Convergence Breeds Convergence: Crossover in CBS’s Supergirl

Laura Prudom writing in Variety’s March 22, 2016 article, “Supergirl’ Meets ‘The Flash’: Stars Take Us Behind the Scenes on the Crossover (EXCLUSIVE)” reveals the economic convergence involved in such event programming. Henry Jenkins defines various forms of the post-network phenomena of convergence, the economic variety consisting of the ownership of different forms of media. Conglomeration has been ramping up for decades since the deregulation of Fin-Syn’s abolishment. The significance of conglomeration in the post-network age lies in the potential for what Jenkins terms “transmedia exploitation of branded properties.” When companies have ownership in multiple channels, they have greater incentive and ease in engaging in cross-promotion and synergy among those holdings. By exposing the economic convergence involved in the Supergirl/Flash crossover, I will show how convergence can breed convergence, allowing shows to benefit from post-network fragmentation.

Jenkin’s words from “Convergence? I Diverge” could not be more applicable than to the Super brand: “A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be a part of the media ecosystem.” With tons of incarnations, most recently in film with another crossover, producers of Supergirl have mined the vast Superculture through convergence. In lecture, Professor Johnson talked about how “new TV markets privilege smaller, intensely interested audiences” and “new tv texts rely on edge, brand loyalty, and fandom to attract attention.” In electing to broadcast Supergirl, CBS has a show that can do just that, harness the “intensely interested” Super-fandom by providing fodder for social and cultural convergence via economic convergence.

In an earlier episode of Supergirl, “Falling,” within the fictional story world one of the lead characters went on the real-life CBS show The Talk. A crossover within the
network is an obvious benefit for CBS. While yesterday’s crossover with CW’s The Flash might be less obvious, it was even more beneficial. Supergirl is a new show for CBS, both chronologically and stylistically. The show is unique among CBS’s line-up as a super hero show that may seem to skew young, like the other DC Comics titles. Not only a divergence in genre but also in strategy, DC Comics’ Supergirl is a production of Warner Bros. Television Studios.
CBS of late has leaned toward the vertical integration of airing shows that are at least co-produced by CBS Television Studios in anticipation of a subscription-based future where branding and content are paramount. In her article, Prudom explains that Supergirl and The Flash share a producing team in Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg. The crossover between the two Warner Bros./DC Comics properties was further facilitated by the fact that WB and CBS jointly own the CW network. Crossovers can be very difficult due to “silo mentality” and copyright/licensing red tape. However, all was not lost in the land of synergy because of their co-ownership of the CW channel, where many of DC’s other titles air…which begs the question, why CBS? In an April 2015 piece on pilots, Variety provided some insight into the choice of CBS as a broadcast home for the show:

While ‘Supergirl’ would seem to be a fit with CW’s ‘The Flash’ and ‘Arrow,’ the show is seen as too expensive for the younger-skewing network, and would be more profitable for CBS Corp.’s overall portfolio…

As the above quote shows, I was forced to search beyond this article for deeper insight into economic logics. This article really sought to frame the crossover as a gift for fans and a natural progression of each show’s story. Large swaths of the article were neatly packaged quotes from those involved in the show, with a definite favoring of CBS’s show. A tone of compliance is pervasive in all the Variety articles I’ve read. They seem to give deference to whatever network the piece is about, allowing executives and stars to spout obviously pre-packaged, marketing-approved quotes without any deep follow-up or contradiction. Left out of Variety’s massive coverage—they ran five articles before the show aired and two after—of the “cross-over event” was an in-depth discussion of why it was CW’s Flash visiting CBS’s Supergirl, and not vice versa. During Supergirl’s recent Paley Fest Q&A, Berlanti said it was because Supergirl exists in a parallel world to the Arrowverse, which only the Flash could travel to. I suspect there were also some financial considerations like CBS’s larger audience and more robust show budget that played into the decision to air on CBS. In the copious promotion for the episode, CBS also included a push for their OTT service, CBS All Access, advertising “exclusive content.” Clearly the technological convergence of an all-digital television “channel” is highly valued by the network, so it makes sense CBS would use the economic convergence of the crossover’s joint fandom to promote their other medium.

While not conveniently in one article, I was able to find some insight into the strategies of convergence with all the articles about the crossover viewed in aggregate. I’m sure all of this is intentional, as both Varitey and CBS benefit from a blanket of exposure, rather than one pithy article. Comic book series can be unwieldy properties for networks, where mass viewing is essential to survival. The high production costs of network shows can necessitate expanded profit windows like integrated marketing. As noted in a Variety article in March of this year, fantastical settings like the future and alternate universes make product placement in superhero shows difficult. That can be an economic worry for a network like CBS, as the additional special effects needed in this genre can make shows much more expensive. In a post-network era of declining ratings, and therefore reduced ad rates, production costs are closely watched. Supergirl’s contemporary, relatively average American setting, allows for character use of advertiser products without disturbing the diegetic world. That was surely a selling point for CBS. Furthermore, with a strong brand history and connections to DC titles which are popular among the elusive male 18-34 demographic, Supergirl provides opportunities for the free publicity of social and cultural convergence. The show’s producers know how to initiate other convergences as well. They invite the broader Superman fan community into the Supergirl world by casting actors from the Super brand like Dean Cain who played Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Helen Slater who played Supergirl in the 1984 film, and  Laura Vandervoort who played Supergirl in CW’s Smallville in the ‘00s. These sort of Easter eggs for Super fans encourage discussion on social media (social convergence) and practically write fanfiction (cultural convergence)—come on, ‘80s Supergirl and ‘90s Superman are Supergirl’s adoptive parents?! That’s too good not to share! Carefully curated and cultivated convergence seeks to turn post-network pitfalls into advantages. In no other time would someone be more likely to have seen every incarnation of the Super brand, and by casting actors from previous iterations producers pull together a splintered audience.

Social convergence abounds on forums like Reddit, and this isn’t even a Supergirl page!

Social convergence abounds on forums like Reddit, and this isn’t even a Supergirl page!

In conclusion, economic convergence can instigate social and cultural convergence. Convergence draws in the fragmented audiences of past Super brands as well as super hero competitors into a mash-up family. Embracing the diversity of the current network landscape by encouraging public conversation and blending properties means that convergence ultimately strengthens each associated property. The latest figures show that about a million more people tuned in for the Surpergirl/Flash crossover event. It pays to play well together.

CBS’s crossover promo

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