less than 13 seasons of superhero action, including two starring Jon Bernthal as The Punisher.
But times are changing for Marvel Television. The Marvel Netflix partnership is over, with Jessica Jones season 3 bringing the Defenders' stories to an end. Meanwhile, next year's Agents of SHIELD season 7 will wrap that series up as well; Marvel chose to pull the plug themselves, preferring to finish the story rather than risk ABC canceling and leaving loose ends untied. That's naturally led to intense speculation over what exactly the future holds for Marvel Television, and fortunately Marvel Entertainment's SVP of Original Programming and Production, Karim Zreik, recently participated in a panel with Parrot Analytics. There, he gave a rare glimpse of the strategic approach being taken by the company in the 2020s.
Marvel Television Shows Work Best On Streaming
When Marvel Television was first launched, the company imagined its relationship with ABC would be key. It never quite worked out that way, although for years both Marvel and ABC frequently insisted the broadcast network was the natural home of Marvel Television.
But Marvel now knows their shows perform better on streaming services than on broadcast networks. There's a simple reason; according to Zreik, Marvel has found viewers don't tend to tune in when an episode airs. Instead, they watch on catch-up over the next three or even seven days. That viewing pattern leads to disappointing live ratings, and is thus much more attractive to a streaming service. It's worth noting, back in 2017, The Hollywood Reporter suggested Disney had prohibited Marvel Television from selling to outside companies; these reports are still unconfirmed, but if true suggest Marvel will be focusing on their relationships with Hulu and Disney+. That certainly fits the pattern of recent announcements.
The end of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD doesn't necessarily mean there will no longer be any Marvel properties on a broadcast network, though. ABC is reportedly keen to keep some sort of relationship going, wanting to have at least one Marvel property on air at any given time; they're in talks for an unknown female-led Marvel TV series. It remains to be seen how this will work out.
Marvel Television Shows Are Targeted At Niche Audiences
Meanwhile, Marvel seems to have learned some valuable lessons from their partnership with Netflix. "Each show, for us, had a different demographic," Zreik explained. "Each show is very specific. Women took to Jessica Jones, men took to Daredevil, young men took to Iron Fist because of the age of the lead character." Marvel realized each of their shows could be specifically targeted at a different niche audience, and experimented with that approach with Cloak & Dagger and Runaways. These are aimed at the young-adult market, and are proving to be a success.
Zreik explained Marvel is continuing to pitch ideas to these discrete niche audiences. In February, Marvel settled a deal with Hulu that will allow them to explore adult animation in a range where, as Zreik noted with some amusement, the strongest IP is Howard the Duck. They've since announced a similar range of supernatural horror-style shows to stream on Hulu as well, Ghost Rider and Helstrom, which will reach another niche. In general, Marvel seems to view each of these as something of an experiment. As Zreik observed, "We're trying different things because we feel like there's an audience for it."
This isn't to suggest Marvel Television will entirely abandon four-quadrant TV series, though. No doubt their pitch to ABC is a little less niche, and Zreik stressed the company is working on new content for Disney+ as well. "They're a family brand, four-quadrant, so I think that's what we're targeting," he noted. But this sounds to be the exception, rather than the norm.
Marvel TV Don’t Need A Well-Known Superhero To Succeed
Marvel Television has learned it doesn't need to be using a well-known IP in order to succeed. "The Avengers, Iron Man, those are the more popular characters from the publishing side," Zreik pointed out. "We're dealing with characters like Cloak and Dagger, Runaways, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist - not as popular on the publishing side." In his view, this gives the showrunners a freedom they wouldn't have with top-tier heroes, because they effectively get to introduce viewers to an entirely new character and concept. "It's just finding the right showrunner to come in with the creative vision," Zreik reflected. This certainly explains some of Marvel's more unusual choices, which range from Legion to the upcoming Hit-Monkey animated series.
Of course, the reality is Marvel Television has no choice but to operate in this way. Marvel Studios gets first pick of characters for the big screen; Marvel Television is only able to use the ones the movies have passed up on. That's why it's very rare for Marvel Television to get to work with a strong, established IP like Daredevil or Ghost Rider. But these constraints seem to work in Marvel's benefit; they force the company to focus on quality rather than brand strength.
Quality Matters To The Whole Of Marvel Entertainment
There are under-appreciated risks to working with these weaker brands, though. "Our content has an impact on publishing," Zreik pointed out. "If a show gets dinged somewhere, or the reviews are bad, that may have an impact on publishing sales for that character." His comments sound like the voice of experience, and may well reflect on Inhumans. The comics publisher had been building up the Inhumans brand since Jonathan Hickman's "Infinity" event in 2013, and in 2017 Marvel Television released the ill-fated Inhumans series on ABC. It was a flop, and two years later, Marvel Comics is no longer releasing any Inhumans-related books at all.
In the wake of Inhumans, Zreik seems to imply all of Marvel Entertainment carefully watch what the TV division is up to. They want a constant assurance Marvel Television will be producing quality shows, ones that enhance and strengthen the IP rather than damage it. Hopefully that means a stronger relationship between the publishing and television arms; at the Agents of SHIELD panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Chloe Bennet mentioned there was talk of a spin-off comic book series charting the team's adventures in space. It would be great to see Marvel identify those kinds of opportunities, and develop a synergy between the comics and the TV side.
Marvel Television is generally one of the more secretive television studios; as Zreik explained, that's largely because the fans are incredibly invested in their products. A single leak can cost millions, and every detail - every photograph distributed, every interview arranged - is part of a tightly-organized marketing campaign. Given that's the case, it's quite rare to see an exec at Marvel speak so openly about aspects of their corporate strategy. In this case, Zreik's comments help to provide context for some of Marvel's recent announcements and give a sense of just where the company is likely to go next. It will be fascinating to see which of Marvel's experiments pay off, and how their approach continues to evolve over their next decade.