Can 'Gotham' Rescue Fox?

<b class="credit"></b>"Gotham" stars Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, a mentor to Bruce Wayne."Gotham" stars Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, a mentor to Bruce Wayne.

Everyone's favorite troubled superhero, Batman, has come to the aid of a great many people over the course of his 75-year existence. Now, in the form of the new prequel series, "Gotham," he's battling to save an entire network: Twenty-First Century Fox's (FOX) Fox Broadcasting.

Fox is one of the four powerful incumbent broadcast television networks. However, like its peers -- Disney's (DIS) ABC, Comcast's (CMCSA) NBC, and CBS (CBS) -- it's fighting against an ever-growing slate of shows from cable networks and streaming services such as Netflix (NFLX) and (AMZN).

Unlike its fellow incumbents, however, Fox isn't doing brilliantly against the rising competition.

Fallen 'Idol'

Fox needs a heroic boost help because its big hits over the last few years are losing viewers, while its more recent offerings haven't scaled the heights of popularity.

For years, the network's money show was "American Idol," which became part of the cultural zeitgeist following its debut at the beginning of this century. But the most recent season finale of the singing competition attracted only 10 million viewers. The finale two seasons ago drew twice that number, while Idol's record audience (for the season two finale) topped over 38 million.

In contrast to CBS, NBC and ABC, Fox's audience shrank on a year-over-year basis in the second week of the fall TV season. Its viewership numbers for that week declined by a steep 29 percent.

For example, a pair of new Fox offerings -- the sitcom "Mulaney" and reality show "Utopia" -- barely topped 2 million viewers. Meanwhile, the sophomore season of cop comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" snared just over 4.5 million viewers in its latest airing. That didn't come close to its non-sports competition. The one-hour dramas "Madam Secretary" on CBS and ABC's "Once Upon a Time" reached 11.5 million and 7.7 million sets of eyeballs, respectively.

Saving the Day?

So it's good that Fox TV has the popular crime fighter on its utility belt. "Gotham" has performed strongly so far, with a Sept. 22 premiere drawing 8 million viewers.

The first show of a series typically tends to attract an outsize audience, as many tune in simply out of curiosity to see what the hype is about or to sample the new offering. But "Gotham" has held onto that audience fairly well, scoring a total of 6.4 million viewers in its fourth episode.

Strictly speaking, "Gotham" isn't really a Batman show: It's a prequel starring the young detective Jim Gordon (who as an older character was a veteran cop, then the police commissioner in the recent Christopher Nolan-directed film series). In "Gotham," Batman-to-be Bruce Wayne is a supporting character, a youngster freshly traumatized by the murder of his parents.

Regardless, the association with the budding superhero (and the similarly popular villains whom he will one day challenge) is close enough. Like many extensions of hit franchises, particularly those coming from the comic book world -- witness the success of the "Iron Man" film sequels, or 2013's Superman reboot "Man of Steel" -- "Gotham" benefits greatly from a devoted fan base obviously hungry for new product. Fox has bought in, by mid-October ordering a full season of 22 episodes.

More Heroes Wanted

One breakout show isn't going to be enough to keep Fox TV in the ratings race. That nearly 30 percent year-over-year drop in viewership is worrying, particularly given the intensifying competition for our time. This season, as has been the case since the rise of cable and the emergence of the streaming services, the shows with the heaviest water-cooler buzz and acclaim are more daring and original.

Amazon's much-discussed "Transparent" centers around the head of a family who undergoes a sex change late in life. Meanwhile, Netflix's female prison dramedy "Orange Is the New Black" and its dark, heavy political thriller "House of Cards" have both won several Emmy awards.

And cable continues its long and successful underdog run. This month the latest season of the gruesome zombie saga "The Walking Dead" kicked off with an extremely lively viewership of 17.3 million, setting the new record for a cable show.

So Fox TV really has its work cut out for it. Those zombies and prisoners and politicians are running a determined race, after all.

Eric Volkman owns shares of Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of, Netflix, and Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.