The Business of TV: ‘Captain America 2’ Just Changed Everything for ‘Marvel's Agents of SHIELD’

Warning: This article contains spoilers!
Disney's ABC is using both Captain America and Agents of SHIELD to battle CBS for ratings supremacy.

The events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier will shape the future direction of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Credit: Disney/Marvel.

Are you ready, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans? Because thanks to the record-breaking box office debut of Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, tonight's new episode should be one to remember.

And no, not like the halfhearted Thor: The Dark World crossover we got back in November, when the episode literally involved the team cleaning up Thor's mess and later tracking down an Asgardian we'd never heard of. Of course, that did provide a temporary boost to ABC's ratings and arguably validated Disney's crossover business strategy, but admittedly left many viewers underwhelmed.

Then there's Lady Sif's appearance a few weeks ago, which also boosted ratings and proved significantly more more fun to watch. But in the end, Sif's appearance felt like more of an afterthought en route to something bigger.

Disney's ABC is using both Captain America and Agents of SHIELD to battle CBS for ratings supremacy.

Lady Sif appeared on the March 11 episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Credit: Disney/ABC.

That's exactly where Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes into play; If you've seen the film, you know the infamous Hydra just effectively caused everybody's favorite fictional government agency to implode from within. Then again, I suppose it now makes sense why last week's shocking episode ended with Agent Victoria Hand ordering the execution of everyone on the plane -- that is, except for Agent Coulson, whom she wanted to personally kill.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is stronger than you think
But whatever happens, from an investors' standpoint it seems reasonable to expect a big-screen crossover of this magnitude to result in yet another ratings increase.

That would go a long way toward appeasing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s skeptics, especially after ratings for last week's episode fell by a tenth from the previous original telecast to a 2.0 in the core 18-49 demographic. However, that result was especially impressive as it came with the help of "just" 5.71 million live viewers. By contrast, a new episode of CBS' (NYSE: CBS  )  NCIS simultaneously achieved a 2.4 rating with 17.16 million viewers.

In short, while ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still working from a much smaller base than CBS' NCIS enjoys, its viewership is still comprised of individuals who, on average, are significantly more valuable to the show's advertisers. 

Better yet, ABC also chimed in with a press release this morning to confirm that, thanks largely to delayed DVR viewers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still Tuesday's No. 1 scripted show this season with Adults 18-49. In fact, each of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s episodes have averaged a 4.2 Live + 7 Day rating so far, or just ahead of NCIS' solid 4.1.

Is this sustainable? 
It would be irresponsible, however, not to point out the one big caveat to Disney's novel television business model: Namely, that setting this kind of crossover precedent for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. carries with it a certain degree of risk. 

We've seen how this can play out in the comics world, where entering an uninhibited crossover craze might help sales jump for a short while before readers get exhausted and leave. 

To their credit, it appears this is a risk of which Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s producers are well aware, and they seem to be taking a more methodical approach to developing their story lines to keep viewers hooked over the long term. At the same time, when they do employ crossovers with Marvel many future cinematic properties, they simply can't leave viewers wanting when the credits roll. In the end, if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can continue intelligently tying in to its big-screen counterparts while at the same time maintaining its independence from them, there's no reason the show won't be able to thrive for years to come.

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