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The Trouble With Giving Marvel, Star Wars Their Own TV Channel

By Tim Beyers – May 29, 2015 at 6:03PM

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Merchandise, not TV, is the primary profit driver for genre brands like Marvel and Star Wars.

Could The Avengers and Kylo Renn from Star Wars- Episode VII: The Force Awakens get equal billing in a new Disney TV channel? Image credit: Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm.

Would you watch streaming TV channels built to deliver stories set in the Marvel and Star Wars universes? Disney (DIS -1.83%) chief Bob Iger seems to think so.

"We have said that with these channels and these brands -- ESPN, ABC, Disney, maybe even down the road something related to Star Wars and Marvel -- we do have an ability as a company to take product, specifically filmed entertainment, television, movies, directly to consumers," CEO Bob Iger said during the House of Mouse's most recent earnings call.

Whether this actually happens is anyone's guess. But don't expect movement anytime soon. Why? Plenty of content related to the Marvel and Star Wars franchises is already in the world, and new productions aren't as efficient as licensing and merchandising when it comes to converting intellectual property into cash.

Network effects aren't always easy to come by
Consider what we've seen from ABC so far this year. Marvel's Agents of SHIELD is a perfectly fine property that costs plenty to produce. Yet the spending isn't reflected in the ratings; the recent season finale drew a series-low 3.88 million live viewers. For comparison's sake, consider that last week's inaugural season finale for The Flash drew 3.87 million live viewers on a minor network, The CW. Viewers are finding it easier than ever to bypass big networks. And yet streaming options may not be any better.

Look at Powers. Sony (SONY -0.84%) may have authorized another season of the superhero show based on the comic book from creators Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, but the numbers (at least the ones we can see) are anything but encouraging. Only 1,920 have rated the show at IMDB. Another 72 viewers have weighed in at Rotten Tomatoes, with only 64% rating the show "fresh." Both Agents of SHIELD and The Flash appear to attract much wider audiences, yet the PlayStation Network -- the home for Powers -- hosts an estimated 65 million active users.

What's the revenue rationale, Mr. Iger?
Note that, with each of these shows, the parent IP isn't necessarily a licensing or merchandising powerhouse. TV and related properties are at least partially aimed at boosting high-margin merch sales. TV is the lead-in; the retail counter is where the real money gets made. Nether Marvel nor Star Wars needs a TV lead-in for Disney to get its share of licensing gravy.

Just ask George Lucas. Lucasfilm earned billions form merch long before Disney came knocking, and it will continue to do so as part of the House of Mouse. New TV shows won't change that, which makes the idea of spending to create a direct-to-consumer experience for just Marvel and Star Wars come off as irresponsible. Yet it needn't be that way.

To the Outer Rim!
A Marvel and Star Wars channel that highlights entirely new or long-hidden properties could serve as a sort of R&D hub. Certainly there's plenty of material worth exploring. From elements of Star Wars Legends expanded universe to minor Marvel characters such as Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu (an early candidate for an MCU film), Disney could use a new Marvel and Star Wars channel to test ideas before taking them to wider channels.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Would you pay for a channel designed specifically to offer more content from the Marvel and Star Wars universes? Start the discussion by leaving a comment below.

Tim Beyers is a bit more Marvel than Star Wars. He's also a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission and owned shares of Apple and Walt Disney at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home and portfolio holdings or connect with him on Google+Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool.

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