In the seven long years since ABC punted its powerhouse Monday Night Football franchise to cable sibling ESPN, the network has struggled to field a series that delivers a reliable cohort of young male viewers. Testosterone-drenched dramas like Life on Mars and Last Resort came and went without so much as leaving a ripple in the gender pool, while women continued to flock to sudsy fare (Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge, Scandal).
But if ABC was fast becoming Where the Boys Aren’t network, one new series promises to shake up the status quo. On Tuesday, Sept. 24, the premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. delivered a superheroic 12.1 million viewers, of whom 6.56 million, or 54 percent, were bearers of the XY chromosome. That’s a remarkable feat in light of the fact that ABC’s prime-time audience last season was 65 percent female.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. not only drew men to what amounts to a broadcast matriarchy—Scandal’s audience, for example, is nearly three-quarters (74 percent) female—but the show scared up an awful lot of young’uns as well. The premiere’s median age was an apple-cheeked 45.3 years, down considerably from ABC’s 2012-13 average (54.4), establishing S.H.I.E.L.D. as the year’s youngest-skewing new drama.
While one show won’t change ABC’s demographic balance overnight (the network’s other new series are decidedly female-skewing), the initial success of the S.H.I.E.L.D. strategy is exactly the result entertainment president Paul Lee was shooting for when he green-lighted Joss Whedon’s pilot.
Because as much as ABC superserves affluent women—the network currently outdelivers all other broadcasters with women 18-49 who earn at least $100,000 a year—another season in last place is clearly not an option. “Look, we are super proud to be the No. 1 women’s 18-49 network, and a lot of our hits have incredibly empowered women in them,” Lee said at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. “We’re also a broadcast network, so it’s absolutely incumbent on us to make sure that we bring in wider audiences beyond that.”
With a 55-45 split, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s male-female ratio remained stable in Week 2. Less steadfast was the adults 18-49 rating, which plunged 30 percent to a 3.3. “The drop-off in the demo is a bit concerning,” said one media buyer. “Week 3 should tell us what we need to know. If there’s another big drop, the male skew won’t mean much in the long run.”
As ABC works to become more male-inclusive, Fox is leaning the other way. Boasting a 47-53 male-female split, the most guy-friendly net is delivering scores of women with its new series. Along with Sleepy Hollow, the first freshman series to earn a renewal, Seth MacFarlane’s Dads is also drawing more women than men.