Once upon a time the success — or failure — of a television series was based solely on the traditional Nielsen ratings. Today, you could look to Comic Con for a strong indication of what might fly. So, even though I’ve never been to Comic Con in San Diego, which I’m told is so big the whole city basically shuts down for it, I am a regular at the New York fanfest.
Proudly wearing my collection of DC Comics superhero T-shirts, I made my way through the throngs of superfans of all ages and races at the Jacob Javits Center last week to get a temperature read on just what might do well this season. Plus, there is just something about escaping your everyday life and parading around like it was Halloween.
What started as a fun costume-wearing gathering simply for comic fans has morphed into what is probably now one of the more deciding factors of the fate of many of our current TV shows. The Comic Con community has a voice — a loud one — and is not shy expressing it. In fact, attendee participation and the social media noise it produces can make a tremendous difference to any show on the fence. Fox’s "Sleepy Hollow" might have been canceled last season had it not been for this gathering.
It’s no surprise to see that featured amongst the perennial DC versus Marvel debate, the endless conversation about "The Walking Dead," and the miles of merchandising ("The Big Bang Theory" is a Lego set — really?) was a plethora of panels (and screenings) focusing on more TV dramas than ever before. They included … deep breath … "Blindspot," "Game of Thrones," "Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Colony," "Mr. Robot," "Doctor Who," "Elementary," "Limitless," Gotham," "Arrow," "The Flash," "Star Wars: Rebels," and the revival of "The X-Files." The list of represented dramas and action/adventures continues to grow each year.
In addition, mammoth banners promoted series like "The Librarians" on TNT, the upcoming "Into the Badlands" on AMC, and a quintet of Syfy series, including "The Expanse," which debuts on Dec. 14. There was a press conference for "Supergirl" on CBS. And ABC Family, soon to be rechristened as the odd sounding Freeform in 2016, also took space on the floor to promote its potpourri of programming, including the new saga series "Shadowhunters."
Bizarre to think about how things used to be. By and large, a TV show’s future was determined by the 5,000 or so households across the country monitored by Nielsen. Of course, there were some exceptions. Critical darlings like "Mission: Impossible," "Hill Street Blues" and, more recently, "Arrested Development," "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation" survived on accolades, and dramas like "St. Elsewhere" and "thirtysomething" demonstrated the value of the young adult demographic. Even a moderately rated entry like "The Brady Bunch" managed to air for five seasons (not to mention the countless spinoffs) thanks to merchandising. Today, the growing social media world makes what looks modest on paper, like "Pretty Little Liars" on ABC Family, a monster hit.
Given the lackluster traditional ratings for "Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," I was curious to see just who would attend that panel. After a one-hour wait to get into the session, which featured Jeph Loeb, Marvels’ head of television, and series star Clark Gregg, it had seemed like the Beatles had reunited. Once the screaming and jeers subsided ("We just taped our 50th episode!" screeched Loeb amid the hooting and hollering), a brief Q&A led into a screening of the third episode of the current season.
"Whoa! Wow! Wee! Waa!" were some of the common reactions from the ecstatic crowd, which concluded with a standing ovation for Clark Gregg, who in the not so distant past made his living as an actor being overshadowed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on bland CBS sitcom "The New Adventures of Old Christine." Mention of also low-rated "Marvel’s Agent Carter," which will return in January while "S.H.I.E.L.D." is taking a break, had the audience in an orgasmic uproar. "Peggy! Peggy! Peggy!" chanted the crowd.
Had Comic Con never existed, "Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Marvel’s Agent Carter" (and other traditionally low-rated series with similar appeal) may have never even gotten on the air. And the added value is the general audience skew: young.
The value of fan support and social media, of course, is nothing new. It came into full prominence after the debut of television movie "Sharknado" on Syfy in July 2013, and it continues to prove there is now so much more than ratings from Nielsen. The best example at present is one-hour Fox Tuesday night dramedy "Scream Queens," a dud according to the Nielsen ratings, but a smash via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others. In other words, this is the new breed of hit.
Of course, Comic Con can’t save every show from the Grim Reaper. The cancellation axe is ready to swing on Fox drama "Minority Report," which had a screening at the event but just had its episode order slashed from 13 to 10. Still, ignited by the endless enthusiasm of the fans, the newfound value of Comic Con is truly immeasurable.
One of these days I will get to San Diego.