Warner Bros bets big on DC Comics for TV

"Gotham" season two on Fox.
Source: Fox

Marvel may rule the superhero box office, but DC Comics is launching an all-out comic book blitz on television this season.

DC-parent and Time Warner-subsidiary Warner Bros. is betting audiences are hungry for more comic book content. The studio has turned out a string of superhero and horror hits at a time when young audiences are shifting to streaming on-demand video, an ideal home for serialized genre series with loyal fan followings.

During an August conference call, Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes singled out DC Comics as an example of "how the best [intellectual property] can be monetized across many different platforms both inside and beyond traditional ecosystems."

Marvel has also expanded to the small screen, but its live-action network shows are limited to "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the midseason replacement series "Agent Carter." Marvel is also rolling out original superhero shows on Netflix.

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Meanwhile, WB's television group sold three new series based on its comic book properties this season, and four more are returning this fall. One series, "Constantine," was canceled last season after it languished in a Friday night time slot on NBC.

Some market watchers worry that audiences will become fatigued as more superheroes make their way to theaters and living rooms. But Warner Bros. has produced a diverse slate of content when it comes to television, said Eric Handler, media and entertainment analyst at MKM Partners.

"If it was all about superheroes in capes jumping around fighting crime and all of the shows were similar, then I would be concerned," he told CNBC. "'Gotham' is a very different show than 'The Flash.'"

"Gotham," a cop drama that follows the early exploits of Batman's allies and enemies, was Fox's second-highest rated show in its premiere season last year, averaging about 4.7 million viewers per episode in the 18-to-49 demographic, according to Nielsen data.

The CW — a joint venture between CBS and Time Warner — also had a freshman year hit with the superhuman speedster series "The Flash," which became its most watched show ever. That show spun out of "Arrow," which stars DC's emerald archer and took the No. 2 slot in its third season.

In January, the network will launch "Legends of Tomorrow," a show that follows a team composed of the supporting characters from "The Flash" and "Arrow."

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Rounding out the superhero fare in 2015 is CBS' "Supergirl," the first series to star one of DC's female crusaders since 2002's ill-fated "Birds of Prey."

Warner Bros. has also tapped DC's adult-oriented Vertigo imprint for the undead detective dramedy "iZombie," which premiered on the CW last year, and "Lucifer," an upcoming Fox series that follows Satan's self-imposed exile on Earth.

Reaching new audiences

Comic book content has helped The CW achieve one of the goals set by the network's president, Mark Pedowitz, after he took over in 2011: getting more men to tune in.

The company's demographic had long skewed female, and while plenty of women watch its superhero shows, "The Flash" helped make the CW the top-rated network for men aged 18 to 34 on Tuesday nights last season.

The CW's ratings have always trailed the big four networks, but its dramas and genre shows have become valuable assets to streaming content providers.

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In 2011, Time Warner and CBS struck a deal with Netflix to stream every season of each CW show upon completion through 2015. Sources told CNBC at the time the deal was worth close to $1 billion.

The agreement marked a reversal for Time Warner's Bewkes, who had previously balked at selling content to streaming websites at the expense of broadcast syndication.

The following year, "Arrow" premiered on the CW. Its ratings helped turn the tide for the network.

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Deals with streaming websites have also helped Warner Bros. offset some of the decline in DVD and Blu-Ray sales, one if its largest revenue and profit drivers, the company has said in quarterly filings.

Last year, Warner Bros. and Netflix reached an agreement prior to the premiere of "Gotham" that made Netflix the exclusive streaming subscription source for the show.

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That's important because sitcoms and procedurals have traditionally pulled in the big bucks in broadcast syndication, in part, because they can be viewed out of order.

Streaming video deals, along with international content sales, are helping studios reach break even or achieve modest profitability with scripted dramas more quickly than the old broadcast syndication model allowed, Handler said.

"These programs with big story lines don't do as well in syndication," he said. "However, there is a good market for these programs in [streaming video on demand]."

The shows also drive interest in superhero content across channels.

Bewkes reminded analysts during Time Warner's last conference call that DC is not just the basis for seven shows, but for its biggest video game franchise, "Batman: Arkham;" a toy and digital content partnership with Mattel geared towards girls; and a slate of films that stretches into 2020.

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"Plus, I can't resist pointing out we still have a nice business selling actual comic books," Bewkes said.

Disclosure: NBC is a sister company to CNBC under NBC Universal.