Why CBS Would be Right to Cancel Supergirl:

A Ratings and Narrative Analysis

Before diving into this very long article I feel that I should lay my cards on the table. I enjoy watching Supergirl. I enjoy watching most television shows based on comic books. I also have a doctorate in cultural studies; so I’ve spent years studying popular media and the entertainment industry. I’ve also made a living writing about the videogame industry for years and I’ve consulted on several entertainment industry projects.  So when I talk about the entertainment industry, I know what I’m talking about.

Bad Journalism – Wait, Wasn’t Supergirl Already Renewed?

Les Moonves, CBS’s CEO, was at an event and said, “We have five new shows this year. Of those five, I believe all five of them will be renewed.” Moonves was clearly speaking in a vaguely positive way to make it look like all of his company’s products were doing well, without saying anything specific that could be later used against him.

Sadly, instead of realizing his claim had little substance, websites began reporting that these shows had been renewed.  Deadline’s article on this stated “Les Moonves: CBS Plans to Renew Five of this Season’s Freshman Series.” Comic Book Resources wanted to get into the click bait game and posted an article titled “CBS’s ‘Supergirl’ Renewed for Season 2.” Newsarama got in on the game with an article titled “CBS’s Supergirl Renewed for Second Season.”

With no nuance present these and many other articles made this show’s renewal seem all but certain. While it is important to be optimistic in life, I’ve been increasingly troubled by how little research is done by entertainment news websites. I say this because if any of them had studied Supergirl’s ratings, they would have expressed some bit of shock that the show got renewed considering how its ratings have suffered.

Now articles are being written that the show might actually be cancelled. This information stems from a recent press release from CBS that confirmed the renewal of eleven shows – none of them being Supergirl. While we all make mistakes, I do hope that fellow entertainment journalists reading this piece are reminded that it is important to not write in absolutes.

Supergirl’s Background – From Panels to TV

First appearing in 1959, Supergirl has always had an interesting place in the DC Universe. Though there have been many characters to be called Supergirl the most popular is Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El. Created as a counterpart of Superman that would appeal to young female readers, Supergirl is a character largely limited by the purpose of her creation. As Bradford Wright states in Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture, “the Supergirl character, in particular, seemed to be a concerted effort to appeal to young girls; her stories were whimsical adventures that also feature Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. But the men who created DC comic books were clearly uncomfortable writing stories with female stars, as evidenced by Wonder Woman, a series that languished creatively and commercially in a series of incoherent and silly stories.”

Supergirl's first appearancePart of Supergirl’s flaw from the beginning was that she was locked into being in the shadow of Superman. While DC did take chances on developing sidekick characters into freestanding heroes – such as Dick Grayson growing from Robin into Nightwing – Kara Zor-El has typically been depicted as a lesser version of Superman for decades.  Her character became so irrelevant that after DC killed her off in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marv Wolfman, the writer of that story got fan letters saying that “Supergirl’s death in Crisis was the best Supergirl story they ever read.”  Overall, Supergirl is a character who modern creators have struggled to write in a modern context – especially in light of the increased number of women in the comics industry as creators and consumers who don’t related to sensibilities of the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite these problems, Supergirl has always been a popular intellectual property for DC Comics.  And with the number of movies and TV shows based on comic books increasing it was only a matter of time before someone made a live-action show around her this character.  So no one was surprised when it was announced that there would be a Supergirl TV show for the 2015-2016 season.  There were initial concerns that the show would be on CBS instead of on The CW since CBS tends to have procedural shows aimed at older viewers while The CW already has successful superhero series.

However, concerns about the quality of the show did come up again when CBS released a ‘First Look’:

Supergirl was supposed to be a scripted drama, yet, the first look depicted a series more in line with Saturday Night Live’s parody of what  a Black Widow movie would look like:

Oddly, the Black Widow clip from SNL was released just ten days before Supergirl’s First Look.  It was an unfortunate bit of timing for Supergirl because it meant that it would have to immediately overcome outdated beliefs that female superheroes couldn’t sustain a movie or television franchise.

Debuting on October 26, 2015, the first episode was watched by about 13 million viewers and was one of CBS’s highly scripted dramas of the 2015-2016 season.  The show was also met by fairly positive reviews.  In short, it seemed early on that Supergirl would become a success and get renewed for a second season.

Since its pilot episode, however, Supergirl’s ratings have dropped with almost every episode.  Additionally, growing criticism has continued to haunt the show.  And now the decline in viewership is so severe it is time to discuss whether or not CBS should cancel Supergirl.  Given my analysis of its ratings and flaws, I think CBS would be right to cancel this show.

Ratings: A Show’s Yellow Sun or its Kryptonite

Supergirl debuted on CBS with record ratings of about 13 million viewers, and was one of the best premieres of the 2015-2016 season.  As Rick Kissell wrote for Variety, Supergirl tied “with NBC’s “Blindspot” as the fall’s top premiere score in the key young-adult demo while leading all new shows outright in total viewers.”  However, these numbers did not last long.  As the chart (figure 1) below shows, Supergirl’s ratings have dropped for all but four episodes.[1] (Click on any chart to view the full-size version.)

Figure 1: Supergirl's Season 1 Ratings

Figure 1: Supergirl's Season 1 Ratings

For those who care, here are the raw numbers courtesy of TV Series Finale:

Episode Total Viewers
(by millions)
18-49 demographic[2]
(by millions)
1 12.955 3.15
2 8.865 2.19
3 8.066 1.71
4 7.769 1.80
5 7.187 1.52
6 8.019 1.64
7 7.665 1.53
8 7.275 1.52
9 8.746 1.87
10 8.767 1.85
11 7.902 1.76
12 6.682 1.51
13 7.919 1.78
14 7.248 1.54
15 6.69 1.39
16 6.530 1.31
17 5.995 1.3

As the numbers show, Supergirl has been hemorrhaging viewers.  From its first episode till it’s seventeenth the show’s total audience as dropped by 53.729% – which is more than half.  Worse yet, when you examine its 18-49 demographic numbers, this segment of its audience has decreased by over 58.7%.

There have been episodes in which viewership increased, but this increase seems to be due to other factors.  For instance, episode 13 (February 8th’s – “For the Girl Who Has Everything”) did see its audience numbers increase by over a million viewers from the previous episode.  However I think this was to be expected.  Supergirl airs Monday’s on CBS and the day before the 13th episode, CBS aired Super Bowl 50 – an event that had over 111 million viewers.  So it is highly likely that a few million Super Bowl fans stuck around to check out CBS the following day.

Overall, Supergirl’s ratings decline is more than enough for CBS to justify canceling it and replacing it with a show that can sustain a larger audience.  If CBS does decide to renew Supergirl for a second season and the ratings do decline, the show’s renewal would be a massive financial drain on a network that is investing a ton of money into a new subscription network.

But Supergirl has higher ratings than Flash or Arrow – Understanding Network Ratings and Advertising Dollars

“Great, this argument again,”[3] I state sarcastically.

Right now many people are bringing up the fact that Flash and Arrow – two shows that are also based on DC Comics characters – have much lower ratings than Supergirl, but they aren’t in danger of being canceled.  And this is true.  As figure 2 shows, Supergirl at its lowest still has a much larger total audience than Arrow or Flash did during their first seasons.

Figure 2: Season 1 Ratings on Supergirl, Flash, and Arrow (Total Viewers)

Figure 2: Season 1 Ratings on Supergirl, Flash, and Arrow (Total Viewers)

This should seem like enough evidence for keeping Supergirl around for another season, but something interesting happens when you examine the key demographic numbers instead of total viewership.

Figure 3: Key Demographic Viewers of Supergirl, Arrow, and Flash season 1

Figure 3: Key Demographic Viewers of Supergirl, Arrow, and Flash season 1

What is so interesting about Figure 3 is that while it shows that Supergirl started off well, so many viewers in the 18 to 49 age range have stopped watching the show that it is almost equal to The Flash’s numbers.

This is a problem for Supergirl.  It is a huge problem.  CBS is a much larger network than The CW – the network which Arrow and The Flash air on – and other companies pay a lot of money to have their advertisements on CBS.

Flash and Arrow“How much does advertising cost on CBS and The CW,” a smart, sexy, reader would ask.  Well, Ad Age published an article breaking this down.  The article shows that for the 2015-2016 season a 30 second ad on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and NCIS cost $348,000 and $151,738 respectively.  Additionally, a 30 second ad on Supergirl costs $147,933.  In contrast, a 30 second ad on The CW’s The Flash and Arrow cost $70,687 and $48,056 respectively.  In short, a show on The CW is worth far less than what a show on CBS is worth.  And if Supergirl can only attract the number of key demographic viewers that is equal to a show on a network with lower standards for ratings, CBS will have little reason to invest in the show.

However, the biggest problem that comes from comparing Supergirl to Arrow and The Flash is that these shows are on two very different networks.  The CW is a network built on smaller ratings, and CBS has a business model dependent on high ratings.  It’s comparing apples to oranges.

Don’t Compare Supergirl to The CW – Compare it to shows on CBS

Supergirl is a CBS show.  So it will be CBS that determines whether the show is renewed or not.  As such, it is important to look at the ratings of some of the other shows that CBS currently has on air for the 2015-2016 season.  (You can find these ratings here.)  If you’re too lazy to click the link yourself don’t worry, I’ve created a helpful graph (figure 4) for you.

Figure 4: Total Viewership numbers for shows on CBS 2015-216 season

Figure 4: Total Viewership numbers for shows on CBS 2015-216 season

In regards to total viewership numbers Supergirl was 12th in the rankings of most watched scripted show on CBS.  In addition to including those top 12 shows,[4] I also included the ratings for the first season of Limitless and the first (and only) season of Angel from Hell.

A primary goal of every show is to make it to 100 episodes.  Once a show hits this number it can be sold for syndication and pretty much everyone involved in the production of a show will receive residual checks.  However, in order for a show to get to a hundred episodes it needs to have high ratings to justify being renewed season after season.  Supergirl’s ratings do not justify renewal.

CBS is currently home to The Good Wife.  This show is entering its seventh and final season.  Despite its ratings slide over seven years, The Good Wife still has higher ratings than SupergirlThe Good Wife premiered to an audience of 13.71 million viewers.  And over the years it lost viewers as most shows do.  It has lost so many viewers that its most recent episode, February 21st, 2016’s “Targets” only had an audience of 7.91 million.  In contrast, Supergirl premiered to an audience of 12.95 million and is down to 6.69 in fourteen episodes.  In other words, Supergirl has lost in just fourteen episodes the number of viewers it took The Good Wife seven seasons to lose.

Compounding this problem for Supergirl is the cost of ad space on her show.  As previously mentioned, a 30 second spot on NCIS is worth $151,738 and the same commercial time during Supergirl is worth $147,933.  So while commercial time during NCIS and Supergirl are close in value, their audience sizes are completely different.  For example, NCIS’s 15th episode for the 2015-2016 year was watched by 17.335 million viewers, Supergirl’s 15th episode 6.69 million people.  This means that if someone were to pay to advertise on Supergirl, that product would be exposed to less than half the number of people watching NCIS.  An examining of the 18 to 49 demographics reveals a similar problem.  For the fifteenth episode of Supergirl and NCIS, Supergirl was watched by 1.39 million people between 18 and 49 while NCIS was watched by 2.32 million.  When discussing the 18 to 49 demographic, this is a huge difference in viewership.

This leaves CBS with two options: sell advertising on Supergirl for half of what they can get from a different program or cancel the show and replace with something that has a better return on investment.

Now that I brought up the 18 to 49 demo, let’s take a moment to examine the key demographic viewership numbers of CBS’s top shows. (Figure 5).

Figure 5: CBS's viewership 18 - 49 demographic

Figure 5: CBS's viewership 18 - 49 demographic

Upon looking at this chart for the first time I noticed two things.  One, The Big Bang Theory’s is a juggernaut.  In regards to the key demographic viewership numbers, no show comes close to The Big Bang Theory.

Two, Supergirl’s key demo ratings have also dropped substantially.  The last episode of Angel from Hell before it was canceled had 1.36 million key demo viewers; Supergirl’s sixteenth episode only had 1.3 million.  In contrast, Life in Pieces is another new show on CBS and while it did drop in ratings after its first episode, the numbers have gotten better over the season.  As of episode three, Life in Pieces has consistently had higher key demo ratings than SupergirlSupergirl’s key demo ratings have fallen so far that they are line with those of NCIS: LA (season 7) and Blue Bloods (season 6) – this is not a good thing for a freshman show.  The fact that Supergirl’s key demo numbers are also in line with shows that have been slowly losing viewers for years is a sign that Supergirl’s ratings will only get worse.

CBS has already canceled Angel from Hell for low ratings.  It seems like Limitless will also be on the chopping block for its ratings decline.  And based on ratings only, it seems that Supergirl will not be a viable investment for the network and CBS will have a justification for its cancellation.

Star Trek is Coming

Sometimes networks keep low rated shows around if they have nothing to replace it with.  As this Today article titled ‘The shows that won’t die are back’ states, “A lot of sitcoms might keep staggering along, zombie-like, because the network has nothing with which to replace them.”  Supergirl won’t be able to benefit from this because CBS does have a genre show in development, Star Trek.

Star Trek

Being developed for CBS All-Access and the 2017-2018 season, the new Star Trek series is being helmed by critically acclaimed and fan favorite Bryan Fuller. CBS wants All Access to be their version of HBO Go. As a paid streaming service, CBS All Access is CBS’s response to people cutting the cord on traditional cable packages.

Given how expensive a special effects heavy show like Star Trek can be, canceling Supergirl would allow CBS to invest more money into Star Trek’s production and advertisement. After all, if CBS wants CBS All Access to be its version of HBO Go, then it needs to spend the money to make Star Trek its Game of Thrones.

What about moving to The CW or a Streaming Service?

So you’ve accepted that Supergirl’s ratings justify CBS giving up on it, but you are hoping that the show might get moved to The CW or another network.

Well, let me squash that dream for you.

Supergirl costs a lot more money to make than Arrow or The Flash. The CW is known for having tight budgets so if Supergirl did shift from CBS to The CW, the show would have to make drastic changes to its budget. So either everyone takes a huge pay cut, several characters are axed from the show, the series has more stories that wouldn’t rely on special effects, or a combination of the three. Personally, I don’t see any of these things happening. (However, I could easily see Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl being transferred over to The Flash, and I expand on this later.)

Additionally, networks rarely want to take on a show that has failed elsewhere. It does happen but network executives are reluctant to take on another network’s mistake.

This would also make it difficult for Supergirl to move to streaming services. Netflix already has a developmental deal with Marvel Comics, so it will most likely be contractually blocked from making a deal with a comic book property from one of Marvel’s competitors. More importantly, Marvel and Disney do not like to share with competitors. Beyond that, streaming services like producing original content. And there is no reason for them to produce more Supergirl episodes for the show’s dwindling audience when a streaming service can just as easily develop a new show without the baggage of low ratings.

Flawed Narrative Foundations – Poorly Delivered Feminism and Flawed Concepts

One of the reasons why I think Supergirl’s ratings are declining is because the overall narrative has been flawed from the beginning. I think the acting is good, Melissa Benoist is fantastic in her role, and much of the dialogue is well delivered and feels true to the characters. However, there is nothing about the show that makes it must see television. And I think this has to do with the show’s feminism and producers not knowing what they wanted the show to be.

Before diving into a discussion of feminism, I want to share that in addition to considering myself a feminist, I have also spent years studying the representation of women in media. (Remember, the whole doctorate thing.) With that said, Supergirl was billed as a feminist show for today’s audiences. The Washington Post wrote a piece titled Supergirl’s creators lean into their show’s feminism” and Vulture wrote a great article titled Supergirl is a smart, feminist series (and that’s why some people won’t watch it).”

Even Melissa Benoist described Supergirl as being a feminist when she was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

The Vulture piece, written by Matt Zoller Seitz, points out that some people aren’t going to give this show a chance because of its feminism. A statement that is sadly true. Grace Randolph – who has written for DC Comics, Marvel, and has authored the fantastic comic book series Supurbia – reviews every episode of Supergirl on her YouTube channel, Beyond the Trailer. One of the critiques that she has of Supergirl is that the feminism is frequently too heavy-handed.

However, I think the show is struggling to adapt the feminism of the 2010s to a concept from the 1950s/1960s. In Supergirl’s first episode, Cat Grant (played by Calista Fllockhart) decides to name Superman’s cousin Supergirl. Kara Danvers aka Kara Zor-El aka Supergirl confronts Cat Grant about this and says, “If we call her “Supergirl”, something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of, of being anti-feminist? Didn’t you say she’s the hero?”

Cat Grant defends her decision to call her Supergirl instead of Superwoman by stating: “And what do you think is so bad about ‘Girl?’ Huh? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” This line is the producers’ attempt to justify the Supergirl title. And it is a failure, in my opinion, because the correct answer to Cat Grant’s question is no, because Cat Grant is wrong.

Giving a woman in her mid-twenties a title that has ‘girl’ in it is offensive and demeaning to that woman. There are women in the Marines. If someone called them Marine-girls everyone would know that was disrespectful. If a woman in the Army was called solider-girl, everyone would know that was disrespectful. If a female police officer was called a police-girl, everyone would know that was disrespectful. The creators of this show want us to see Supergirl as equal to Superman, but they fail to do that from the beginning with an unsuccessful attempt to justify the name.

Cat Grant

Cat Grant’s argument for calling Kara Supergirl is further undercut in episode 16, “Falling.” In the beginning of this episode Cat Grant appears on CBS’s show The Talk[5] and she is asked “What does it feel like to be the most powerful woman in National City?” To which Cat answers by stating, “that is a total misnomer because no one is calling me ‘the most powerful woman.’ I believe they are calling me the most powerful person.” Though the line is supposed to be received as a sign that Cat Grant is more powerful than the demeaning qualify of “for a woman”[6] and doesn’t want her accomplishments limited to the category of her gender, her response is in direct contradiction to her justifications for calling Kara Supergirl.

Though Cat’s desire to just be seen as a powerful person instead of just a powerful woman is a discrepancy that can be written off as Cat’s ego demanding respect, that argument doesn’t work. Cat isn’t an unjustified narcissist – she has an ego that she’s earned over the course of her career. More importantly, she’s not a hypocrite. As such, this discrepancy seems to be the result of the writers not being consistent with how they want to define Cat’s feminist stances.

I know that the producers had to think of a way to justify calling Kara Supergirl because ‘Supergirl’ is an established brand, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Cat Grant quote came off as tone deaf. Moreover, the pilot episode and subsequent installments have never addressed any issue relevant to 21st century feminist. Supergirl isn’t a show that will ever tackle pay inequality, sex trafficking, street harassment, or a myriad of other issues that have been addressed on other CBS shows. And that’s because at its core, Supergirl is a feminist show in style but not in substance.

Hell, take away Kara’s powers and she’s just another quirky assistant who dresses like a librarian and is trying to find love in a big city. And while there is nothing wrong with a show centering on a character like that, it isn’t a show worthy of the progressive feminist praise that has been layered onto Supergirl.

The Superman Problem

Superman and Supergirl

Reflecting on Supergirl it becomes more apparent that a growing flaw with the show is Superman himself. Superman briefly appears in the pilot episode and quickly appears in the third episode “Fight or Flight” to save Kara from a fight with a super villain. Additionally, Superman is brought up in dialogue in most of the episodes.

This is a problem for two reasons. One, it means that viewers are never really concerned about Kara’s safety. If Supergirl encounters a problem too big to solve, she can just call on Superman to help. Two, it unnecessarily complicates the show’s narratives.

For instance, there are now evil Kryptonians on Earth who are plotting…something. Why hasn’t someone let Superman know about this? Max Lord figures out how to turn humans into Kryptonian clones. Shouldn’t someone tell Superman about this?

I don’t know how these problems would be expressed via emojis but these seem like problems Superman needs to be made aware of. And because these problems are never explicitly addressed, they just eat away at the internal logic of the show.

Superman would obviously cast a large shadow over Supergirl in any medium, but Supergirl’s handling of this character highlights that the show doesn’t have a clear identity of its own. If this is the story of Supergirl learning how to become a superhero then she needs to have Superman and other heroes of his caliber help guide her. If the show is about Kara coming into her own identity, then references to Superman, his allies (James Olsen), and his feats (saving an airplane) should have never been written in.

There is an audience for a show based on a strong female comic book character, it just seems that Supergirl doesn’t know how to be that show. And I think these problems are causing the series to lose viewers.

What I would have done? A Refugee and a New Age of Heroes with no Superman

While developing this article I sought out feedback from colleagues and peers. One question that I frequently got was what I would have done differently. So here are the changes I would have made.

First, I would have explicitly depicted Kara as a refugee. By this I mean that she did come to Earth because her planet was wiped out by a natural disaster and she is one of the only two Kryptonians left. While Supergirl depicts Kara as a somewhat well adjusted adult who has friends and lives a fairly emotionally healthy life, I would have had Kara’s isolation from her people limit her emotional attachment to Earth.  Superman was raised on Earth and doesn’t have nearly the emotional connection to Krypton that Kara would have. As such, I would have Kara largely detached from humanity with the only people she’s emotionally invested in being Superman and her adopted family. (The relationship she has with her foster sister is one of the best parts of Supergirl.)

Second, I would have had Superman removed from Earth by the end of the first act in the first episode. In this story, Superman would have trained Kara on the weekends so that she knew how to control her powers. And while he never pushed her to become a hero, he wanted to prepare her in case the world ever needed another being with Kryptonian superpowers. This would mean that she was fully trained for metahuman combat as well. Uninterested in becoming a hero as she becomes a young adult, Kara goes to college with little desire to put on a cape.

Then a crisis in deep space would begin. It would be a battle for all reality. To save the universe, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and their superhero peers would all leave Earth to fight in this conflict. Knowing that the whole of creation is at stake, Lex Luthor also convinces all of Earth’s supervillains to leave the Earth with him and fight alongside the heroes. Lex wants to rule the world, but knows that the world might not exist if the war is lost. With the solar system cloaked to protect it from alien invaders and no major supervillains around, the world actually enjoys several years of relative peace…until new villains rise.

Third, Alex Danvers (Kara’s foster sister) would be the one that pushes Kara (now 20 or 21 years old) to become a hero. As an agent in the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, Alex would be aware of rising metahuman activity – both good and evil. Realizing that this new generation of metahumans needs a leader, Alex would encourage Kara to put on the S. I imagine that although Kara would be reluctant at first she would eventually accept the responsibility after she learns of Fort Rozz and its connection to her.

Fourth, the final scene of the pilot will be a flash forward to several years into the future. With a newscaster’s voice over explaining that an alien attack on Earth was stopped, but now the world is wondering if Superwoman is dead.

This setup and ending provides much of what I feel Supergirl needs as a series. It gives the series a story arc for season one (Fort Rozz) and the entire series (the Crisis coming to Earth). It also solves the problem with calling her Supergirl. She first accepts the name because she’s not attached to the idea of becoming a hero, but the ending flash forward communicates that at some point she grows to see the importance of her legacy and becomes Superwoman. It also gives her a clear arc for emotional growth. Instead of her having to develop her confidence as if she was in a teen-movie, she will grow to see that humanity is worth fighting and dying for.

Saving Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl

As I mentioned above, Melissa Benoist’s portrayal of Supergirl has been perfect. So if the show were to end it would be a shame if her version of the character ended as well. As such, I think that the character should be carried over to the Arrowverse.

With the upcoming episode of Supergirl, “World’s Finest,” to feature a guest appearance by the Flash, viewers know that characters can move from one parallel reality to the next. Supergirl has also introduced viewers to the idea of aliens being trapped in the Phantom Zone.

So here’s how I think Supergirl should be brought to the Arrowverse. A villain decides to create a device that will bring all the aliens and creatures trapped in the Phantom Zone to Earth. In the process of stopping this villain, the device becomes unstable and will blow up. Supergirl grabs the device and flies far enough above the city so that when it detonates no one is injured. Unfortunately, Supergirl disappears and is presumed dead.

Power Girl

Similar to The Flash’s explosion at Star Labs, this explosion exposes dozens of people to exotic matter that causes them to become metahumans. Realizing that metahumans are appearing across the world, Alex (Supergirl’s adopted sister) and the DEO decide to find these superpowered beings and train them in the use of their powers. The show will feature a montage of Alex finding people who have used their new powers in heroic ways. Asking why they acted like heroes they all (boys and girls, and men and women from all races) respond with the same statement, “because I want to be just like Supergirl.” Cutting back to Supergirl as the bomb goes off. We see her scream in pain and then begin to fall back to Earth. Kara crashes near a sign that says “Welcome to Central City, Home of The Flash.” Kara, grateful that Star Labs took her in, could take on the last name of Starr for her new identity, and become Karen Starr – the civilian identity for Power Woman (not Power Girl) of Earth 1.

This ending allows Supergirl to have built a legacy during her short career as a hero, and provides a means for creators to have a fresh start with her.

Concluding Thoughts

Re-watching Supergirl for this article I couldn’t help but notice better stories just lingering beneath the surface – begging to be brought forth with slight changes. Given that we are now in another golden age of television because of the high quality writing on TV, a show having only the potential to be great but not delivering on it just isn’t good enough. When reading reviews of and talking to my friends about Supergirl, I am always surprised by the number of people who state that they wish the show would have gone in some other direction.

And I think that’s the primary problem with Supergirl. With no real identity, with no real center, it is a show that does little to get people to believe that a woman can fly.

In addition to commenting below, feel free to argue with me on twitter @nicholasyanes.

UPDATE: What About the Ratings Bump from the Supergirl/Flash Crossover?

This article has been in development for a while and scheduled to go up after the Supergirl/Flash crossover aired a few days ago. Instead of having to rewrite portions of the article, I wanted to address the ratings increase here.

First, the ratings did increase. It was viewed by a total of 7.240 million people, and 1.70 million were in the key demo. The last episode only had a total of 5.995 million people with 1.29 million in the key demo. Sadly, this doesn’t say much for Supergirl’s future.

CBS invested a lot in hyping this crossover and fans of The Flash are incredibly loyal. So it makes sense that the ratings would jump for this event but the only way to determine if this event is a success or not will be to look at the ratings for the next two episodes. If Supergirl can hold on to this audience, CBS will have reason to renew. After all, similar to how a great ending can save a bad movie, good ratings at the end of a season can save a show with disappointing numbers.

The ratings increase does reveal something troubling about the show. Supergirl is a well funded show on the most watched network in the United States. If the show can only get a ratings bump by having a male character from another network appear, it communicates that Supergirl can’t thrive with the cast it currently has.

Notes

[1] To examine the ratings for Supergirl, I’ve decided to turn to TVSeriesFinale.com’s entry for Supergirl.  This website does a fantastic job of cataloguing a show’s ratings – both in total and in the 18-49 demographic.  I am not going to focus on DVR and Streaming numbers because advertisers – the entities that largely determine if a network buys/renews a show or not – are primarily concerned with live viewership numbers.

[2] “What is the 18-49 demographic, and why does it matter?” you ask. Well, great question. The 18-49 age range is the key demographic for a show because it includes – in theory – people with more disposable income than other members of the audience. Given that advertisers want people to buy their products, it is important for ad supported shows to be watched by people with disposable income.

[3] So what I mean by “this argument” is that whenever there is a discussion about a non-CW comic book TV show’s ratings, someone will always bring up the argument that it is okay if a show has low ratings because CW’s comic book shows have equal or lesser ratings.  This argument is flawed because it shows that the person making it doesn’t understand how separate networks rely on different levels of ratings to make a profit.

[4] These top 12 scripted shows on CBS for the 2015-2016 season being NCIS (season 13),Big Bang Theory (season 9), NCIS: New Orleans (season 2), Blue Bloods (season 6),Madam Secretary (season 2), Scorpion (season 2), Hawaii Five-0 (season 6), Life in Pieces (season 1), Criminal Minds (season 11), NCIS: Los Angeles (season 7), The Good Wife (season 7 and already announced as its last season), and Supergirl (season 1).

[5] The Talk is CBS’s version of ABC’s The View.

[6] By this, I am referring to sexist statements that undercut a woman’s accomplishments by stating a woman’s success but then diminishing them by finishing the line with “for a woman.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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  1. Andre Patch says:

    I have to disagree with a couple of the points that you bring up in your essay. I don’t take issue with the quality of Supergirl, that’s a subjective argument and one subject to multiple interpretations. A scholar could produce a Marxist reading that would be just as valid as the 2nd wave feminist reading of the show. Your analysis is far more relevant and appropriate to the TV industry that saw the cancelation of CBS’ The Flash back in 1991… a world without DVRs, streaming and aggressive international sales.

    First in your “Notes” sections. You state, “I am not going to focus on DVR and Streaming numbers because advertisers – the entities that largely determine if a network buys/renews a show or not – are primarily concerned with live viewership numbers.”

    Factually incorrect. In 2016, “Live” program ratings are not used as a deciding factor for advertisers or programmers. They are nice for publicity in trade magazines and entertainment sites for fans. Sports programming still uses live viewership. But scripted programming and networks running that programming do not. Advertisers are very accustomed to being sold DVR/time shifted ratings deliveries. Deals are often done on the basis of C3 ratings (Commercial + 3 day viewership; “C” ratings don’t measure the program they measure the commercial content within the show. Such data is obtained on a minute-by-minute basis.) As far as streaming is concerned, that’s the sizzle that TV networks sell to advertisers. As TV viewership has fallen over the last few years, networks point to their apps and Hulu as making up their losses. And with the ability to insert ads easily across platforms: TV, VOD, and OTT; streaming is crucial to networks and advertisers.

    Second, you are making assertions using Total viewer delivery and the Adults 18-49 demographic. This would have been the case in the early 1990s. But again in 2016 thanks to Nielsen, Rentrak and ComScore there is much greater granularity available to network research departments. Networks value psychographic data on the gender, income, political leaning, education and viewing preferences of their audiences. The question for CBS is not watching the 18-49 trend line go down, but how does Supergirl fit into their overall schedule. Sure CBS is the most watched network; but that’s because they have the oldest median age of all the U.S. broadcast networks. A great chunk of their audience is well over 50 and not prized by advertisers. Supergirl has a much younger median age, than say NCIS and Criminal Minds. It brings in an audience that wasn’t watching the network before. Thus the show has value outside of its ad revenue. Supergirl is placed on the schedule as a departure from the numerous crime procedurals and shows like the Good Wife. CBS doesn’t expect it to get the same ratings as their other shows. They are looking to age down and come up with an efficient way to grab advertisers that they lose out on.

    Third, your “Star Trek is Coming” point doesn’t make sense. You say, “Given how expensive a special effects heavy show like Star Trek can be, canceling Supergirl would allow CBS to invest more money into Star Trek’s production and advertisement.” You are confusing CBS (the broadcast network) with the CBS Television Studios (the production company). These are separate corporate entities with very different agendas. CBS the network has an affiliate body and makes money via ad sales of programming on its air. The production company produces content for any network that will buy it. Yes, the bulk of their product is purchased by CBS and The CW. But in some cases they sell to other networks, like the show Medium which aired on NBC from 2005-2009 and Power which is currently on Starz. My point is that as separate companies, engaged in different businesses—CBS not paying the license fee for Supergirl does not free up cash for the production budget of the new Star Trek.

    Fourth, “What about moving to The CW or a Streaming Service?”, again you don’t quite understand how the television industry works. Canceling a show with this much press and importance (to its partner Warner Bros/ DC) isn’t as easy as you make it out to be. Warner Bros Television could easily renegotiate the license fee that CBS is paying. A lower license fee would improve CBS’ bottom line and keep the good will of their program supplier. But if CBS did cancel Supergirl, it could go to The CW. Yes, Warner Bros Television (the production company) would have to rework the budget and come up with a license fee that would benefit them and The CW. But they could shed cast members, change f/x houses or deliver fewer episodes. Rather than 20, they can shoot 13 or 9.

    And while networks don’t take “failed” shows often. They have incentive when they do. The show has a track record and an audience awareness that can be tapped. Which is why Hulu took the Mindy Project, Yahoo tried to do Community. And Amazon bet on Ripper Street and the old BBC Top Gear presenters. It doesn’t always work out, but financially it can make sense to take on a “failed” show over trying to launch a brand new one.

    Lastly, you aren’t considering the importance of Supergirl to Warner Bros/DC. In the bigger scheme of things, Supergirl is a bright spot for DC in its battle with Disney/Marvel. Warner Bros/DC hasn’t figured out the film thing; but they have been able to crank out TV shows. Witness: Gotham (Fox), Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow (CW), they’ll run, build libraries get sold on blu-ray, iTunes, get licensed to Netflix or Amazon and the cash rolls in. And you’ve forgotten about international rights. A show may be weak domestically, but very profitable for a production company overseas. CBS doesn’t care about DC’s woes, but since it buys a lot of product from Warner Bros—they have incentive to keep the partnership amicable.

    If Supergirl isn’t the show that CBS and Warner Bros agreed on, then changes can be made. With the egos, money and greater corporate stakes involved cancelation is a possibility but not a decision made based on a 1990s understanding of the TV industry. By the way, I’m alumnus of USC School of Cinematic Arts and a 20 year veteran of the television industry, so I also know what I’m talking about.

    • Vlad Black says:

      @Andre Patch – Coming to this a bit late, but I have to ask, do you have a single shred of evidence to back your claims up?

      Given that Yanes’s article has so much of it claims backed by articles and data, your response just seems more petty than thoughtful.

      • Rubin Safaya says:

        Well, for starters, Andre Patch has spent the last twenty years of his career in media research including Columbia-Tristar, USA Networks, the WB, and the CW (hey, how about that) where he spent nine years as Director of Research (https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrepatch).

        Yanes puts forth some interesting hypotheses but they’re not really backed up by data as much as they’re reliant on the assumptions in his notes and a professional copywriter’s limited perception of how data analytics works. That is to say copywriters don’t have any expertise in data analytics… he can juxtapose various numbers without understanding the context or implications whereas Patch specifically has spent his entire career working in television analytics/research and appears to put forth a much better grasp of the mechanics (e.g. C3 scores).

        Two of the immediately evident errors in Yanes conjectures include:

        1. The dynamics of major networks are such that first episode ratings are always several times higher than the following weeks. Yanes ignores this and rates the decline without taking out the gigantic outlier. But if you remove the first and last weeks, the average score of the entire season (minus the high and low) is 7.68, which is a tenth of a point off from the median score of the entire season (7.76). This doesn’t indicate any kind of decline. Instead it indicates very consistent first-season in the 18-49 demo (graph it, even including the first week, the trend line in that demo is completely flat).

        2. Patch makes a key point about where shows fit in the programming schedule and why. Supergirl fills a niche that CBS has been unable to solidly capture … let me give you an analogy from the software world: Facebook didn’t pay $1 billion for Instagram because it was making money by itself. They paid $1 billion for instagram because its subscriber base of 100 million was growing exponentially, and those subscribers are worth more to Facebook than they are to Instagram because Facebook has a model in place for monetizing subscribers that Instagram does not…. which doesn’t require any kind of intrusion on Instagram’s user experience whatsoever.

        Supergirl isn’t as valuable to the CW as it is to CBS because:

        1. CW can’t put as much money behind it, and a production value has already been established which draws (as noted above) a pretty consistent viewership overall.

        2. CBS, according to Moonves, was called the “Geezer” network in 2005. They’ve made a concerted effort to focus more heavily on the 18-49 demo. Variety reports that Live +7 score through May 8 for Supergirl is 2.5, or on par with the 2014-2015 season average for CBS in the 18-49 demo overall.

        So it is absolutely in line with their goal to shed their “geezer” image, attracting advertisers who, again to Patch’s point, might not already have been attracted previously. And that’s just the financial view, not the brand-building view.

        It makes little sense to cancel it before cancelling about 6-8 other shows. For example: NCIS: Los Angeles dropped 17% year over year, scores about the same in the 18-49 demo as Supergirl’s last episode but has almost 2 million fewer viewers. But it’s been renewed. There the immediate argument may be that it’s part of the NCIS brand which accounts for the majority of their viewers. But brand-building is precisely one of the reasons needs to avoid throwing out Supergirl prematurely.

        Viacom subsidiary Paramount lost its distribution deal with Marvel Studios and so consequently is out of the comic book franchise bonanza… and a partnership with Warner Bros. for its television properties in the DC Universe is lucrative for both of them both because of the impact that franchises have on accreting market share and because comic book franchises in particular are a very strong draw for the demo that CBS needs to be stronger in.

        If they lose Supergirl, they may likely lose it to a streaming or premium platform whose focus is on cord-cutters, and with a reduced budget, fewer, better written episodes, that would be competitively hazardous for old guard like CBS. So it’s also about staving off the migration to SVoD which is starting to produce its own content in the vein of the HBO model.

  2. Iam NERD says:

    Is your rating based on both TV and online streaming? From what I know, Supergirl isn’t doing too well for tv broadcasting but generate very high viewing rate online through CBS streaming service. It’s due to majority of the viewers are at younger age; therefore, they would use streaming service than watching it on TV. I’ve also studied some of CBS’s recent marketing promotions. Supergirl has increased in its appearance in those long term promotions. On IMDB, the rating of Supergirl’s episodes have also increased overtime. Some of these shows take time to build up. For Agent of Shield, it started horribly for season one and had gotten really good last season. It’s a network’s right to cancel a show; however, i still see Sugergirl with huge potential and it would be great to give a chance for this show to grow.

    • “From what I know, Supergirl isn’t doing too well for tv broadcasting but generate very high viewing rate online through CBS streaming service. It’s due to majority of the viewers are at younger age; therefore, they would use streaming service than watching it on TV.”

      To date, CBS has released no data about the number of people on their streaming service and what shows they watch. So any claims about Supergirl doing well online are based on rumors and wishful thinking.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Nicholas! I think it’s clear you’re a fan, and I always appreciate quantitative work. Kudos!

  4. Rafa Manning says:

    First of all i want to say a very good work in putting all these together. Pretty impressive. I also say its true that supergirl might actually be cancelled. However, two things stand out that you were not fair to point them out. Firstly, you say supergirl’s viewership has decreased by over 50% because it had 13 million viewers in its first episode. But you should know that was because the episode was aired immediately after The Big Bang Theory. So, that was never its true viewership. It has never had such viewership again because TBBT was moved to Thursday. Instead we can say that the highest viewership it has had asides the pilot was episodes 2, 9 and 10 which had 8.8 and 8.7 million viewers. Using that to judge, you wouldnt say that vieweship has decreased by over 50%. The pilot was just a one off.
    Secondly, yes it has a high stake because its CBS and not CW. So we expect more. But one thing you should also know is that, none of CBS freshman shows have been renewed yet. And i doubt CBS will cancel them all. So its not a supergirl fault at all.
    I believe the show has its fault and has played poorly on its feminism card, but then, it is also a really good show and one which i believe will get renewed.
    Elementary was another show that we all thought was gona get cancelled after its 4th season but it has been renewed ans has picked itself up after bad ratings. Whether or not supergirl’s ratings increased because it had a crossover with the flash, it doesn’t change the fact that it did increase and it was a good one.
    So here’s hoping to supergirl season 2. I hope everything wouldn’t just go to a waste after all they did this season. To me, it was reallly wonderful. And i hope it gets renewed for nothing less than a 20 episode arc. Nobody wants a 13 episode supergirl season.

    • Hey Rafa,

      Good questions. I think the argument that the ratings for Supergirl’s first episode shouldn’t count because it followed The Big Bang Theory is interesting, but ignores the fact that CBS intended for Supergirl to be consistently over 10 million.

      Evidence of this can be found in this section of the post: ““How much does advertising cost on CBS and The CW,” a smart, sexy, reader would ask. Well, Ad Age published an article breaking this down. The article shows that for the 2015-2016 season a 30 second ad on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory and NCIS cost $348,000 and $151,738 respectively. Additionally, a 30 second ad on Supergirl costs $147,933. In contrast, a 30 second ad on The CW’s The Flash and Arrow cost $70,687 and $48,056 respectively. In short, a show on The CW is worth far less than what a show on CBS is worth. And if Supergirl can only attract the number of key demographic viewers that is equal to a show on a network with lower standards for ratings, CBS will have little reason to invest in the show.”

      Specifically, from what it cost to buy a 30 sec spot on Supergirl it is clear that CBS intended for the show to have similar ratings to NCIS. And Supergirl never stayed close to NCIS’s numbers.

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