Even though I've been quite sour about Arrow lately, I still recognize that we are living in the best time for comic books heroes on television. If you pace out your television consumption correctly, you can at least have one comic book related television show to watch Monday through Friday. However, comic book inspired television has always been part of T.V. programming in America, for better or for worse.
Let's start back in the middle of the 20th century.
1. Adventures of Superman (1952)
Adventures of Superman was based on the 1938 original source material. Starring George Reeves as Superman, it was a fairly lighthearted representation of the Man from Krypton, mostly because the source material was still fairly lighthearted.
2. Batman (1966)
Adam West's portrayal of Batman is something that receives equal amounts of criticism and cultural praise. However, I personally think it's the performance of Robin, played by Burt Ward, that deserves a little more flack. Nevertheless, the cast of Batman was pretty fantastic. Vincent Price as Egghead, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, and Cesar Romero as the Joker. It's worth a binge watch just to compare the earliest iteration of Batman to the more current, mostly animated versions.
3. Wonder Woman (1975)
Lynda Carter plays Wonder Woman / Diana Prince. Major credit to ABC, they did not deviate away from the Wonder Woman story all that much. The show, especially in the first two seasons, was a hit among audiences and ratings. The third season saw a pivot towards a more teenage audience, and then it was over (you would think these studios would learn the lesson already).
4. Swamp Thing (1990)
Swamp Thing is, perhaps, not a traditional comic book hero, but it was still a solid entry into the DC TV continuum.
5. The Flash (1990)
John Wesley Shipp played Barry Allen, and now notably plays Barry Allen's father in the newer episodes. The show simply could never get the ratings it needed in order to go to a second season, and that's probably more to do with the intense television competition at the time, and the lack of the desired teenage audience.
6. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)
Dean Cain's Superman preced Smallville. The show centered more so on the relationship between Lois and Superman as opposed to Superman as part savior and part hero. In season four, the largest anticipated moment was the wedding between Superman and Lois.
7. Birds of Prey (2002)
Birds of Prey, The WB's effort for an all female super cast, began with an interesting presence: Batman has left Gotham in shambles. Harley Quinn is the villain, and Dinah Lance (Black Canary), the Huntress, and Oracle must put a stop to her schemes. Despite a strong female viewership at the WB, the show didn't last beyond one season.
8. Smallville (2001)
Smallville is the most successful television show on this list, lasting ten seasons and surviving a move from the WB to the CW. It's a long-form Superman origin story, focusing on Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers, and some pretty cool interactions with heroes like The Green Arrow, and villains like Darkseid.
Constantine (2014), Shazam! (1974), and even the 24-esque entry, Human Target (2010), were all DC properties. Shazam! lasted three seasons, making it moderately successful. Human Target was actually well reviewed, but lasted two seasons.
And I personally think the one season of Constantine is a tragedy.
Learning the Lessons
Shows that did not perform well did so for a variety of reasons, ranging from quality, to marketing, to budgetary issues. Moreover, these shows happened in isolation, and were not part of a unified but integrated strategy to distribute comic book content across multiple mediums.
The modern DC comic book properties are buttressed not only by a resurgence in the popularity of comic books, but also by a slew of comic book movies from both DC and Marvel. The promotional efforts and franchise building movements are happening almost seamlessly for both companies.
Unlike in times before, America, and a great part of the world, has superhero screen fever. And there doesn't appear to be signs of consumption, and demand, slowing down.
Surely, there is some crossover effect here. Unless someone falls solely into the DC vs Marvel battle, which I have not seen too much of, comic book movie A naturally propels the viewer to watch additional comic book content. Television is great place to do that. While Marvel has a firm lock on big screen cinema comic book hero format, DC has a very respectable lineup of television properties.
I don't know about you, but when I watch a Marvel movie, I'm interested in what's going on with The Flash, and when I watch Legends of Tomorrow, I'm already digging for news on the next installment of The Avengers.