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Marvel and ABC’s online series could solve a lot of problems over the midseason hiatus

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Traditional networks are looking for more digital opportunities

ABC/Marvel Studios

Every winter, the networks take anywhere from two weeks to a month for a hiatus.

The idea is to not compete with holiday programming, but it also allows the writing teams to take time off and return with new ideas. The midseason hiatus also allows companies to focus on scheduling episodes during “sweeps,” the months in which Nielsen spends more time collecting and reporting ratings. If networks schedule bigger episodes during those months, they can report higher numbers to advertisers.

Networks want to make as much money as possible, so it doesn’t make sense to have the hiatus in the sweeps months of November or February. The networks would lose out on potential advertising deals and face other financial risks. Having the biggest episodes air at the end of November and the first week of December, however, allows the networks to work within Nielsen’s reporting schedule while also getting ahead of the Christmas rush. What’s the point of pitting The Flash against Rudolph, for example?

In recent years, however, networks have started rethinking this strategy as viewership numbers tank. One, ABC, is revisiting its midseason strategy. Last year, ABC kept eight of dramas off the air for 11 weeks — with four of those weeks coming during the midseason hiatus. Fox, NBC and CBS brought the majority of their series back around the first week of January, but many of ABC’s shows didn’t return for another week or later. ABC saw huge losses in return viewership, with one of its biggest series, How to Get Away with Murder, dropping 20 percent overall.

The question for ABC — and other networks — is how to give creative teams their winter break, retain good ratings and not compete with holiday programming?

ABC and Marvel seemed to have found a solution to the viewership problem: a digital series that will air for a limited time.

On Wednesday, Marvel and ABC announced that it will be launching an online-only series, Slingshot, with Agents of Shield star Natalia Cordova-Buckley in the lead as Elena “Yo Yo” Rodriguez. Each episode will be three to six minutes long, and although it’s not a full television show, it seems like it may accomplish its goal: keep audiences engaged while Agents of Shield is off the air.

The idea is so brilliant in its simplicity its a wonder networks didn’t try it sooner. Firsst, It’s cheaper for a big network to make a six-minute web series. Consider some of the biggest, most extravagant web series — like RocketJump’s Video Game High School, which cost the studio around $636,000 an episode — as well as some of the smallest — like Andy Gets Dumped — which doesn’t even come close to that budget.

For a three-minute film using equipment and sets already available to the studio and actors, the costs would remain relatively low, but the show could generate a decent amount of advertising revenue. In a 2015 study from Turner Broadcasting and Horizon Media, researchers discovered that “premium online video from broadcast and cable networks outperforms video content from other publishers,” according to AdWeek. That means advertisers are more likely to give money to networks like ABC, NBC and CBS over other platforms because their content is better. ABC and Marvel teaming up for a web series doesn’t just make sense in terms of appeasing fans hungry for new content, but it also may generate income in the long run.

The other reason — one that’s more important to audiences than networks — is that it gives back to fans who tune in every week. Gary Newman, co-chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group, told AdWeek that unless shows are airing on a premium network like HBO or Showtime, it doesn’t make sense to have 10 to 13 episodes in one season and go without a hiatus. Newman added that networks had to start doing more to keep audiences entertained and engaged.

“The alternative is the old-fashioned preemptions and repeats, and let's remember how frustrating that was to the audience," Newman said. "There's no perfect answer, so we're going to still continue to do that.”

Reruns have always been a complaint, but in a pre-streaming world, there wasn’t much that could be done. Now, when services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video are accessible anywhere for a relatively cheap price, a three or six-week hiatus drives audiences to streaming platforms to watch new shows. Magna Global analyst Brian Hughes told Ad Age in March that fans weren’t necessarily upset with the lack ofnew content on network TV, but they’ve grown accustomed to having more to choose from because of streaming platforms.

“I'm inclined to think any impact the midseason breaks have on audience has more to do with how fans want to watch than being frustrated with a delay,” Hughes said.

Retaining viewership remains the most important goal in planning the midseason hiatus. Keeping audiences engaged leads to higher ratings, more conversation in the press and a generally more enthusiastic fan base. It’s, again, what makes Marvel and ABC’s plan to bridge the midseason hiatus with a new web-only series not only a good decision but also a necessary one.

Agents of Shield is also the perfect show because of its target audience. More than How to Get Away with Murder or Scandal, Agents of Shield appeals to a much younger demographic that is more likely to go online to catch up with a series or start a new one. According to Statista, more than 65 percent of Netflix users are between the age of 16 to 24, the same audience that ABC targets with Agents of Shield.

Whether the series will work the way the network wants is yet to be seen. But it’s the first step in addressing a problem bothering networks for years, and has only worsened in the streaming age.

Slingshot kicks off Dec. 13 on ABC.go.com.