Lack of Spectacle: Science fiction and fantasy has dominated the Box Office since the beginning of the 00’s and has actually been a major force there since Jaws and Star Wars kicked off the blockbuster era back in the mid-1970’s. But not because people are going to the theaters to see the intelligent, thought-provoking stories that hard-core fans of the genre prefer, but for the spectacle. The audiences flocking to the theaters to see sci fi blockbusters seek those rollercoaster-ride, sense-shattering thrills that high dollar, sfx-ladden big budget films can deliver. Take a look at the list of Top 100 domestic grossing films unadjusted for inflation so that it skews toward the most recent crop of films. You will see there that sci fi / fantasy has a tight lock on that list of one hundred films, but many of these are the ones that place spectacle over story. The Transformers films, the Star Wars prequels, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and other CGI-bloatfests are frequent entries on the list. And even some of the better regarded genre films such as The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and even the Harry Potter films still relied heavily on the sfx “Wow” factor and these entries are not necessarily what we think of when putting together a list of classic sci fi films. Spectacle is what sells at the Box Office and the fact is that is hard to replicate on the small screen.
Many of genre films in that Top 100 list cost well over $100 million to produce whereas the budget for a single episode of a television series probably tops out around $5 million and comes in much lower in many cases. A TV production just doesn’t have the finances to work with to produce that same level of spectacle and ultimately falls short of what larger audiences are looking for. Shows like V, FlashForward, and Terra Nova all seemed to promise blockbuster level thrill-rides on the small screen but could not deliver that on a weekly basis to the satisfaction of the larger audience tuning in. And the many curious onlookers who checked out the early episodes quickly lost interest when they didn’t see the level of spectacle they expected based on their big screen experiences. They don’t want to hear excuses about how a television show can’t deliver a mini-blockbuster each week. They just want their sfx/action fix, and when a TV series doesn’t deliver they move on pretty quickly.
Lack of Understanding of the Genre: So the broadcast nets are already falling short on the expected spectacle from their sci fi entries, then they typically show an inability to grasp the genre and what fans are really looking for beyond just sfx thrills. If a sci fi series is not going to deliver the sfx-gasm that the mass audience is looking for, then they need to compensate for that with stories that will appeal to fanbase of the genre. And this doesn’t mean to throw in every sci fi / fantasy cliché with just a new locale and different set of faces. This means to offer a show with some type of substance and an idea that can sustain it across multiple seasons. Shows like V, FlashForward, The Event, Terra Nova, and others all fell short in this area and that had a lot to do with why they failed. These shows all seemed promising when they started but quickly fell victim to hackneyed, uninspired delivery that played out across watered-down, stock television plots. Sci fi has so much potential to challenge its viewers and we have seen it do that many times with shows like Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Babylon 5, the Battlestar Galactica revival, and more. But the network executives typically fail to grasp and/or tap into that potential and the final product that they deliver ultimately falls short on all counts. Current off-network shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story have succeeded because they push the boundaries of television and take chances (even if that last one mentioned tends to be a bit of a mess) while also succeeding at delivering just the right amount of visual appeal that fans are looking for. But the product that we get from the broadcast networks (and several of the basic cable channels as well) all too often pulls it punches or hints at taking chances but often retreats from delivering what it promises.
NBC had a chance to pick up The Walking Dead before that show eventually landed on AMC, but they wanted the producers to ease back on its darker, boundary-pushing tone. So TWD goes on to become a huge off-network hit (it’s currently the highest rated non-sports show on all of television), and in answer NBC offers Revolution. That one, though, probably gives us a good idea of how The Walking Dead would have played out if the producers had followed the networks directives. Revolution, while having a somewhat interesting initial concept, has offered watered down stories, uninteresting characters, copy and paste dialog, and its attempts to be “daring” by killing off major characters seems to be driven more by lazy, uninspired writing than any attempt to focus on good story-telling. Not surprisingly, that show–which started out very high in the ratings–has been on an extended death-spiral that has it on the brink of cancellation. The other shows that have tracked this same path (most ending after a single season) include V, FlashForward, The Event, Terra Nova, Touch, Alcatraz, and perhaps now Agents of SHIELD.
Lack of Understanding that Sci Fi Really is a Cult Genre: Along with this lack of understanding of how to creatively direct sci fi shows, the networks often fail to understand what to expect from these shows ratings-wise. The fact is that sci fi shows–even some of the biggest names like Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica–have rarely enjoyed high ratings. Lost was one of the few exceptions in that it stayed in the Top 20 all six years that it aired. But sci fi rarely has this sort of long-term lasting ratings appeal. FOX’s Fringe–which managed to survive through five seasons–only had high ratings in its first season when it had American Idol as its lead-in. After that, its ratings plummeted, but FOX–in a rare moment of insight–treated it as the cult show it was and moved it to Fridays where it could survive with acceptable Nielsen results. NBC is currently doing the same thing with Grimm and that has worked out well for that show. But all too often the networks want their high-profile sci fi shows to deliver strong, sustained ratings results which is something that the genre has rarely achieved. If the networks can temper their ratings expectations to the cult shows these typically are, then they might have more patience with them and even give some stumbling shows the chance to turn around quality-wise (though admittedly ABC, FOX, and NBC all appeared to do that with V, Touch, and Revolution respectively and that didn’t really work out).
Lack of the Ability to Learn From Mistakes Made and What Actually Works: The trend of high profile sci fi flops trying to replicate the success of Lost really began in 2005 with Invasion. And this has been replicating itself to different degrees pretty much every season since then. And yet the networks have failed to really grasp why these shows are stumbling as they repeat the same mistakes (detailed above) over and over. And then they fail to grasp what is really driving the successes of the cable shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story. As mentioned above, Revolution is a clear example of that as it tried to deliver a post-apocalypse, Walking Dead type series but has fallen victim to the same pitfalls as the network failures that preceded it.
The fact is that blockbuster style sci fi on TV–which is what many of the shows mentioned here strove for–rarely works out because of the limitations of the medium and the short-sightedness of network executives. And if these shows don’t have the quality to make up for the lack of spectacle, then the core fanbase won’t stick with them either. And the networks just can’t quite learn from their own mistakes and continue to fall victim to the same blunders which leads to more shows failing each year.
Next up, a look at several of these high-profile sci fi shows that were victims of the death-spiral and why they failed.
Why Were They Cancelled?
The Plight of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television in the Face of the Unforgiving Nielsens and Networks
Ever wondered why your favorite science fiction and/or fantasy show disappeared from the television schedule, never to deliver anymore new episodes? The reason why, most likely, is that it was cancelled because its ratings were low. And this book looks at those many cancelled sci fi/fantasy shows as well as the Neilsen ratings and television networks that dictate their fates. Available now for only $1.99 on Kindle from Amazon.com.