By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - Walt Disney Co's ABC network is tapping its blockbuster "Avengers" franchise for a new TV show, looking to reverse a ratings decline that put it last of the four largest networks among audiences coveted by advertisers.
The network is so confident in "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." that it scheduled the show on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. eastern time, where it will face off against TV's top-rated scripted show, CBS' crime juggernaut "NCIS."
ABC plans to air a total eight new shows this fall, according to a schedule of its Fall lineup that was released by the network. It will also retool its long-running hit "Dancing with the Stars," cutting it back from two nights to one after its ratings weakened.
Its "S.H.I.E.L.D." offering is ABC's first effort to translate the big-screen success of Disney's Marvel comics movie franchise to television.
Last year's Marvel movie "The Avengers" and current hit "Iron Man 3" had the industry's largest- and second-largest box office openings in the United States and Canada, and "The Avengers" ranks third in all-time domestic ticket sales behind "Avatar" and "Titanic."
The new TV show will star "Avengers" actor Clark Gregg as agent Phil Coulson, who assembles a small group of agents to investigate strange happenings around the world. "Avengers" movie director Joss Whedon, who created the hit sci-fi TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," will serve as executive producer.
"We believe S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to recruit a whole new audience coming in," ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee told reporters on a conference call. "And we don't necessarily think that audience is the same as NCIS."
The show tested well in "all four quadrants," meaning young and old, men and women, Lee said.
It faces a tough opponent in "NCIS," the top-rated non-sports show on television. The show, which debuted in 2003, this year attracted an average of 21.3 million total viewers, according to Nielsen data, slightly behind only NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
ABC hopes to lure younger viewers with the fast-paced, special effects laden show instead of "NCIS," whose viewers have a median age of 60, Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate said.
"ABC needs a youth-targeted, male-skewing show," Adgate said.
The network hopes S.H.I.E.L.D. will attract viewers to Tuesday night, where ABC plans an entire night of new shows, including "Lucky 7," a drama produced by Steven Spielberg that follows seven gas station employees in Astoria, Queens who win the lottery.
Lee will unveil the lineup of shows to advertisers Tuesday afternoon at New York's Lincoln Center during a presentation for the "upfront" selling season, when networks try to convince advertisers to buy billions of dollars of ad time in advance.
ABC, like rival broadcasters, wants to bring in new viewers to help reverse audience declines this season. Prime time viewing has shrunk 9 percent at ABC, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media and based on viewing the same day a program airs.
ESPN TO PAY FOR DATA?
Another Disney-owned network, ESPN, confirmed on Tuesday it is in preliminary talks with wireless carriers about subsidizing data plans to boost mobile usage of its sports content.
"We've had lots of preliminary conversation, but there's nothing imminent," ESPN President John Skipper told reporters following his network's upfront presentation in New York.
"If you remember, in the first generation of smart phones, there was lots of concern that a lot of video ate up the plans in a hurry," Skipper said. "So that's a concern to us because we have lots of fans."
Skipper did not say which carriers ESPN was talking to. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that ESPN had spoken to at least one major U.S. wireless carrier.
The sports network previously tried the mobile market with its own cellular service, Mobile ESPN, which shut down in 2006.
(Reporting By Liana B. Baker in New York and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Ron Grover and Tim Dobbyn)