Could a Superhero TV Network Work? by Jerry Whitworth
It seems like every few years, a hundred or so more channels make their way on to the air as cable/satellite providers offer packages in the number of thousands of networks today. A question many have posed for years is the possibility of a channel devoted entirely to superheroes. Obviously, this hasn’t happened yet which begs the question: why not? The likeliest answer is business politics. An example of the hurdles such a network would face begins in even using the term “super hero.” In 2002, the comic book Super Hero Happy Hour premiered before promptly having to change the name to Hero Happy Hour after creators were instructed DC and Marvel Comics co-hold the trademark on the term “super hero.” A similar case arose recently with Ray Felix and his comic A World Without Superheroes who has taken the companies to court over the use of the term. While, obviously, a network could avoid this problem by paying the companies a licensing fee or simply use another term (which may confuse the consumer), it nonetheless demonstrates an underlining pettiness or greed for the sake of greed on the part of companies that control the necessary content. Something like this, however, is just the beginning of the problems such a venture would face. Consider, Marvel and DC had to combine their efforts to maintain a trademark on ‘super hero’ but otherwise have little to do with each other. This issue is exponentially conflicted when incorporating parent companies Warner Bros and Disney.
When superhero movies began becoming the go to source for summer theater blockbusters, DC Comics was stifled by its continued push to keep films produced within the Warner Bros family. Marvel, on the other hand, was unrestricted and could shop their films to whichever studio they were happy with. Everything changed when Disney purchased Marvel, culminating in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which became a juggernaut in box office revenue as films signed prior to the Disney deal at other studios became seen as bastard children of the media empire (which hasn’t necessarily meant this was reflected in box office revenue as Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man was a huge hit). Further, the Disney deal killed Marvel’s presence across multiple television networks when shows like Spectacular Spider-Man produced with Sony were canceled and virtually all Marvel series were absorbed into the network Disney XD. Warner, having absorbed DC Comics in 1969, has traditionally held a tight leash on the publisher, virtually all of its small screen adaptations forced to air on the now defunct WB network, the CW, and Cartoon Network (and its sister channel Boomerang). The only real exception to the restrictions carried by Warner and Disney on their TV series seem to be through Hasbro’s burgeoning network the Hub.
Hasbro, known for its properties G.I. Joe, Transformers, and My Little Pony, managed to acquire DC and Marvel content for the Hub. In regards to DC, this could derive from issues between Cartoon Network and the publisher. Even Boomerang, which was established to televise older content (like Super Friends and later the DC Animated Universe) as CN would focus on its Cartoon Cartoons, has moved its focus to Cartoon Cartoons. For Marvel, the publisher has had a long standing relationship with the toy maker so far as inking a five year exclusive contract with Hasbro in 2006. But, long before this interaction, Marvel helped Hasbro develop its brands including Transformers and reinventing G.I. Joe. Still, the Disney purchase brings this arrangement into question. Disney in the past has had a strong relationship with Mattel, Hasbro’s arch-competitor, while Mattel has been fostering an ongoing relationship with DC Comics (including the expansion of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, so far as seeing the franchise crossover into the DC Universe). While Warner or Disney could produce their own superhero networks, the issue arises of the amount of content needed.
With little doubt, a superhero network would require either Marvel or DC (or both) and more to generate the necessary amount of content to not only start but maintain an ongoing station. So, in all likelihood, it would require a third party unrelated to Warner or Disney but one that has a relationship with both (like Hasbro or Mattel). Another franchise that could provide a breadth of content would be Power Rangers, formerly Disney’s second longest running television series, and various other tokusatsu that made its way to the United States like Ultraman, VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs (and perhaps more, dubbing original Japanese content for example). For that matter, various anime series could bulk up content especially the works of Tatsunoko Production, Toei Company, Shotaro Ishinomori, and Go Nagai. From America, there’s also a wealth of series from Hanna-Barbera, Ruby-Spears, Rankin/Bass, Filmation, and Krofft Productions and shows like Zorro, Green Hornet, Six Million Dollar Man, Greatest American Hero, Manimal, Automan, Defenders of the Earth, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, Beauty and the Beast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, M.A.N.T.I.S., Spawn, Savage Dragon, The Maxx, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, Dark Angel, Black Scorpion, Witchblade, Mutant X, The Tick, Heroes, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?, and The Cape. Perhaps the greatest boon, however, could be entirely new content.
While there’s little doubt Warner Bros will continue to feature its DC Comics properties on the CW and Cartoon Network while Disney does the same with ABC, ABC Family, and Disney XD, a superhero network could bring life to shows for publishers who don’t have the corporate backing of the big two. While The Walking Dead has become the crown jewel of Image Comics’ external media empire, with a wealth of companies under Image’s umbrella like Extreme Studios, Highbrow Entertainment, Shadowline, Todd McFarlane Productions, Top Cow Productions, Silverline Books, and Skybound Entertainment, there are dozens of viable series that could be adapted for television. Image, king of the independent publishers, is surely not the only game in town. Dark Horse, home to Hellboy, The Mask, and R.I.P.D., has seen many of its properties hit it big at the box office but only moderate success on television. Likely making the publisher and those in the television market gun shy on adapting its series to the small screen, a network hungry for new content could provide the opportunity they need. Dynamite Entertainment, BOOM! Studios, IDW Publishing, Valiant Entertainment, and Avatar Press, as well as webcomics, taken into account and the possibilities of this venture are mindboggling. Lest we forget entirely original content, a superhero network offers so many avenues of entertainment as well as a viable cash cow for companies that if the big companies could just work out the small details, the concept could be paid back many times over (especially considering the presence superhero content is having at the box office). The situation brings to mind the 1966 Batman television series.
A show adapting what is today Warner Bros owned content intermingled with original content controlled by 20th Century Fox, for decades Batman has been mired in limbo as the two companies have duked it out (with no VHS and, to date, no DVD releases of the series printed). Recently, some accord has been reached allowing Warner to employ the likenesses and stories in new content as many hope the advent is some sign the series could finally see release. After almost five decades, the companies have finally put their egos aside for a mutually beneficial arrangement. More importantly, it’s a sign that maybe if the payback is great enough, the most antagonistic of competitors could work together in the name of profit. Though, this shouldn’t sound too optimistic. Again, it took almost five decades for Warner and Fox to reach an accord and Warner and Disney are about as big as competitors get. Still, if comic books teach us anything, it’s that anything is possible.
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