The Problem with Science Fiction on Television

Science_Fiction_003I was talking to my father the other day, and he mentioned a new television show that I should check out: Defying Gravity. I had heard something about ABC’s new drama vaguely a few months back. Someone had called it, ‘Grey’s Anatomy in Space,’ which failed to spark my immediate interest.

I told my father that, and he was the first to admit it was a little soapy in places, but he pointed out –quite correctly, too– that almost all scripted dramas are, and always have been. There’s a lot to recommend Defying Gravity, he said. It’s fairly realistic hard science fiction set in the not too distant future. It takes its premise seriously. The special effects are well done without getting in the way of the storytelling. It has Ron Livingston. Plus, he said, it was already through its first season.

That was a real selling point for me. I like to have a few episodes available when I get into a new series. I watched the first three episodes yesterday and decided I really liked the show. As I often do when a television program or a movie catches my fancy I went to Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database to find out more about it, and that’s when I learned that the show has already been cancelled.

Ah, televised Science Fiction. How I love you. How I loathe what networks do to you.

DGI’ll admit I’ve only seen the first few episodes of Defying Gravity, but what I saw really impressed me. It’s set about four decades in the future, and it gets the little details of that just right. Mankind has begun to explore the solar system again under the aegis of an international space exploration organization that clearly has its roots in a merger of NASA, the European Space Agency, and probably the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Japanese space programs too. We’ve already sent a manned mission to Mars, and now a much more ambitious mission lasting six years is about to be launched, crewed by eight astronauts, four men and four women from five different countries. All of this feels very natural and right to me.

The first few episodes have lengthy scenes set during the five years of training leading up to the mission that are filled with little glimpses of a realistic future that really captured my imagination: Mass transit has become more prevalent, and all the cars and buses in the show make electric whirring noises; everyone has thumb-printed debit cards instead of cash; the Supreme Court in the United States has swung Conservative and Roe vs. Wade has been overturned; patches have been invented to reduce the sexual urge in prison populations, that are also used in the co-ed space program.

I’m not saying all of these things are good in and of themselves, but I like a show about the future to have a firm idea of what’s going on, and this show definitely has a vision that I can freely suspend my disbelief in. Throw in the fact that anything with Ron Livingston in it is great, and we’re definitely moving in a good direction. To broaden its appeal further, it has a strong ensemble cast, a couple of love interests, and a mysterious force or element called Beta that injects the same mystery into the show that is the secret sauce of success in Lost.

All in all, it’s a show I wish to see have some running room, but that’s not going to happen. Only the first eight episodes aired in the United States. ABC says it isn’t officially cancelled, but the sets have been destroyed. Another one bites the dust.

FireflyopeninglogoOf course, this isn’t the first time a promising science fiction show has been smothered in the cradle. I doubt anyone would forgive me if I didn’t mention the tragic loss of Firefly. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the genius of Joss Whedon’s space opera parallel to the classic postbellum American westerns that dominated television when my father was a boy. That show was also cancelled half way through its first brilliant season, and the internet still rings to the howls of disappointed fans five years later.

What is it about science fiction that television hates so much?

Firefly, famously, was aired out of order. Defying Gravity started in August when everyone is on their summer vacation, and the only thing I heard about it until now was that it was, ‘Grey’s Anatomy in Space.’ I’m not saying there isn’t an overlap between Grey’s audience and Science Fiction, but that is not science fiction’s base, and someone at ABC must have known that.

I understand that science fiction is an expensive proposition for network television, and if the ratings aren’t there, the bottom line is going to be the end of the line, but can we give a show a chance? If you green light a series, stick with it at least long enough to build an audience! If you’re not going to promote it ahead of time, you have to let word of mouth do the selling for you, and that takes time. It took me three months to look into Defying Gravity, but I would have watched every episode if it ran for ten seasons.

Ah, but there is a problem with my argument, isn’t there? How did I watch three episodes in a night? It’s no secret that a tremendous number of my generation watches a lot of their television online on demand, and that pisses the networks off to no end. There are no commercials on the internet. There’s also no Nielsen ratings. There’s no money to be made online!

Bull puckey.

First of all, if ABC wanted to stream its content online to the world with commercials on a server that would handle the traffic with the same speed and reliability as Megavideo or SupernovaTube or WiseVid or YouTube, I’d watch it there. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people would do the same, and then they’d have an exact count of how many people were watching to pitch to their advertisers. That’s going to be a much more reliable number than Nielsen ratings (which would still exist in the televised market), but that’s an argument for a time –probably only a few years off– when television networks bow to the inevitable and begin to compete with the pirates.

In the meantime, how about the argument that DVD sales are a reliable bread winner? Firefly’s DVD sales convinced Fox to produce a movie, Serenity. The fact that Joss Whedon knew that would be the end of it, so he crammed three seasons worth of plot into two hours and killed off most of the cast, is neither here nor there. The DVD sales were spectacular. Fox turned a profit.

spaceaboveWhat about Space: Above and Beyond? It got a little more than one season, it’s true, but Fox cancelled this gem of a ‘World War II set in space’ on the argument that a million dollars a pop for an episode wasn’t cost effective. Are you telling me the DVD sales of Space: Above and Beyond haven’t recouped the cost of making it, with a healthy profit margin on top of that?

It’s true that probably a disproportionate number of science fiction enthusiasts stream their television, which depresses Nielsen ratings, but they also tend towards becoming rabidly dedicated fans, and those are the people who buy the DVD box sets.

I’m not saying Defying Gravity can or should be saved. There’s rumour in the wind that ABC might air the last six episodes in the States at a later date to relaunch the series, but I’m not holding my breath. I have a few suggestions for the next great series, though, and I’ll list them off thusly:

First, if you want big ratings right out of the gate, promote the show to your base. If you want the audience to watch it, tell them what it’s about!

Second, don’t dump the show at the end of summer –like you did to Defying Gravity– or run the episodes out of order –like you did to Firefly– or air it after Football/Baseball where the games always run long so your audience doesn’t know when to tune in –like you did to Futurama. Or if you do, factor that into your Nielsen ratings expectations. Do you know why Two and a Half Men gets the ratings it does? (As an aside, I’m seriously asking: How is that the number one sit-com in the world right now?) Well, for a start, people know when it’s on every week. It has a time slot that people can build their viewing habits around. Half of science fiction’s problem on television is that the executives who order it have no faith in it, and they shoot themselves in the foot by burying it in the place they put shows to die. If Defying Gravity is Grey’s Anatomy in space, give it a time slot like Grey’s Anatomy in prime time, and let it stay there long enough to prove it works!

Third, have a little faith in DVD sales to boost your bottom line. Yes, it takes a year or two to realize the profits, but they do come through in the end. Hell, DVD sales are what’s keeping Hollywood’s movie studios afloat right now. People don’t buy box sets of reality television or talk shows. They buy scripted television, and science fiction –much abused though it is by the television medium– makes up a disproportionately large percentage of those box set sales. Put out a quality science fiction show, and know that your back end profits on DVD sales are a gold-plated investment!

Fourth, and I know this is asking a lot, nut up, accept that the internet is here to stay, and embrace it as a source of revenue. You’re green lighting shows at enormous expense. That’s an investment you need to recoup as many ways as you can. In the future, people will be watching their television less and less at the time you decide, and more and more online whenever they want to. That’s a viewing habit you can bank on, so change your business model to embrace it!

When it’s done right, science fiction is among the most engaging subject matter out there. It lets people dream. It lets people see into a future we probably begrudge our unborn grandchildren. It talks about our past and our present through the prism of our possible future. It pushes boundaries and borders and inspires us to make something better of the world. Above all else, it entertains us.

That’s the goal of your entire industry. You’ve been doing it for fifty years now. Entertain us. You’ll make money at it. I promise you.

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