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Why Live Ratings Still Matter to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD ... for Now

Warning: Spoilers ahead from last week's episode of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD!

Disney ABC, CBS, and AMC are all battling for TV ratings supremacy

Agents Ward and Garrett in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Credit: Disney/Marvel.

Love it or hate it, the secret's out. 

During last week's episode of Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, aptly titled "Turn, Turn, Turn," both Ward and Garrett revealed their true allegiances to the shadowy group known as Hydra. Admit it: You got a little choked up with Ward's particularly dark reveal, especially since he and Skye earlier shared an intimate moment that seemed to have been building for months.

So what are the business implications for the future of ABC's promising new Tuesday evening property? In short, I heartily agree with fellow Fools Tim Beyers and Nathan Alderman, who both insist Hydra's unraveling of the show's namesake agency might just add the depth it needs to consistently draw higher numbers of viewers each week.

The multi-million-dollar question

With the cat out of the bag, do fans finally have the motivation they need to tune in live? Perhaps. But it won't happen immediately.

With few exceptions since its debut last fall, Agents of SHIELD has consistently played second fiddle in core 18-49 live+same-day ratings to CBS' (NYSE: CBS  ) perennial Tuesday juggernaut, NCIS.

Then again, as of last week, Agents of SHIELD was still technically tied as the season's No. 1 broadcast drama with NBC's The Blacklist, and just ahead of CBS' NCIS -- an admirable performance SHIELD owes to the typically massive DVR boost it receives when live+7-day ratings roll in. As a result, and as more DVR viewers finally catch up, any significant shifts from delayed to live viewership could take a week or two to materialize. 

Why live ratings still matter
However, while the influence of live+same-day ratings are certainly waning as delayed viewing options grow, that doesn't change the fact it's still the standard by which 30-second advertisements are priced. This explains why in January Disney ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee admitted his disappointment with Agents of SHIELD's enormous post-premier ratings plunge.

Still, Lee added, "Creatively, we're loving what we're seeing for that night," and he said that he thinks Agents of SHIELD should have a home on his network "for a very, very long time."

There are still a few bright spots in Agents of SHIELD's live ratings. Last week's episode, for example, boosted its hour by 42% year-over-year for ABC in adults 18-49, and marked its 17th consecutive original telecast as the No. 1 scripted series in the hour for young men 18-34. That's a focused, notoriously difficult-to-reach demographic, the prospects for which should leave advertisers drooling in anticipation.

How ABC could take it to the next level
That's also not to say ABC hasn't tried to boost SHIELD's live ratings already. The cast often live-tweets about the show with fans during first-run airings, and ABC pointed out in a press release that last week's episode was the "most social primetime series across cable and broadcast with 63,826 tweets," or more than double the previous week's number. 

At the same time, I think Disney and ABC should be asking how they can take this even further. For example, perhaps they could drive viewer engagement by taking a page out of AMC's  (NASDAQ: AMCX  ) playbook, placing greater focus on what comes after each original show. AMC's The Talking Dead, for example, effectively turned each Walking Dead episode into a veritable two-hour, fan-driven event. 

Call me crazy, but perhaps if Disney and ABC were to move The Goldbergs from the 9 p.m. hour in favor of seguing into a Marvel-centric after-show, more of those DVR viewers wouldn't have the willpower to wait until later to watch.

Your cable company is scared, but you can get rich
What do you think? Will more viewers finally start tuning in live to Agents of SHIELD? Should Disney and ABC be doing anything different.

Perhaps more importantly, it might not matter over the long-term. You know cable's going away, but do you know how to profit? There's $2.2 trillion out there to be had. Currently, cable grabs a big piece of it. That won't last. And when cable falters, three companies are poised to benefit. Click here for their names. Hint: They're not the companies you might think.


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Steve Symington

Technology and consumer goods specialist for the Fool. Steve looks for responsible businesses which positively shape our lives. Then, he invests accordingly. Enjoy his work? Connect with him on Twitter & Facebook so you don't miss a thing.

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