Superpowers Are Not Cheap

With the current TV season rapidly coming to a close, the vast majority of shows already know whether or not they are coming back next season.  However, Supergirl, which ended its season a couple of weeks ago, still remains in Limbo as of this writing.  According to a wave of articles such as THIS ONE that hit this week, the reason is the series’ budget.  Supergirl airs on CBS and costs approximately $3 million per episode due to the special effects-heavy nature of its concept and the fact that it shoots in Los Angeles.  Ratings-wise, it is bringing in about 6-7 million viewers per episode, which is down substantially from the 13 million who watched the pilot episode.  By way of comparison, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory averages closer to 15 million per episode. 

Supergirl is not cheap, especially for a new series, and it also doesn’t perform substantially better than many shows on CBS.  It is in no way a failure, but it is definitely a disappointment for the network in relationship to its cost.  It is a very basic situation in the industry.  The more an entertainment property costs to make, the greater the expectations for success.  Warner Brothers is dealing with this right now on the movie side of their superhero productions with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  The film has made over $860 million worldwide, but due to its $250 million budget, marketing costs, and expectations, the word “flop” is being thrown around in articles like THIS ONE.

The risk vs. reward calculations of movies and television are far different, though.  I don’t fault Warner Brothers in the slights for spending $250 million on BvS.  Marvel’s superhero team-up films The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron racked up well over $1 billion in box office worldwide.  Hell, even Disney’s Alice in Wonderland made over $1 billion for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom.  BvS was the first time Batman and Superman had ever been in the same live-action film together, and they were throwing in Wonder Woman and cameos by other members of the Justice League for good measure.  On top of that, worldwide grosses for films have only been growing as China has become a major market for movies.  This had to look like as sure of a thing as there can be in the film world.  The results, while not a catastrophic failure, have to be disappointing for Warner Brothers.

The Supergirl situation, however, is taking place in a much different landscape.  Network television viewership has been shrinking for years since audiences have so many other options now between the literally hundreds of cable networks that exist as well as online streaming options such as Youtube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.  Add to that the Internet and video games, and it’s no surprise that viewership is a fraction of what it once was. 

Conversely, making a television series has not gotten less expensive.  Yes, there are savings in some areas.  CGI has made it possible for shows to create special effects that would have been well beyond their capabilities twenty years ago at a reasonable cost, but pretty much everything else has gotten more expensive.  In past years, studios could afford to lose a bit on the show at first because they knew that they would recoup those costs if the show lasts long enough (usually about 100 episodes) to make it into syndication.  Elementary, which has ratings well below that of Supergirl, may only have been renewed because of the lucrative syndication deal CBS Studios made with WGN when the show was in its prime.  But with so many shows on now and so many channels making their own content, syndication deals aren’t a sure thing anymore either.

In the face of these pressures, it’s a wonder to me that we get superhero or science fiction series at all.  Even period pieces are not cheap due to the costs of recreating a bygone era.  Look at THIS VIDEO showing the amount of visual effects work that went into the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter, a series that combines a period piece with science fiction/superhero elements.  So many shots needed to have effects added, several of which I as a viewer had no idea had been tweaked.

Without massive ratings, the networks just will not be able to support shows with the budgets required to pull off powers or other worlds.  Police procedurals and medical dramas are so much easier to do.  I don’t know how long even they will be financially viable in their current form.  Can a few million viewers per week per show sustain the current model of television production?  I have no idea.

And where does all of this leave Supergirl?  There’s still a very good possibility that CBS will renew it.  Many of the network’s viewers tend to be older, and Supergirl was an attempt to start drawing in a younger audience.  A show may draw in millions of viewers, but if most of them are outside of the 18-45 year-old-range advertisers, who are the only reason networks exist, don’t care.  That renewal may come with a reduced budget, though.

Another possibility is that the show could move to The CW, the network which is co-owned by CBS and Warner Brothers and home to fellow superhero series Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.  That option would also involve a budget cut.  I could not find exact figures on The Flash’s cost per episode, but many estimates put it at as much as $1 million per episode less than Supergirl.  There’s also the question of when The CW would air Supergirl if they picked it up.  In a surprise move, The CW renewed their entire slate of shows several weeks ago.  Considering that, where would they fit in Supergirl?

With either of those options, series production would likely have to move to Canada, where The Flash and Arrow currently shoot.  Filming in Canada is far less expensive than in Hollywood, which is why not just the superhero shows of The CW but most special effects-heavy series (such as pretty much everything SyFy produces) films there.  The upcoming new Star Trek television series, also to be produced by CBS, announced this week that they will be filming in Canada as well. 

Such a move would change the look of Supergirl’s National City quite a bit.  Vancouver, lovely though it may be (and from the pictures I’ve seen of the place, it does look lovely), is not Los Angeles.  There’s also the question of whether or not the cast, particularly Calista Flockhart, would be willing the move north to shoot the show.  Yes, commuting is possible.  John Barrowman of Arrow regularly makes the trip from his California home to the show.  Like Barrowman, Flockhart is not the show’s lead, so she could potentially shoot her scenes for a particular episode in a day or two and spend the rest of the time at home.

There’s also been talk that some online services, such as Hulu, might even be interested if CBS decides not to pick up the show.    We should know soon, though (But hopefully not before this post goes up.  That’s the danger of writing in advance.).  The networks announce their Fall plans at the upfronts in the next couple of weeks. 

One way or another, I think Supergirl will be around next season.  I would like it to have the opportunity to build on its strengths and correct the issues that plagued the first season.  What the show will actually look like, however, remains to be seen.

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter