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The Future of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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I should preface this by saying that this article was largely written as a way to subdue my own growing nerves regarding the fate of Marvel’s flagship television show.

While I try to write my reviews from a strictly unbiased lens (I said try to) the fact of the matter is, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is my favorite show. I can ignore said fact enough to admit when the action falls short or the plot is weaker than it should be, but at the end of the day I love each and every episode despite whatever faults might exist.

Why?

Easy.

The cast is one of the most diverse on television, both in terms of gender and race, the characters are constantly evolving- never remaining stagnant, the VFX is often better than some blockbusters that have quadruple the budget, and the stories being told are as introspective as they are entertaining.

Which is why I find myself increasingly frustrated, and admittedly a little scared, by the seemingly dwindling viewership.

Each Tuesday I feng shui my living room so that the comfiest armchair is a mere foot away from the television. I make certain that my computer is fully-charged and ready for note taking (during the commercials of course, I’m not an animal who only devotes a portion of my attention to the show as it’s airing). I have my phone all but glued to my hand in preparation to live-tweet the newest episode with the #AgentsofSHIELD hashtag along with any funny quips I think might result in a favorite or two.

I interact with fellow fans, I retweet the cast’s behind-the-scenes pics and anecdotes, and in the final minutes of the night I usually collapse atop my bed in exhaustion after another satisfying episode.

But then Wednesday comes around and in between the consistently positive episode reviews, from sites ranging from smaller ones like ours to the more notable like IGN, are the graphs and charts showing me steadily decreasing Nielsen ratings.

Articles screaming, “S.H.I.E.L.D. Drops to New Lows,” or, “ABC’s Tuesday Death Slot,” plague my Twitter feed and cause my Tuesday-night high to immediately be replaced by Wednesday morning blues.

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So, rather than joining in on the pessimism being spread by outlets whose paid writers might not even watch the show they’re pushing towards the gallows, I’m going to take the opportunity to try and give you a little hope.

First thing’s first: Ratings aren’t everything.

While S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dwindling numbers are certainly a bummer to see, it’s important to remember that (shocking as it may be) America is not the only country in the world in which people watch television.

As a Marvel product, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has an enormous fan base outside of the United States. Viewers in London, Poland, Japan, and everywhere else shouldn’t be ignored simply because they get the show after (oftentimes months after) their American counterparts. The number of people who watch and enjoy S.H.I.E.L.D. far exceeds the figures that pop up the day after the stateside showing, something that networks are aware of and likely influenced by when making renewal decisions.

While the United States is a key market, it is by no means the only market. The show’s popularity in China led Chloe Bennet and Brett Dalton to being deemed big enough stars to carry their own Coke commercials. Clark Gregg is often treated like the sixth Beatle when making public appearances, Ming-Na Wen’s fans, affectionately dubbed, “Mingalings,” scatter every continent, and the United Kingdom’s Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker are adored on this planet as well as Maveth.

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s global outreach likely surpasses many of the more popular stateside shows and is an important factor that is often ignored by articles proclaiming that the end of S.H.I.E.L.D. is nigh.

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Another crucial thing to take into account is the fact that this is 2017 and broadcast/cable is no longer reigning supreme. Digital media has changed the game completely and a large number of people no longer find it necessary to watch shows live, instead favoring streaming from some other platform at a more convenient time. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s live viewership may seem small, but the show’s Live+ numbers have held steady for quite some time and often double the same-day audience.

The ratings system is a finicky one that also zeroes in on very specific forms of access. While DVR playback, purchasing an episode on iTunes/Amazon, and streaming from official sites is factored into the, “final,” tally of viewers, there are numerous other means in which fans access their favorite shows. As mentioned, the global fanbase of S.H.I.E.L.D. means that many viewers watch the show through avenues that are not included in ratings. Unofficial channels can’t be included in official tallies, meaning that much of the foreign viewership that may be watching through internet livestreams or less reputable streaming services isn’t included in that ominous Nielsen number.

Similarly, it’s important to point out that we live in the era of the binge-watch.

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With so much television being thrown in our faces, we’re forced to pick and choose what to watch live on a weekly basis, and what to wait for until it hits sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, seasons usually don’t hit streaming services until after the May Upfronts, at which networks announce the next year’s television lineup, and therefore an entire collection of viewers are often uncounted.

Also important to keep in mind when worrying about S.H.I.E.L.D. is the fact that ABC and Marvel are both the favorite siblings of parent company Disney.

AKA this isn’t a case of one company creating a show to potentially make or break another. While a Marvel production airing on the ABC network, S.H.I.E.L.D. ultimately belongs to Disney. Meaning that, at the end of the day, Disney has the largest sway when it comes to determining whether or not S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show that should stick around.

While this may be worrying to some (the standard belief being that the bigger the business the less room for small viewership numbers) Disney serving as the head honcho where S.H.I.E.L.D. is concerned might actually prove to be an asset. Because, despite the fact that many naysayers still refuse to give it a chance or rank it more highly in listicles pitting genre shows against one another, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is very much the lynchpin of the MCU.

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Will it ever receive the hype that the films or even its Netflix counterparts get?

Unlikely.

But S.H.I.E.L.D. is an invaluable component of the MCU, and by proxy Disney, due to the fact that it provides something that Netflix and the movies do not: consistency and longevity.

While there is a clear hierarchy within the MCU (Films > Netflix Shows > Broadcast Shows) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one piece of entertainment that carries over twenty-two weeks of the calendar year. Generally, Marvel will release two films per year and, while Netflix Television produces 13 episodes of its original content, releasing an entire season of episodes simultaneously means that shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage will usually provide hardcore Marvelites with only a weekend of entertainment.

S.H.I.E.L.D. on the other hand, with twenty-two episodes released on a weekly basis, provides months of entertainment for viewers. Something that is definitely important for a company whose motto is, “It’s all connected.”

With such huge gaps between the release of Marvel films, and the release of Marvel’s Netflix shows, S.H.I.E.L.D. is the only piece of live-action entertainment that Marvel can rely upon for a year-long reminder that the MCU is the pinnacle of successful superhero content.

Not to mention the fact that, even when not on air, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is constantly being marketed by its stars. While much of the MCU’s big-names don’t have the time or desire to embrace their superhero sides during the offseason, many members of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast frequent the numerous comic conventions that are held throughout the year.

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Which is a big deal.

As important as it is to throw in the sporadic TV spot during episodes of Scandal, or an LMD advert within the pages of the latest Marvel comic books, facetime between fans and the people portraying their favorite characters is likely the most significant kind of publicity and marketing that a genre show like S.H.I.E.L.D. can receive. Making the rounds at such conventions provides a type of marketing that companies can’t reproduce no matter how much money is lining their pockets. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast is immensely popular at both the smaller and larger conventions, with autograph lines always full and panels consistently meeting maximum capacity even if only a single cast-member is in attendance.

Again, this speaks volumes when trying to quantify, and more importantly qualify, the fanbase of the show.

In short: S.H.I.E.L.D. fans put their money where their mouths are.

Largely due to the fact that there’s an abundance of merchandise that most other shows don’t even come close to matching, but mostly because of the interaction between the fan and the portrayer.

Shows like Grey’s Anatomy or Modern Family are obviously wildly popular, but neither, in fact none of ABC’s other shows are able to tap into the specific niche that S.H.I.E.L.D. does. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is like the black sheep of ABC in the absolute best possible way. Being a genre show, it can be represented and lauded in a way that other shows cannot. How frequently are fans of How to Get Away With Murder able to interact with cast-members? How many weekends do the people behind the Goldbergs spend taking photos and signing autographs?

S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show that allows, and even encourages, direct interaction with fans, simply because it is a product of a company so massive that there will never be a day where viewers will pass on the opportunity to spend a few scant seconds, and a few large Benjamins, chatting with their favorite superheroes.

Which leads me to Inhumans.

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I’ve seen a lot of people expressing concern that the Inhumans show could spell trouble for S.H.I.E.L.D., but I actually think it’s more of a good sign than bad.

Clearly there’s been enough success for ABC’s Marvel shows to warrant production on another (and the scripting of yet a third by John Ridley) and, considering Agent Carter is no more, it’s likely S.H.I.E.L.D. that has served as the positive example of how Marvel can have success in broadcast format. The cost of Inhumans is likely going to be through the roof if it’s following the Royal Family and the comics (as has been speculated), and a show like that wouldn’t be invested in, or given a first-of-its kind IMAX premiere, unless there was serious confidence in potential viewership.

Inhumans is slated for eight episodes and a September premiere, which has many people speculating that it will be replacing S.H.I.E.L.D.

To this I say: relax.

There’s no need to panic about Inhumans giving the boot to S.H.I.E.L.D. because, well, it wouldn’t make sense.

S.H.I.E.L.D. literally introduced the Inhumans to the MCU and, while it’s doubtful that there will be any physical crossovers if the Inhumans plot does focus on the Royal Family, there’s still ample opportunity for connections to be made between the two shows. Depending on how the actual time period is approached, much of the events in Inhumans could prove impactful to S.H.I.E.L.D. and its characters.

How?

My working theory is that Inhumans will be to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. what Agent Carter was in years past: a piece of entertainment that will feed into it’s predecessor while still being entirely independent.

As mentioned, S.H.I.E.L.D. brought the Inhumans into the MCU fold and, now that Daisy is arguably a more central character than Coulson himself, it would be ridiculous for Marvel and ABC not to take advantage of whatever new interest in powered-people Inhumans might bring. The Secret Warriors could very well experience a resurgence with some tie-in to the newest Marvel show and the two-months that Inhumans would air in the fall could be a great way of drawing in new viewers for S.H.I.E.L.D. by getting them hooked on Inhumans and reminding them that there’s a slew of them on Marvel’s original show.

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With this set-up, S.H.I.E.L.D. would likely have a shorter season, but a season nonetheless.

Which isn’t something I’d mind. The shorter format clearly works for the Marvel shows on Netflix, reducing the amount of filler episodes required to string out certain arcs and allowing the best aspects of the show to take center stage.

Alternatively, it’s equally possible for Inhumans and S.H.I.E.L.D. to both air in the fall.

With S.H.I.E.L.D. on Tuesday’s, the upcoming Legion set for Wednesdays, and the mysterious FOX X-Men show now greenlit, Marvel is well on its way to becoming the top-dog of superhero television. While dominating the film industry, Marvel has relied almost exclusively on S.H.I.E.L.D. to compete against the broadcast shows being produced by competitors. The CW churns out comic-inspired television each weekday, and Marvel could very well want to have both Inhumans and S.H.I.E.L.D. airing in the same season in order to establish a similar daily presence.

Another option would be having the two Marvel productions air back-to-back on a single night. I firmly believe that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s greatest issues where ratings are concerned is the fact that its lead-in shows are the antithesis of S.H.I.E.L.D. Having four half-hour comedies preceding a show as dark, dramatic, and action-heavy as S.H.I.E.L.D. is completely baffling to me and the juxtaposition between S.H.I.E.L.D. and its lead-ins is so stark that it’s hardly surprising to see the sharp drop of viewers between 9 and 10 o’clock. The people sitting down to watch The Middle and Fresh Off the Boat likely won’t stick around for a show that is the complete opposite of what they just spent two hours watching.

Having Inhumans (or frankly any other drama/action-heavy show) serve as a lead-in, or vice versa, could prove beneficial where S.H.I.E.L.D. is concerned. (Take note ABC!)

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In conclusion: remain calm.

Despite what Law and Order: SVU might have you believe, no show lasts forever but those that check all of the boxes that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does at the very least are capable of hitting the elusive 100 episode milestone. With the Marvel Universe constantly expanding, the possibilities for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are endless and it would be foolish for any head of television not to provide the opportunity to explore them.

Luckily, the current President of ABC seems well aware of this fact.

Still worried? Here’s what you can do to help get Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to a 5th Season:

  1. WATCH LIVE. I know I said that ratings aren’t everything but they still carry a hefty amount of weight when determining whether or not a show will live to see another season. So if you can turn the channel to ABC at 10/9c on Tuesday evenings and watch the show as it airs.
  2. SOCIAL MEDIA IS KEY. Use the hashtags, make up your own, and TAG, TAG, TAG. Companies do see this sort of thing so it’s important to mention them when professing your love for a favorite show. Live tweet the episodes and make sure to hit up those @Marvel @ABCNetwork and @AgentsofSHIELD twitters to let them know you’re watching.
  3. PAY ATTENTION TO THE ADVERTISEMENTS. Ugh. I know that commercials are the absolute worst but it’s important to remember that these are the companies that are shelling out money to be noticed during your favorite show. Take note of which companies are trying to take your money and then do the unthinkable and actually acknowledge them. Whether it be via social media or a postcard sent by carrier pigeon, let ‘em know you’re watching. If they see that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show that is bringing new awareness to their product, that’s added incentive for them to keep paying for advertisements. Remember the Chuck Subway movement?
  4. SPREAD THE WORD. While this can link back to the whole social media thing, it’s fully deserving of its own bullet point. Have a friend or sibling asking you to recommend a show for them to watch? Point them in the direction of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and helpfully let them know that the first three seasons are available on Netflix for their viewing pleasure.

About the author

Silje Falck-Pedersen

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