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June, 2009 : Essay:

The Network Science Fiction Television Boom—and Bust

During the last few years the press covering science fiction television has told a story of boom on the "Big Four" U.S. networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX). J. J. Abrams's Lost (2004-) was widely credited with reviving their interest, and was promptly followed by a comparative flood of new shows. (The fall 2007 television season saw no fewer than seven genre shows hit the air; the fall 2008 saw a similar number, along with several mid-season replacements.)

In recent months, however, the story has become one of falling ratings and cancellations. Of course, a number of new science fiction shows are expected to make their debuts in the fall of 2009, including one based on Robert J. Sawyer's novel Flash Forward, but it seems likely the trend has passed its peak; and it is already possible to say something about the course that the boom took during its brief life.

The Previous Boom, in Brief

For purposes of comparison, it is probably best to start off with what science fiction television was like before that boom (usually dated to about 2004). In my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television" last June, I argued that the 1990s (or more precisely, the decade from about 1993 to the early 2000s) represented a "golden age" of North American live-action science fiction television. (1) By this I meant that the period saw an exceptional quantity of production in this area, as well as some genuinely ground-breaking programming.

I also noted that these shows appeared mainly through the venues of

  • Syndicated original drama, which boomed in the wake of the successes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Highlander (1992-1998) and Hercules (1995-2000) (and of course, Baywatch).
  • The appearance of two networks which to the end of carving out a niche for themselves, invested heavily in science fiction and fantasy—the United Paramount Network (UPN) and Warner Brothers (WB).
  • The explosion in the production of original programming for cable television, with USA—and in particular, its subsidiary Sci-Fi Channel—as well as the premium cable channel Showtime—making the heaviest investments in genre-related shows.

By contrast, the major U.S. networks (the "Big Four," consisting of ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX) played a comparatively minor role. (2)

However, circumstances had changed by the early 2000s. The syndicated original drama has largely vanished from television (though in 2008 Hercules and Xena producer Sam Raimi took another crack at it with his new series, The Legend of the Seeker, based on novelist Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series).

Neither UPN nor the WB actually exist anymore; both merged into the CW, which has retained WB legacies Smallville (2001-) and Supernatural (2005-) and is airing the second season of Reaper (2007-), but is less invested in such programming.

The same has been true for original science fiction on American cable. USA canned the last of its shows like the The 4400 (2004-2007) and The Dead Zone (2002-2007) back in 2007, and today concentrates on crime-themed programming like Psych, Burn Notice and In Plain Sight (as well as Law & Order: Criminal Intent, of which the new episodes air there first). TNT, which aired the final season of Babylon 5 (1994-1998), its spin-off Crusade (1999) and two seasons of Witchblade (2001-2002), is now more recognizable as the home of The Closer. (This is even the case where reruns are concerned. Where various Star Trek series once comprised much of the content of Spike TV, their place has largely been taken by the CSI franchise—and of course, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. [3] )

Showtime, too, has largely abandoned that focus, concentrating instead on shows like Brotherhood and Weeds (though the upcoming Camelot and Syns hint at a partial revival of interest in that area). (4)

Even the Sci-Fi Channel (soon to be the "SyFy Channel") does not have quite its old flair, apparently preferring hidden camera shows, game shows, and pseudo-science documentaries to other content. Its scripted offerings these last few years have met with comparatively little success (2006's Eureka and 2008's Sanctuary are the only ones to rate so much as a second season), so that its future as a source for original dramatic series seems to rest heavily on its continued milking of the Stargate and Battlestar Galactica franchises it took over early in the decade. (5) (Stargate: Universe and Capricathe pilot to which was released on DVD in April this year—are coming soon to that channel.)

There are many who are reading the rebranding of the channel as "Syfy" as an indication that the channel (the biggest draw on which is now ECW Wrestling!) is shifting away from its core concept and audience in the hopes of winning higher ratings (as many channels have done before it). (6) (Even the channel's upcoming scripted shows, such as Capricawhich is being marketed as a dynastic soap opera like Dallasand Warehouse 13which has been compared to Moonlighting by network executives—appear to be aimed at a more mainstream audience. [7] )

Put bluntly, Sci-Fi looks to be leaving the "geeks" out in the cold in the search for larger and more lucrative demographics, just as G4TV (a network originally devoted to video games) did before it. (8)

The Network Boom

Just as the science fiction output of syndicated and cable television was winding down, network television was being hailed as the source of striking new genre product in the wake of Lost's success. Arguably, however, it was not just the ratings the show drew that encouraged ABC and other networks to press on in this direction, but the kind of science fiction Lost happened to be which shaped the boom.

To a considerable degree, Lost plays like a "realist" drama, particularly in the earlier episodes. The show spends a great deal of time on soap opera (Will Kate choose Jack or Sawyer?). The lengthy flashbacks detailing the lives of its characters prior to their arrival on the island include much of the stuff of conventional medical, legal, and police drama (Jack was a surgeon, Dawson was in a custody battle, Ana was a cop, etc.). And the speculative touches, rarely conspicuous, often come across as weird more than anything else (like the presence of a polar bear on their tropical island). Rather than science fiction as the term is usually used, the first couple of seasons of the show could be taken for simply "slipstream" or "postmodern," like a darker, more dangerous Northern Exposure. (9)

As one might guess from this model, the executives generally played it safe (despite which they were often quick to pull the plug when they didn't see the unrealistic results they hoped for). Apart from NBC's brief experiment with airing Battlestar Galactica in prime time, the networks generally steered clear of space, and also of conspicuously fantastic, futuristic or historical settings of the kinds prominent in the 1990s-era boom. They also avoided taking radically different or new approaches to the material (excepting the increased emphasis on story arcs).

Instead there was a preference on the part of the networks for contemporary settings and familiar concepts. There was, for instance, a tendency to incorporate speculative elements into staple television genres like the cop drama, as in the time-loop story Day Break (2006-2007), or the procedurals Life on Mars (2008-2009) and New Amsterdam (2008). A bit less conventionally, NBC's My Own Worst Enemy (2008) wrote electronic personality switches into a spy story, while Kings (2009) offered a twist on the dynastic drama by retelling the Biblical Book of Kings in an alternate-modern setting, where Shiloh looks like New York.

There is also a small speculative touch in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005-), which is told from the future year of 2030; the defunct legal "dramedy" Eli Stone (2008), in which the protagonist suffers hallucinations that may actually be something more; and the relationship-themed dramedy The Ex List (2008), where a psychic played a key role in events.

Paranormal-themed shows were another obvious direction to go in. These included the psychic dramas Ghost Whisperer (2005-) and Medium (2005-). (10) There was also yet another series about a much-older-than-he-looks vampire detective pounding the pavement at night, the short-lived Moonlight (2007-2008). CBS's The Eleventh Hour (2008-2009) and FOX's Fringe (2008-) both returned to X-Files territory, with government investigators looking into assorted extraordinary phenomena outside the bounds of the scientific mainstream. 2007's Journeyman treaded the same path as the old Quantum Leap series (1989-1993) (though it had considerably more polish and a better-developed story arc during its thirteen episode run than Leap).

The fall of 2005 also saw a pair of shows based on the alien invasion theme: CBS's Threshold and ABC's Invasion. (11) Both were written as present-day stories about infiltration by (generally) unseen enemies, with Threshold in particular shamelessly exploiting the post-9/11 situation (while the press unfairly made much of Invasion's setting in the wake of a devastating hurricane).

Additionally, great effort was made to exploit already well-established brand names and intellectual properties. Certainly in the earlier, syndication and cable-driven boom Star Trek: The Next Generation led the way, and the spin-offs from the Highlander film series (1986, sequels 1991, 1994 and 2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Stargate (1994) were not only among the biggest hits in the 1990s, but all three of those series spawned a spin-off of their own (in the cases of Buffy and Stargate, rather long-running ones, lasting five seasons each). (12)

However, the networks displayed a propensity for this approach that was at least equally strong, given the scale of investment. NBC, apparently inspired by the limited success of Galactica, launched high-profile remakes of old shows—specifically The Bionic Woman (2007) and Knight Rider (2008-2009)—two years running. (13)

They predictably failed at it. Both concepts were thin to begin with, and not much was added to them in their reinventions. They also suffered from annoying characters and ultra-generic writing that fell far short of the revolutionary, "You've never seen anything like this!" promises made by their very aggressive publicity campaigns—which unintentionally had me laughing long before they actually hit the air.

ABC did the same thing with Kolchak the Night Stalker in 2005, with the same lack of success.

Meanwhile, FOX launched a show based on one of the biggest-ever science fiction film franchises, Terminator, in January 2008, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. ABC's Life on Mars was a remake of the highly regarded British original, as was CBS's Eleventh Hour, while 2008's The Ex List was a remake of an Israeli show.

J.J. Abrams, who had preceded Lost with Alias, followed up with Invasion and Fringe, and became a brand name all by himself. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon also has something of that status, and Dollhouse arrived in February this year bearing his label. (14)

Noteworthy Efforts

The shows that followed Lost (which, incidentally, never approached the viewership of a show like CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigations) rarely came close to its audience share, and rarely held such audiences as they did capture for very long. (This was the case with Heroes, which initially did quite well before it began its ratings nosedive.) Truly devoted cults were few, though the following for Jericho was apparently strong enough to (briefly) bring it back from the dead after its cancellation. And really broad, enthusiastic critical adulation was rare, though Pushing Daisies was very well received.

Still, not only was it the case that at least a few of the shows in this group were worth watching, but some of them also took conceptual risks deserving of mention here. Despite the conventionality and even blandness of the small-town setting, Jericho (2006-2008) was certainly one, given its post-apocalyptic scenario and its relatively elaborate conception of the aftermath's "big picture" (complete with a much-changed United States).

Heroes (2006-) was not totally unprecedented, hour-long dramas having centered on superheroes before, including Wonder Woman (1975-1979), The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982), Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), and more recently, Smallville (2001-)—as well as TNT's Witchblade, which was shut down due not to a lack of audience interest, but the personal problems of its star. However, it did not have the asset of a recognizable classic character like Superman, Wonder Woman or the Incredible Hulk. It was also intended from the outset to reflect the newer, more character-driven approach to the material toward which superhero-themed film has tended since the success of the first X-Men movie in 2000 kicked our current period of big screen versions of comic books into high gear.

While The Sarah Connor Chronicles was a spin-off from a well-known IP, it took a real risk in its handling of material which was intrinsically downbeat and prominently featured unambiguously speculative visuals (as well as its periodic forays into the hellish post-Judgment Day future).

Dollhouse, with which it was paired on Friday nights earlier this year, similarly steps outside the networks' usual comfort zone with its disturbing central concept and a cast of characters almost entirely divided between "pimps and killers" who have made careers out of posthuman slavery, and the slaves themselves, who are blank slates reprogrammed with new personalities in just about every episode.

The same goes for the promising but short-lived ABC anthology series, Masters of Science Fiction (2007), which based every episode on a classic science fiction short story, and did not confine itself to the soft stuff. (The handful of episodes that did make it to air were based on John Kessel's "A Clean Escape," Howard Fast's "The General Zapped An Angel," Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man," and Harlan Ellison's "The Discarded," respectively.)

Chuck (2007-), while far from being ground-breaking science fiction, also rates some points in this regard. This newest take on the old theme of geek-transformed-into-superhero-by-technological-accident is an unconventional hybrid of homage to the 60s-style espionage adventure epitomized by the pre-reboot James Bond, and the angsty geek-slacker comic-romantic odyssey through the world of low-paid service work in the tradition independent filmmakers like Kevin Smith helped to define, with a heavy dose of early '80s nostalgia thrown in. (15)

Along with all of the other shows mentioned above that are still on the air now, Chuck's prospects for renewal for the fall 2009 season were shaky when I first sat down to write this article. It has since secured a third season--but only barely, with a mere thirteen episode commitment and a lower budget--while Dollhouse and Heroes have also recently secured their own return in the fall

The Bust

In retrospect, it is less surprising that the boom is winding down than that it happened at all. In the United States speculative-fiction-based television has always been very hard-pressed in competition against more "realist" programming. The reason is that the "hardcore" audience for science fiction television is too limited to command much attention from the major networks. (16) The "break-out" hits that draw larger numbers have been rare and short-lived. (17)

Heroes certainly exemplifies that pattern, but the short, tenuous runs of the most well-known science fiction shows even before the fragmentation of the television market by cable (and the upsurge in competition from video, gaming and the Internet) make the point even more thoroughly. While the original Twilight Zone produced a respectable 156 episodes over five years (1959-1964), this pales next to contemporaneous shows like the original Dragnet (1951-1959), Perry Mason (1957-1966) or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966), and very few American science fiction shows had a run on a major network anywhere near as long as the original TZ. (18) The 1960s-era Outer Limits got just two seasons (1963-1965). The original Star Trek never completed its five-year voyage, the plug pulled just three seasons in (1966-1969), and Lost in Space had a similarly short life (1965-1968). Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), for all their pop cultural impact, each lasted a mere season. And so on and so forth.

The impression made by Lost's early success now long faded, and the disappointments piling up, it is only to be expected that network policy will shift away from this direction. The deteriorating ratings for these shows virtually across the board do not help either the shows currently airing, or the genre's general standing in the industry.

The recent worsening of budgetary pressures in this age of perpetual economic crisis too is a factor in bringing us back there, especially given the production budgets needed to make these shows look credible to their more sophisticated and demanding core audience, and the broader viewing public reluctant to engage with this kind of television to begin with. (19) The continued flourishing of low-cost (and low-taste) reality television has only made matters more difficult, and it is well worth remembering that since 2004, it is not Lost or Heroes (or even CSI), but American Idol that has been queen of the ratings.

In short, much more than in the 1990s, a "bubble" mentality seems to have been at work in the network boom, and that bubble is bursting at the time of this writing. That said, science fiction and fantasy are unlikely to vanish from the major networks anytime soon—just as they never entirely vanished from it in the past, despite definite ups and downs. (20) However, should North American genre television see another really impressive burst of activity, network TV is a very unlikely place for it to happen, and the current environment on cable does not seem much more promising. Rather, because of the niche market status of science fiction television in the U.S., media with lower-cost production and distribution seem a better bet. (21) While there is a long history of frustration on the part of storytellers of all sorts in their attempts to make the web pay, the history of Sci-Fi's new Sanctuary (which began as a web-based series) may point to the direction science fiction television will take in getting to the air. (22)

Footnotes

  1. Nader Elhefnawy, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television," June 2008. (An updated version of the article can also be found at http://raritania.blogspot.com/2008/10/golden-age-of-science-fiction.html.)
  2. Nonetheless FOX (the most youthful of the "Big Four," which at the time had a reputation for risk-taking) offered, among other things, The X-Files (1993-2002) and (briefly) the cult hit Firefly (2002).
  3. And of course, Spike has not repeated its sole attempt at a live-action genre show, 2006's Blade: The Series.
  4. HBO, which has as of late made its mark with more conventional dramatic series like The Sopranos, and generally just dabbled in genre television—the short-lived Carnivale (2003-2005) represented its most serious effort in that area for many years—has also shown more interest with the launch of its vampire drama True Blood (2008) and the upcoming Game of Thrones.
  5. British imports also have a more prominent place on the channel, which airs new episodes of Doctor Who even before BBC America, and is also currently airing Primeval (2007-).
  6. There is no shortage of examples. AMC, of course, no longer confines itself to airing classic American films; Bravo gave up arthouse cinema and high culture-themed programming in favor of reality television and reruns of NBC programs; and of course, "Remember when MTV had music?" is by this point a very old joke.
  7. I find myself comparing these shows with how Paul Donovan described his intentions regarding Lexx (which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, 2000-2002) in an interview two years ago: "I never wanted to make something mainstream—with a moderate appeal for a wide audience—I wanted to make something that had a deep appeal for the sick-minded people like me." Nader Elhefnawy, "Lexx at Ten," Strange Horizons, Jul. 9, 2007, http://www.strangehorizons.com/2007/20070709/lexx_at_ten-a.shtml. This sort of approach would seem to have far less opportunity in today's environment.
  8. It may be noted that a few other cable channels did newly invest in genre television during this. ABC Family aired Kyle XY (2006-2009), and 2008's The Middlemanan article on which appeared in the January edition of this publication. (See Michael Underwood, "The MiddlemanReview of Season One," Internet Review of Science Fiction, Jan. 2009.) More recently, Comedy Central launched the fantasy-themed sitcom Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire (2009-). However, these are comparative rarities.
  9. It is also noteworthy that the show's audience declined sharply as the speculative elements became more prominent, falling from a robust 17 million at the start of the fourth season to a weak 10 million (and sometimes below) in the fifth, though admittedly there may be other explanations. See Henry Jenkins, "Lost's Ratings Steadily Fall, Even as the Series Remains the Top Show on the Net," BuddyTV.com, April 13, 2009.
  10. And of course, there was also "fake psychic drama," CBS's The Mentalist (2008-) which inserted its particular fake psychic into a police procedural. Of course, it has been widely noted that CBS was only following in the footsteps of USA's earlier and quirkier take on the concept, Psych (2006-).

  11. NBC's Surface, which was initially characterized as an alien invasion story in the press, was actually more concerned with biotechnology run amok, combining the conspiracy thriller with the disaster movie by the end of its fifteen-episode run.
  12. There were also shows based on Robocop, Total Recall (1999's Total Recall 2070), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's routinely-filmed The Lost World, Robert Howard's Conan, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan (actually the subject of three live-action television series between 1991 and 2003), comic book character Sheena, and Andre Norton's Beastmaster (which reflected the sword and sorcery approach of the 1982 film, rather than the more science fiction-themed novel), while Xena: Warrior Princess was itself a spin-off of only the most recent retelling of the story of Hercules. There were also some nods to comic books in Smallville, the short-lived Birds of Prey (2002-2003), TNT's Witchblade and Showtime's Jeremiah (admittedly, a property not well known in the U.S., though by this point creator J. Michael Straczynski had become a name in his own right because of Babylon 5); and in the case of the Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998-1999), to video games as well. Besides that, Battlestar Galactica was a remake of an old series.

    There were also subtler exploitations of "brand names." Two original series—Earth: Final Conflict (1997-2002) and Andromeda (2000-2005)—were marketed as posthumous developments of the concepts of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. (The script for the first episode of EFC was credited to Roddenberry himself, and "Dylan Hunt" actually appeared in two television movies in the 1970s—1973's Genesis II and 1974's Planet Earth, which featured a protagonist by that name flung centuries ahead in time to a post-apocalyptic future.) And Mutant X (2001-2004), despite being unrelated to the comic book by that name, benefited from a tenuous association with it, and somewhat more distantly, with the success of the X-Men on film.
  13. Given that Knight Rider was one of the choices for a remake, the attempt to follow in the footsteps of Battlestar Galactica seems astonishingly literal. The original Knight Rider (1982-1986) like Galactica, was a show created by Glen Larson, starring an artificial intelligence with a red light scanner; and almost as if hoping he would bring them luck, the producers cast Paul Campbell (who played Billy Keikeya in the reimagined Galactica) as part of the new Knight Rider's core cast.
  14. The association with the "Buffyverse" also extended to the casting, the show starring Eliza Dushku and including Amy Acker as a recurring character.
  15. Notably, the show is far superior in that regard to the handling of a similar theme by Reaper, actually created by Kevin Smith.
  16. Syndication, cable and the other outlets which were so prominent in the genre TV boom of the 1990s, however, were quite prepared to target niche markets, like science fiction fans. However, as the case of SyFy makes clear, even cable seems decreasingly prepared to do this, with cable channels going after slices of the biggest pies instead.
  17. While not all demographics are equally coveted, or time slots equally competitive, a minimum of 10 million viewers is generally needed to keep a show on the air in network prime time. My rough guess is that the core audience for genre television in the U.S. is at most in the range of 10-15 million, making it vital that a show draw a substantial audience well beyond them.
  18. The performance of the American shows named here also pales next to that of many of the shows that aired on British science fiction television, like the BBC's Dr. Who, which had an uninterrupted run from 1963 to 1984 before coming back for another three years in 1986, and the six season, 161 episode run of ITV's The Avengers (1961-1969).
  19. That the bar has consistently been raised is not irrelevant. The new Battlestar Galactica may have been mediocre science fiction in many ways, but it generally looked great doing it.
  20. The early 1970s, and the very late 1980s and first couple of years of the 1990s, for instance, were periods when their offerings were exceptionally few in number.
  21. The single great exception to the treatment of science fiction as a niche by media executives is film, as from the 1990s on, "action movies became ever more the province of science fiction and fantasy." (See Nader Elhefnawy, "Science Fiction and the Post-Cold War," Internet Review of Science Fiction, January 2009.)
  22. The implications of Sanctuary should not be exaggerated. The initial eight "webisodes" of the low budget series still cost $4 million, and Sci-Fi's interest was crucial to paying that bill. Nonetheless, there is at least the hint of a different business model taking shape. (See Jenna Wortham, "Sci-Fi Sanctuary Makes Leap From Web to TV," Underwire, October 3, 2008.

Copyright © 2009, Nader Elhefnawy. All Rights Reserved.

About Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the novel Surviving the Spike.

Dr. Elhefnawy holds a Ph.D in Literature from the University of Miami, as well as a B.A. in International Relations from Florida International University, and has published widely on both literature and international affairs. His reviews and articles on speculative fiction have appeared in a number of forums, including Foundation, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, and he has recently published a collection of them, After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980.

He also publishes a blog devoted to speculative fiction, Raritania.

COMMENTS!

Jun 4, 02:41 by IROSF
Comment below!
Jun 4, 10:46 by Daniel M. Kimmel
Good overview of the industry. SF has never been a television mainstay even though it often does blockbuster numbers on the big screen (as with the current "Star Trek"). Ironically, after having drifted away from SF TV for a while, my two current favorites -- "Fringe" and "Dollhouse" -- were renewed. Now I don't have to shy away from TV-oriented panels at cons.
Jun 4, 15:24 by Nader Elhefnawy
Thanks for writing.

And yeah, that's one of the things I think people don't get-that gap between the big-screen success of SF, and the usually mediocre performance of the genre on television (in the U.S., at least), as well as in other media (like print fiction, where there is an audience, but it doesn't compare with what other genres do).

As my essay shows, I've followed those two shows myself.
Jun 5, 02:35 by Josh English
Great article! It is sad, in its way, that we will probably not have as much to watch next year. I am thrilled that Dollhouse was renewed, but I hear ugly rumors that FOX will really interfere with the show (beyond their normal show things out of order or unaired stunts).
Jun 6, 13:06 by Nader Elhefnawy
Thanks for writing Mr. English. I only heard about those changes recently.

It seems that, like Chuck on NBC, Dollhouse's renewal is just for 13, and entails a budget cut. The episodes will also be shorter because of the dropping of the "Remote Free TV" scheme (something that will also affect Fringe).

The talk about a new creative direction's been vague, but I don't think fans are wrong to worry given what the change would likely mean, and the contempt the channel has often shown for story arcs in the past (as with Joss Whedon's Firefly, which was for many observers a worrisome precedent).

Incidentally, io9 posted on the issue here

http://io9.com/5257353/welcome-to-the-all+new-all+different-dollhouse

in case anyone hasn't seen the news yet.

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