On Tuesday, ABC’s Agents of SHIELD slipped to a 1.4 rating based on the overnights for the 18-49 demographic with 3.8 million total viewers. That’s a season low rating for the show and and close to its series low score of a 1.3 rating. And the fifth place network’s The Flash actually had the same ratings score as AoS on Tuesday (after the finals came in) which can’t sit well with the ABC execs. Now it’s possible that the Democratic Presidential Debates (which scored higher than expected ratings) drew away quite a number of viewers (Tuesday’s numbers were down overall), and AoS could rebound next week. It’s also possible that the show could stay at this level or sink even further. If it does, I see several possible scenarios for the show’s fate.
The TV Grim Reaper (formerly the Cancellation Bear) believes that Agents of SHIELD is guaranteed a fourth season because of the economics of syndication. The logic goes like this: any series that will have reached approximately 66 episodes by the end of its third season and is produced by a sister studio to the network (AoS is a Disney production) will get a fourth season no matter the ratings to bring it to the 88 episode count that the syndication market prefers to see. The reason being that once a show is in syndication then it really starts to show a profit, and sucking up a fourth year of low overnight ratings for the live broadcasts is worth the investment. Tack on to this the fact that Agents of SHIELD is part of the multi-billion dollar grossing Avengers franchise and the show might look like it will to coast into a fourth year even if the ratings continue to sink.
However, while I typically subscribe to the third season status theory (historical network renewal patterns have over the past seven years have practically made it ironclad), I believe that it may not play out that way for Agents of SHIELD. Last year, AoS and its companion series Agent Carter were very much On the Bubble as the season was wrapping up. But both received renewals and I believe that was primarily due to an edict from Disney because they wanted to keep an Avengers tie-in on the small screen. But the Mouse House is just as focused on the bottom line as ABC and I believe this is why both got the renewal nod: since Agent Carter is essentially a prequel series to AoS, I believe they have already exercised that fourth season option and will look at packaging both together for syndication at the end of this season if the ratings do not improve. Assuming that Agent Carter has eight episodes again, the five seasons for the two shows would total to 82 which would be an acceptable (if not ideal) ep count.
Factor into all of this the two additional Marvel shows that ABC is considering adding to their schedule next season: Marvel’s Most Wanted which will spin off the Mockingbird and Lance Hunter characters from AoS (more on that one at this link) and Damage Control which follows the “clean up” crew that mops up the messes of Marvel Universe superheroes (more on that one at this link). Most Wanted takes two of the most popular characters for AoS and is likely being looked at as a meaner and leaner version of the parent show. It keeps the Avengers franchise alive on television and could be less expensive than AoS or just an attempt to reboot the idea and move in a different direction. Damage Control would likely take up Agent Carter‘s fill-in status and air during the hiatus period. Both of these would keep the Marvel presence on ABC (Disney owns both, by the way) and could be seen as a way to re-energize interest in superhero shows on the network.
And I would say that there is almost no chance that all four of these shows could end up on ABC’s schedule next season, because why would they tack on two new superhero shows when the first two are already slumping in the ratings? The new shows are almost certainly looked at as replacements with the hope that they will jump-start interest. Of course, there is a chance that Agents of SHIELD could get a shortened fourth season order that could act as a hand-off to the Most Wanted replacement and also pad out the syndication package. And MW is almost a no-brainer because it takes two breakout characters from AoS and it could easily be tacked on the the syndication run of the parent series if it only lasts a season or two. Disney/ABC is taking almost no risk with there. Unfortunately, almost none of these scenarios work out well for Agent Carter because I see it likely getting replaced by Damage Control or going away altogether at he end of the season.
Of course, the Avengers movies have already made a gozillion dollars (even though Hollywood accountants will tell you they haven’t earned a dime) and perhaps the alphabet network and the Mouse House air any or all of these shows next season and write off any losses against the bottom line from the movies (further justifying the claims of the accountants). It’s always a challenge to predict the actions of the entertainment industry. But I believe that main thing to glean from this is that Agents of SHIELD is not quite as safe as some might think and a fourth year is not guaranteed at this point. It is still definitely a possibility, but there are a lot of moving pieces (and a lot of egos involved with the decision-making), so the status of AoS remains muddy as long as its numbers are down.
And be sure to keep an eye on those Agents of SHIELD ratings and the numbers from all of the Fall sci fi /fantasy shows at this site and the Cancelled Sci Fi Twitter Site over the coming weeks and months.