Do We Want Sci-Fi on TV?

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Do We Want Sci-Fi on TV?

Post by redlily » Sat May 09, 2009 8:06 am

Michael Trucco as Anders in the Battlestar Galactica episode "The Road Less Traveled."
? Carole Segal/Sci Fi ChannelEntertainment Weekly writer Marc Bernardin has grabbed some attention musing about how sci-fi on TV seems be to so unsuccessful lately. Bernardin compared the riproaring success of the annual summer schedule jammed with sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters with the anemic ratings for a whole slate of canceled or soon-to-be-canceled series – there's even a Terminator franchise entry this year in both the failed-TV-series and (presumably) the hugely-successful-movie categories.

This imbalance has led him to ask the unsettling question, "Why don't we want science fiction on television anymore?"

Do you think he's right? I kind of wonder there's a mistaken assumption involved here: I'm not sure about the "any more" part. Though individual science fiction or crossbred shows have done well – for example, The X-Files – most sci-fi and fantasy offerings have gathered a solid, enthusiastic fan-base rather than a broad swath of casual viewers.

Perhaps it's because sci-fi in general has a reputation for being more arc-driven and therefore harder to drop into on a whim, the way you can do with any random episode of Law & Order. It's not really true – you're just as likely to be confused joining Friday Night Lights in mid-season as you would with Battlestar Galactica – but there's a real inhibition getting involved in a sci-fi series for nonfans, so you end up with an avid core. And that avid core has seldom been large enough to satisfy ratings-hungry executives.

The movies are different – a one-off sci-fi blockbuster with lots of explosions and cool robots and sexy aliens is a great way to mindlessly blow a Friday night, and so the big sci-fi summer movies attract millions of people. (And they're not all successes. The small sci-fi movies that end up getting shown in late winter barely garner an audience. Did anyone go see Inkheart, for example?) A sci-fi TV show, however, to a lot of people represents an investment.

And I don't think the number of offerings has gone down – this season I've been tracking over two dozen active sci-fi series. Of those, as many as nine were killed off by their networks.

Sci-fi and fantasy are, by definition, more expensive than most other kinds of shows, because the special effects cost money both on the set (all those careful set-ups) and in postproduction, where all that labor-intensive CGI is done. Between smaller audiences and larger costs, it's surprising that any sci-fi gets made for TV at all.

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