With the recent news that Squirrel Girl and the “New Warriors” are will arrive on television in 2018 via the Disney-owned Freeform cable network, Marvel now has series airing or in development on at least five channels or streaming platforms: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Inhumans” on ABC, the “Defenders” line on Netflix, “Cloak and Dagger” and “New Warriors” on Freeform, “Runaways” on Hulu, and various animated series on Disney XD. For Marvel fans wanting an all-in-one place to watch their shows, this fragmentation offers some complications, but for Marvel Television, it offers an incredible opportunity to reach new audiences that might already not be watching its content.
In the past, Marvel has had little trouble reaching the young male audience. The Marvel animated series on Disney XD, for instance, have done extraordinarily well for years. Even if they don’t always live up to the creative heights of earlier series like “The Spectacular Spider-Man,” the Disney XD series help to build excitement and brand loyalty among boys and young men that eventually translates into movie ticket sales.
Marvel has been much weaker, however, in reaching out to girls and young women, and there are signs this might have been intentional. A slide deck produced by Disney after its acquisition of Marvel reportedly showed the desired demographics for the Marvel brand to include no girls at all; Disney instead wanted to direct girls to its already-lucrative Princess line and female-targeted programming on The Disney Channel. No wonder, then, that the Marvel animated series have aired on Disney XD — a channel explicitly created to market to boys — and have largely minimized the roles of the few female superheroes that have appeared.
This might be changing, however. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven extraordinarily popular across all audiences, and recent hit comics like “Ms. Marvel” and “Squirrel Girl” point the way for future female-led and -targeted projects. Marvel and Disney have likely also noticed the huge success DC and Warner Brothers have had with their television series on The CW, all of which have significant female fan bases.
There’s just one wrinkle: the dramatic growth of television channels and streaming platforms has brought a fragmentation of the audience, making it more and more difficult to reach everyone with a one-size-fits-all approach. While the average cable package offers about 200 channels, most people watch only ever watch 17 of them. The issue is even more pronounced with younger viewers, who watch much less traditional television than older viewers.
If Marvel wants to reach out to new audiences, it can’t just focus on the same old platforms and expect viewers to show up; it needs to branch out, carefully targeting their shows to the channel through which it is shown. And that is precisely what it looks like Marvel is doing, with a different channel for everything from kids cartoons (Disney XD) up through adult-oriented series that aren’t afraid to shy away from sex and violence (Netflix).
Freeform fits perfectly into that strategy. The channel is focused on what executives call “Becomers” — young adults aged 14 to 34 who are still figuring out who they are “becoming,” and are experiencing everything from their first kiss to their first kid. Freeform’s real strength, however, is with women aged 18-34, where the channel ranks #1 in the ratings. There is literally no better place to go if you want to reach young female viewers.
Marvel has also done well in selecting projects that mesh well with Freeform’s audience and lineup. “Cloak and Dagger’s” just-released trailer shows how the series will play up drama and romance in a way we haven’t seen in any of the Marvel television projects, while Squirrel Girl fits so well with the channel that Freeform pitched the project to Marvel, rather than vice-versa. If both “Cloak and Dagger” and “New Warriors” do well, Freeform could be the natural home for much of Marvel’s programming targeted at young women. (A Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel TV series, anyone?)
With Marvel projects slowly expanding out across a variety of channels and platforms, there’s one white whale that has so far resisted capture: The Disney Channel itself. But, if “Cloak and Dagger” and “New Warriors” prove successful on Freeform, it’s easy to imagine Disney Channel programmers looking for younger-skewing, female-friendly Marvel projects of their own. Fortunately, there are a few that stand out that could make potentially amazing series, including “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” and “Power Pack.”
There are limits, of course. Chasing after niche audiences can come at the cost of a larger audience elsewhere, and can further decrease the synergies that come from a shared universe. But so far, Marvel has been smart and has not overextended itself far beyond the suite of Disney-owned broadcast and cable channels.
The one potential exception is Hulu. When “Runaways” was announced, Hulu seemed a logical alternative to the adult-oriented “Defenders” series on Netflix. But with the rise of Marvel content on Freeform, it’s not clear if there’s any compelling reason for “Runaways” to be on the streaming service rather than the cable network. Will Hulu continue to be the home for crossover series like “Runaways” that appeal to multiple audiences (but not necessarily the mass audience of ABC), or will it end up a one-off arrangement, never to be repeated? There are also significant questions about how tightly “Runaways” will be able to tie into the broader story of the MCU if it stands alone on Hulu, which could make, say, a crossover with the similarly-themed “Cloak and Dagger” difficult. Hulu might have been a step too far for Marvel, an unnecessary overextension into another streaming platform that is outside of Disney’s control.
Even if “Runaways” turns out to be a one-off deal with Hulu, the broader strategy of reaching a wider audience through airing TV series on a variety of channels and streaming platforms remains sound. It will help to bring in a younger, more diverse audience, while allowing for other types of stories to be told. We could well be on the verge of a golden age of Marvel TV.
“Cloak and Dagger” and “New Warriors” are set to premiere on Freeform in 2018. “Runaways” is expected to premiere on Hulu in 2018. “Inhumans” premieres this fall on ABC.