T Dog’s Think Tank: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” renewed – but how?

Renewal of low-rated ABC action drama would not be possible if the network’s parent company didn’t own the show – and it may be a harbinger for things to come regarding network television

On the surface, the weak ratings for ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD should have earned the series its cancellation stripes – but didn’t.

Why?

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced parent The Walt Disney Company ordered a renewal of the show despite lackluster ratings over ABC’s objections – a rarity in the network-decision process. Reportedly, the decision was made as tensions are surfacing between ABC and Marvel over the lackluster launch of Inhumans. ABC and Marvel are both owned by Disney.

Highly touted and promoted, Agents of SHIELD premiered with 12 million viewers in 2013, but ratings had been steadily shrinking for years, despite an improvement in quality. Its off-network syndication run – handled by Disney-ABC Domestic Television – abruptly ended last month when Fox-owned programming service My Network TV canceled the show and replaced it with Dateline reruns (SHIELD was also dropped from weekend syndication.)

So starting in December, SHIELD replaces the much-derided Inhumans. And fans of SHIELD can thank something known as vertical integration – made possible by the demise of the financial interest and syndication rules. It’s an issue yours truly brought up before when mediocre sitcom According To Jim – also produced by ABC Studios, managed to last eight long years on the network.

In 1970, Congress passed the financial interest and syndication rules – fin-syn for short, booting the broadcast networks out of the syndication business and placed certain restrictions on how much network-owned programming they can run in prime-time and even defined a network as one who provided programming in prime-time more than fifteen hours a week, leading to a rise in independent production companies such as MTM and Carsey-Werner Productions. Launching as “the fourth network” in 1987, Fox got around this by programming exactly fifteen primetime hours a week (the Sunday 7 p.m. ET slot for some reason, didn’t count) – meaning the rules didn’t apply to them as long they did so. Parent company News Corp. (now 21st Century Fox) owned a huge syndication business and a film studio.

With cable TV expanding, the fin-syn rules expired in the 1990s, freeing the networks to merge with studios and paving the way for others such as UPN and The WB (since merged as The CW.) In 1996, The Walt Disney Company bought ABC leading to consolidation in the media business as regulations went away with the broadcast networks re-entering the syndication business.

It took a while, but by 2005, networks filled their airwaves once again with their own product. In 2009, Disney bought Marvel in order to bring more of their properties to the small screen – namely ABC.

From 2015: Marvel’s “Kick” panel at C2E2 with Hayley Atwell (i) and Ming-Na Wen (T Dog Media)

The absence of the rules were felt last May when Last Man Standing – a sitcom starring Tim Allen produced by Fox’s Twentieth Television – was canceled after six seasons but earned a 1.6 adult 18-49 rating in its Friday night time slot, a pretty good number on a night few people are watching TV. SHIELD meanwhile, languished on Tuesdays with a rating half that.

But SHIELD got the nod anyway. Why? ABC had to pay a license fee to Twentieth and did not own Last Man Standing. SHIELD on the other hand, is produced in-house by Disney-owned ABC Studios and didn’t have to deal with licensing fees.

Meanwhile, ABC’s ratings on Friday night plummeted with ABC Studios’ Once Upon A Time and Inhumans with ratings well below a one. ABC is behind CBS and NBC among adults 18-49 so far this season in primetime.

Now don’t get me wrong – yours truly is a huge SHIELD fan and has attended panels on the show at C2E2 every year. But the thought of a studio making a decision for a broadcast network what to air and what doesn’t is scary and it smacks of favoritism. It speaks to a reason why the fin-syn rules were created in the first place.

Should there be calls for congressional and FCC investigations? Given the current deregulatory environment in Washington under the Trump administration, don’t count on it. In fact, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he wants to “weed-whack” regulations – for one, the FCC last Tuesday eliminated the main studio rule in a bitter partisan vote, in addition to cuts in the “lifeline” program – hurting poor and minority communities throughout the Chicago area and elsewhere.

Pai is proposing major deregulation initiatives including eliminating most, if not all, regulations on the books, including modifying the ownership rules – benefiting huge media conglomerates such as Disney and Sinclair on the TV side and iHeartMedia and Cumulus on the radio side.

The good news is, creators have more places to take their ideas – as opposed to the 1950’s and 1960’s when there were no alternatives (other than first-run syndication) and the networks controlled everything. As a result, streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are thriving while other platforms such as YouTube Red and Crackle are gaining a foothold. In fact, Shonda Rhimes was recently hired away by Netflix from ABC Studios to develop new programming – signaling a shift in the business.

As more and more viewers abandon network prime-time programming, the only saving grace is it’s still a great vehicle for advertisers and it’s reach is second to none. But there has to be concern on how decisions like this are made regarding how shows are scheduled. With the potential for abuse, advertisers and affiliates need to speak up.

While the renewal of SHIELD is great for us fans, the manner in it was renewed isn’t a good look for over-the-air broadcast network television.

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