Superheroes Are Dropping Like Flies! We Investigate Why Television Seems to be the Genre’s Kryptonite

If you are a fan of the superhero genre on television, you are amongst a dwindling audience.  For some as-yet unknown reason, viewers are turning their backs on superheroes – on television, at least.  Superheroes at the box office still seem able to lure viewers into theater seats.
With the Internet still buzzing about the David E. Kelley reincarnation of the classic television series WONDER WOMAN, one would think that superheroes are the biggest thing on television today.   Unfortunately, that is just not the case.  In fact, shows like THE CAPE, NO ORDINARY FAMILY and HEROES are evidence that viewers are not embracing superheroes – in fact, they are rejecting them.  Even the CW’s all-powerful SMALLVILLE has seen a steady erosion of viewership since its debut a decade ago.  For example, in 2001, SMALLVILLE debuted to 8.4 million viewers and now pulls an average of 2.9 million viewers.  Another attempt to launch a superhero series was Syfy attempt to draw in viewers with its television event THE PHANTOM as a back-door pilot, but the mini-series only managed to draw in a modest number of viewers.

Over the decades of television there have been a number of superhero shows ranging from the 1950’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, the 1960’s BATMAN, the 1970’s THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, THE BIONIC WOMAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK, the 1980’s THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO, and the 1990’s LOIS AND CLARK and BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.  But in the past decade, the allure of superheroes has faded.  SMALLVILLE appears to have been an anomaly, while shows like DARK ANGEL and BIRDS OF PREY scrambled to find an audience.  HEROES managed to retain an audience for four seasons, but also took a sizable hit in the ratings sliding from its debut high of nearly 13 million viewers to 4 million at the time it was canceled last year.
This past year, however, has been brutal.  In September 2010, NO ORDINARY FAMILY debuted to 10.7 million viewers and yet only pulls in an average of 4.2 million viewers.   Then in January 2011, THE CAPE debuted to 8.5 million viewers and when it ended last week, only 4.1 million tuned in. 
With such an obvious rejection of shows featuring superheroes, why do we continue to get our hopes up and think that viewers will actually tune-in and then stick around for the long haul with shows like David E. Kelley’s WONDER WOMAN and Ronald D. Moore’s 17th PRECINCT?  While neither series has been ordered to series, the buzz over the pilots has been electrifying.  Clearly, Internet fans are excited.  But will the mass television viewers (or better yet, the scant 20,000 Nielsen viewers) be as enthusiastic?  Other 2011-2012 television pilots awaiting series orders are the CW’s RAVEN, ABC’s AKA JESSICA JONES and THE INCREDIBLE HULK, ABC Family’s CLOAK & DAGGER, Syfy’s BALL & CHAIN and THREE INCHES, and FX’s POWERS.   That is not including more supernatural fare such as Fox’s LOCKE & KEY, and NBC’s GRIMM.
Looking over the current television pilot season, there are an astoundingly large number of shows being made that are intended to appeal to fans of the superhero genre.  But given the dismal success rate in the past 10 years of superhero television series, you have to wonder why the studios are continuing to hope against hope that television audiences will embrace a genre which they have shown such a strong tendency to reject. 
Just reading the description of the superhero pilots is enough to make one salivate at the thought of such cool series being aired on broadcast television. But then the feeling of dread hits – no matter how good the show, the deck is stacked against these shows.
In a world where the highest ranked scripted drama is NCIS, followed by such shows as NCIS: LOS ANGELES, THE GOOD WIFE, THE MENTALIST, MODERN FAMILY, THE BIG BANG THEORY and CASTLE, one wonders if today’s television viewer really will watch a superhero show.  Do you honestly believe that the same viewers that watch these shows will be watching WONDER WOMAN? 
Each new show always has the novelty-factor going for it.  People will be curious and tune in for one or two episodes.  But fairly quickly, viewers will figure out how jam-packed their viewing schedule already is and they will prioritize what they want to see.  In addition, superhero shows have a tendency to be serialized – meaning, a continuing storyline.  Whereas other shows tend to offer episodic or stand-alone episodes – which makes it easier for the average viewer to tune-in and tune-out easily depending on how hectic their personal lives are.
So with the tug-of-war raging for the precious 2-3 hours of each television viewers’ prime-time viewing on week nights, it is exceedingly hard – if not downright impossible  –  to convince viewers to stick around long-term for shows they do not find as compelling or easy to fit into their viewing schedule.
Thus, the one major hurdle is retention rate.   How can a well-scripted, fantastically cast and brilliantly executed superhero show retain a television audience?
Looking at what is succeeding on television today, the answer is obvious:  character development.  Shows that offer something more than simply the story-of-the-week (whether that be a crime mystery, medical anomaly, or legal case), shows that draw in viewers by peeling back yet another tantalizing layer of a character – those are the shows that keep viewers tuning in consistently week-after-week.   The secret to success is always about what we learn about the character – what new secret, relationship or foible do they reveal that makes the show un-missable.  With each new clue and/or juicy reveal, the audience is hooked.
It does not matter how many big name guest stars, beautiful costumes, or adrenaline-pumping action sequences there are, viewers are looking for something special – a reason to tune-in and to stick with a show.  Offer them something they crave — making the character or characters intoxicating.  Charm and charisma are a start, but what makes a character truly addictive is the surprise factor.
So if shows like WONDER WOMAN and the 17th PRECINCT are to truly endure (assuming they are ordered to series), they will have to work hard at offering characters that are the equivalent of crack-candy.  If you look at the shows that are succeeding, that is exactly what they provide.  They have figured out that one magic ingredient to keep their audience hooked.
Here is to hoping that all these new superhero shows can be more than the next flavor-of-the-month and will not only get us excited about their show – but they will also be addictive and mind-blowing too.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • Chris-wait

    We’re not rejecting superheroes, we’re rejecting writers. Writers that feel the need to either change the foundation of an already established franchise or “go weird” with their new creations to seem new and different. Most comicbook heroes have been around since the 1940’s. It’s worked out pretty good so far, but they seem to think it needs a change.

  • Nick

    I have no problem with re-imagining, or prequels (like Smallville). I actually had high hopes for The Graysons, but immediate fan backlash killed the project before it could even cast the show.

    Casting is key, and the stories have to be compelling and filled with a lot of mythology to interest fans today. There’s a good reason LOST held fans spellbound for six seasons.

  • No Ordinary Family and The Cape have poor writing that’s why people stopped watching. If you look at the ratings they both premiered very well, and now they are both at cancellation numbers.

  • Claudia

    The reason why Superheroes are dropping like flies is that they all have been in bad shows! Sure, Smallville lost viewers but it still has more viewers than GG or 90210 which are half as old. 😛

  • Liz

    I watch(ed) No Ordinary Family, The Cape, Smallville, Heroes… Sheesh what’s wrong with me?

    I think part of the issue is that is necessary to create an entire mythology in some cases in one or two episodes. No ordinary family is a great example of this. The first couple of eps where all setup. It is only now starting to get more interesting. Who has that kind of attention span? Me apparently, but I digress.

    Heroes is an example of a show that set its scenario very early and as a result had an incredible first season. Once the season was over, the writers had kind of written themselves in a corner and didn’t know where to go from there. The viewers jumped ship.

    I don’t think it’s just superhero shows that are suffering, it is pretty much the whole sci-fi genre.

    The Event: obviously the writers had some kind of plan, but there wasn’t enough short-term payoff to suffer through the uncomfortable sense of not knowing what the heck was going on, not knowing who to cheer for etc…

    Battlestar Gallactica was actually a great example of making a sci-fi show work. Each episode was part of a long story, but each ep gave us some resolution, a mini story in the whole. The writers kept the plan moving along-side the episodes unveiling little bits as it made sense. They never made us feel like they were holding back, or giving us time filler episodes that served no purpose. Everything was part of a journey that we were on as well.

    That’s great sci-fi.

    Lost too, as Nick said they started with a plane crash, and the survivors just trying to survive. Then they slowly expanded the world and the mythology, starting to give glimpses that not is all as it may seem. Viewers were sucked in.

  • “Battlestar Galactica” is an excellent example of brilliant writing — alas, it was extremely rating-challenged. When people cite poor writing as a reason for the lack of viewer retention, they fail to consider that even shows as amazing as “BSG” still could not pull in the mass audience. And shows that are poorly written can still pull in a big audience year after year. Writing is not a guaratee of an audience.

  • It is not just these shows in my article that have suffered, but the whole of sci-fi television.

    In 1995, “Star Trek: Voyager” debuted to 18 million viewers, but when it ended in 2001, only 8.81 million viewers tuned in.

    In 2001, “Star Trek: Enterprise” debuted to 12.54 million viewers, then slid to 3.8 million viewers when it ended in 2005.

    In 2004, “Lost” premiered to 18.65 million viewers, ending with 13.5 million in 2010.

    In 2006, “Heroes” premiered to 14.1 million viewers, but ended with 4.4 million in 2010.

    In 2008, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” premiered to 18.3 million viewers, but ended with 3.6 million in 2009.

    In 2009, “FlashForward” debuted to 12.47 million viewers, ending in 2010 with only 4.96 million viewers.

    In 2008, “Fringe” debuted at 9.13 million viewers, climbed to an all-time time high of 13.27, yet currently only pulls in about 5.13 million viewers.

    In 2009, “Stargate: Universe” debuted at 2.34 million viewers and now only pulls in 1.09 million viewers.

    Both superhero and sci-fi television series are having significant issues with audience retention.

  • Here’s a longer analysis debating the quality of writing versus attracting viewers:

    “Brilliant Television Writing Does Not Guarantee Television Viewers”

  • Thanks for this article, i’m searching this informations for months !