Disney (NYSE:DIS)/ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD continued its ratings slump with its most recent episode, "T.A.H.I.T.I.", although the episode was a considerable improvement over the earlier episodes of the uneven series.
"T.A.H.I.T.I." drew in a series low of 5.11 million viewers, earning a 1.7 rating among 18 to 49 year olds on Tuesday night. As expected, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA)/NBC's The Voice and CBS' (NYSE:CBS) NCIS dominated the time slot, respectively drawing in 14.38 million and 17.68 million viewers. The Voice earned a 4.0 rating among 18 to 49 year olds, while NCIS earned a 2.4.
Agents of SHIELD is a key franchise for Disney for two reasons -- it is a standout performer among male viewers on the female-centric ABC network, which is best known for shows like Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, Revenge, Once Upon a Time, and Nashville, and it serves as a small-screen promotion for its blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is also notably the first live-action sci-fi TV show besides Star Trek to take place in a continuous universe as its films.
A question of momentum
Agents of SHIELD co-creator Joss Whedon has received critical acclaim for writing and directing The Avengers, which grossed $1.5 billion on a production budget of $220 million, but he has had a spottier track record on television.
His two previous sci-fi efforts, Fox's (NASDAQ:FOX) Firefly and Dollhouse, respectively burned out after one and two seasons. Firefly got tripped up by episodes that were aired out of order, and Dollhouse gained momentum far too late in the second season, long after most viewers had lost interest in its "monster of the week" episodes.
Agents of SHIELD's writers seem to have learned from those mistakes, and the show has gained more momentum with serialized episodes starting with the tenth, "The Bridge," which tied together a lot of the loose ends from earlier episodes. The following three episodes -- "The Magical Place," "Seeds," and "T.R.A.C.K.S." -- finally advanced the storyline by expanding the Clairvoyant's storyline, Skye's origin, and the Deathlok project. Bill Paxton made his debut as Agent John Garrett, and Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander, from the Thor films) will guest star on the show next week.
A rebranded serial format
ABC also notably rebranded the show as Agents of SHIELD: Uprising (the name of the current serialized story arc), and the show will ultimately tie in with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on April 4.
However, the question is if the current hype and momentum can bring back viewers who were already let down twice by the show's lofty promises -- initially after Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders failed to return after their early cameos, and then again after the "Thor tie-in" was just a run-of-the-mill episode about an Asgardian weapon.
The good news is that ABC has apparently taken note of fan demands by bringing in Lady Sif for a full episode and introducing more recognizable characters from the Marvel universe -- such as Deathlok, John Garrett, and Victoria Hand -- to the show. The mysterious blue alien in "T.A.H.I.T.I." could also be a Kree, a race of militaristic aliens who could play a prominent role in Guardians of the Galaxy this summer.
Why SHIELD's ratings might not matter at all
Yet in the end, I suspect that Disney doesn't really care that much about Agents of SHIELD's week-to-week ratings when compared to The Voice and NCIS.
After all, Disney's broadcasting segment (which mainly consists of ABC) posted a 2% year-over-year decline in revenue and 32% drop in operating income last quarter. Disney's cable networks, which consist of ESPN, The Disney Channel, and A&E, are much more important to its overall business, accounting for 71% of Disney's Media Networks revenue and 88% of its operating income.
What matters to Disney is that Agents of SHIELD continues serving three roles -- the anchor, the glue, and the advertising machine for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Agents of SHIELD needs to stay on the air as the anchor of the Marvel TV universe, since Agent Carter will arrive later this year, possibly followed by other Marvel spin-off shows. It needs to glue together the universe between Marvel film releases, just as Marvel comic books frequently reference and cross over with each other. Most importantly, it's important for Disney investors to realize that Agents of SHIELD is really just a weekly 43-minute commercial for its upcoming feature films.
That is, after all, where the real money is -- the three films that Disney has booked full profits for (The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World) have already grossed $3.4 billion worldwide. Last quarter, revenue Disney's Studio Entertainment segment rose 23% year-over-year to $1.89 billion, thanks to Thor: The Dark World and Frozen.
By comparison, revenue at Disney's broadcasting segment fell 2% year-over-year to $1.53 billion. However, ABC's minor slowdown could be easily offset by the upcoming Marvel releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy later this year.
My final take
If Marvel continues expanding its TV universe on ABC with Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, it can keep its film franchises fresh and relevant for fans -- a rare strength that many top film franchises lack.
What do you think, fellow Marvel fans? Is Agents of SHIELD winning you over with its "Uprising" story arc, or is it still the same old show just being pumped up with a lot more hype? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.