Disney’s ABC Bets on Marvel Heroes to Fuel New Television Season

Walt Disney Co. is betting Marvel’s characters save the day at its ABC television network, much as they rescued the company’s film studio.

“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which will begin airing Sept. 24 on the network, is produced by Joss Whedon, director of Disney’s blockbuster film “Marvel’s The Avengers.” It could draw more young male viewers to a network with female-skewing shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

ABC scheduled a screening of the program’s first episode at an event for television critics in Beverly Hills, California, yesterday.

Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment, said the network has been working with Marvel executives to tap their experience in marketing to young males, such as an appearance by Whedon and cast members at the Comic-Con International comic book fan convention in San Diego last month. He said the Marvel program is attracting more advertisers to the network, such as Hollywood studios promoting their movies.

“It’s gotten a lot of interest from advertisers,” he said.

In “S.H.I.E.L.D,” Clark Gregg reprises the role of Agent Phil Coulson from the Marvel films. He assembles a group of agents who protect the public from strange occurrences around the world.

ABC finished in second place behind CBS Corp.’s broadcast network in total viewers last season. It was last among the major U.S. networks in viewers ages 18 to 49, a group targeted by advertisers, according to Nielsen data.

‘Empowered Women’

About 65 percent of ABC’s viewers are female, and the average age of its audience is about 53, the second-oldest among major networks after CBS, according to New York advertising firm Horizon Media Inc., which cited Nielsen data.

Other ABC shows debuting this year include “The Goldbergs,” a comedy featuring Jeff Garlin of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Back in the Game,” which stars veteran actor James Caan.

The network is continuing to pursue a strategy based on what Lee called “empowered women,” particularly in a Thursday night lineup that includes the new show, “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland,” a fantasy based on the children’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Disney, based in Burbank, California, added 1.8 percent to $66.51 on Aug. 2 in New York. The stock has risen 34 percent this year.

Lucasfilm Talks

Marvel, which Disney purchased for $4.2 billion in 2009, has had an outsized effect on the company’s film studio. Operating income at that unit rose to $722 million last year from $175 million in 2009. Last year, “Marvel’s The Avengers” was the top-grossing film with $1.5 billion in worldwide box-office sales, according to the researcher BoxOfficeMojo.com.

“Iron Man 3,” which also features Robert Downey Jr. as the armored industrialist Tony Stark, is this year’s top ticket seller with $1.2 billion in global receipts.

The Marvel strategy has been so successful that Disney last year paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm, George Lucas’s production company, to gain “Star Wars” characters for new films, TV shows and theme-park attractions.

Lee said he had started conversations with Lucasfilm about using their content for a television show.

“I certainly have a glint in my eye,” he said.

Profit at Disney’s broadcast network fell 40 percent in the quarter ended March 30 to $138 million due to higher prime time programming costs and a decrease in advertising revenue related to ratings, according to the company’s most recent financial statement.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.