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Can The Sci Fi Channel Be Saved?

In today’s Tube Bit post, we pointed to an article over on the Sy Fy Portal about how SF fans are being too complacent about the current state of SF on TV. Author Wayne Hall takes fans to task for being negative about SF on TV, especially the Sci Fi Channel, and says we should support SF TV regardless of a show’s quality. Indeed, he says this:

If you want science-fiction on television, you have to make it worthwhile for the people who bring it to you. It’s as simple as that.

I have to disagree. It is not up to us, the fans, to make it worthwhile for TV networks to bring us shows. It is their

job to bring us shows that we want to see. Blasting the fans for not supporting crap is, well, rather silly. And no where is that more obvious than on the Sci Fi Channel. Science fiction, as a genre, has a much smaller viewer base than other types of shows, for various reasons we don’t need to go into here. So it makes sense that a cable network dedicated to SF can be successful while drawing fewer viewers. SF fans should be flocking to the Sci Fi Channel. But they aren’t. And it’s not the fans’ fault.


Consider this. In the beginning of the Sci Fi Channel, they actually showed lots of science fiction. Old TV shows, movies, you name it. Then things began to change. Sci Fi started to expand its programming to include new shows and movies. Things that brought in somewhat better ratings, but have tended to alienate the SF base. Things like their original movies, filled with B or C list actors, filmed on the cheap with lame stories that tend to be creature features, usually shown on Saturday night, or, as Tim and I like to call it, ‘The Most Dangerous Night Of SF On Television’. Or their ‘reality’ type shows like Ghost Hunters. And then there’s wrestling. I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing the intersection between wrestling fans and SF fans is pretty small, so whatever audience they get for ECW doesn’t stick around for the rest of Sci Fi’s offerings. But we’re stuck with that because it pays the bills, as do the cheap-o movies.

Sci Fi’s original series track record isn’t that great either. The Dresden Files was a huge disappointment, taking an awesome series of books and making a, well, lackluster show out of them. From all accounts, Painkiller Jane was the encountered the same problem, and, yes, so does Flash Gordon. While Wayne may say Flash isn’t as bad as people say, it isn’t good either. It isn’t even good enough. Again, Sci Fi took a fun and campy property and sucked the life out of it. I just saw a preview for this weeks episode where Flash meets the Hawk Men. Hawk Men who were goggle and dark capes and look like rejects from Mad Max. Even Galactica has suffered as it moved away from escaping the Cylons towards more allegorical fare. And let’s not start on how Sci Fi treated Farscape. It’s easy to see that Sci Fi is all about the money, and not the fans. That isn’t the fans’ fault, so why should the fans support a network that isn’t giving them what they want?

Is it any wonder, then, that when Sci Fi does produce something worthwhile, people are surprised (Eureka) or don’t tune in (The Lost Room)? Sci Fi’s recent track record is very poor and people know this. Unfortunately for Sci Fi, that means that any new show or movie that gets produced will be seen through the ‘Sci Fi is cheap and makes crappy shows’ filter. And Sci Fi, and Sy Fy Portal, shouldn’t blame the fans.

So the question now becomes: Can the Sci Fi Channel be ‘saved’? And by saved, I mean can it become a place where decent, if not great, SF programming be found and where money can be made because, let’s face it, Sci Fi has to make money to stay in business. Right now they have a model where they make money by producing mediocre or worse SF fare. My guess is they can make even more money by making better shows. Eureka is a good start, but its not for everyone. But how do they get ‘there’ from here?

I don’t have the answers. The SF fanbase is much smaller than for other TV genres, so maybe this is the best Sci Fi can do. I’d like to think that better shows would bring in more people, and not just SF fans. Of course, that means overcoming the aversion some people may have to watching a show on a ‘Sci Fi’ network. I think it can be done. Galactica started out as a breakout hit with lots of word of mouth, but subsequent seasons didn’t live up to the first. I think Sci Fi will need to take some creative risks and, yes, spend some money to find shows people really want to watch. But doing so is risky so I’m not sure that they are willing to do so.

I’ll keep my eye on the new stuff Sci Fi produces, but just don’t expect to watch shows that could, or should, be better than what we get. I can always go elsewhere to find better science fiction. It’s a shame the Sci Fi Channel isn’t one of those places.

Update: Keith Strohm has more thoughts in his Why I Am Not A Slave To Sci Fi TV! post.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

16 Comments on Can The Sci Fi Channel Be Saved?

  1. you wrote, “It is not up to us, the fans, to make it worthwhile for TV networks to bring us shows. It is their job to bring us shows that we want to see.”

    Amen!

  2. I have to add something here.

    SciFi treated Farscape rather well, considering that they did everything in their power to promote the hell out of the show and launch several campaigns to drum up new viewers. They did not come. Splitting the seasons in two launching at different points of the year was a tactic to keep the costs down and hopefully air the show when viewership might rise. Didn’t happen.

    At the time, several Farscape chatrooms became all out flame wars as Scape fans bashed Trek fans and stoked the fanboy elitism that tends to run strong when shows get cult followings. The show was already bleeding money when the third season was approved, SciFi was confident that they could roll the show into a pop franchise and capture a portion of the Trek/Star Wars audience. It didn’t happen. The show producers appealed to fans to spread the word about the DVDs. It didn’t happen. Several airings a week were scheduled in hopes of picking up new viewers. It didn’t happen.

    Then it got canceled, and the fans suddenly magically appeared by the thousands to lambaste SciFi for being cruel and merciless and unwilling to give the show a chance. Fandom exhibited a form of tunnel vision unique to itself by laying all the blame on SciFi for the shows demise. That groundswell of support is the only reason the miniseries got made, and even that didn’t do well money wise.

    Scifi learned the lesson that scifi are just apathetic to the realities of the industry, and that cheap-to-produce shows will make money even if viewership is soft. The network has said clearly and unambiguously that they are not going after SF fans, but rather the large mainstream audience that makes bad SF and fantasy films so popular.

    Scifi will never again produce anything that smacks of real SF, at least not as long as NBC is in charge. We may get lucky and get another Dune-esque miniseries, but it will probably be a foreign production. The glory days of Farscape/Lexx/MST3K (not to mention season 5 of Bab 5) are gone.

    If another truly great SF show appears on the tube and fans want it to last, they have to start beating the drums with the first episode and do whatever they can to help build viewership.

  3. Dear Sci-Fi channel,

    Don’t make crap.

    That is all.

    -Trent

  4. It would be interested to compare statistically “crap vs. watchable” shows on SciFi versus other networks.

    I agree with JP’s assessment of the “crap” (Flash, Painkiller and the crap creature shows) and of the “watchable” (The Lost Room was quite enjoyable, I have the DVD’s for both Dune minis, BSG is still my fav show, and both Stargates, even though not started on SciFi, were my family’s Friday night viewing for along time).

    Most of what I see on TV falls into the “crap” category vs. “watchable”.

    Therefore, I am not as surprised by the ratio of crap on SciFi. Without the benefit of a full categorization (“crap-orization”), I would bet that the amount of un-watchable shows on SciFi is in the same realm as the rest of TV-dom.

    The problem as JP points out, is that if you have a genre oriented station, you need to please those genre oriented viewers, or they will find other means to entertain themselves….like reading scifi books or posting mathematically dorky comments on sfsignal.com

    (H)

  5. First off, that article wasn’t just talking about SF shows, but fantasy ones, and the combo of the two certainly gives both the Sci Fi Channel and SFF on network t.v. some resilience. Right now, the U.S. t.v. folk are in love with SFF and have quite a crop new shows. A lot of those shows will tank — just like a lot of the cop, lawyer and medical shows tank. But some will stick around, and should the worst happen, with all SFF being purged from the channels because there were too many, in another year or two someone will come up with a new SFF show and they’ll try it out.

    Yes, these shows are more expensive to make than others, but they also make a lot of money in syndication, DVD’s and overseas. Doctor and lawyer shows don’t have conventions and entire industries like comic books devoted to promoting their genre. So while the SFF fan audience may be smaller than other types, they are a lot more likely to show up, and non-fans can still get hooked on a SFF show.

    The Sci Fi Channel, like a lot of cable channels, is making the transition from dumping ground of SFF leftovers to original programming network. As such, they are throwing a lot of shows and movies out there, probably more than they have money to do properly. Some of them will succeed and a lot of them won’t. Eventually, they’ll get better at it, but it’s a lucrative specialty that needs a channel, so they’ll stick around or another SFF channel will replace them. For forty years, SFF has feared that it’s on the verge of dying out, one way or another. Instead, it has conquered every medium it entered and has a truly astonishing body of film, television and print products on tap. Time to stop worrying the boogie man is going to pop out and eat us.

  6. Still no love for Stargate or Stargate: Atlantis from JP – but I consider them reasonable SciFi channel shows.

    That said, SciFi gets little viewing from me because of the poor quality of the writing on their shows. I’d watch if it had good writing despite poor special effects lower production value.

  7. I couldn’t agree more. The SciFi channel has been putting way to much non-scifi and crap scifi shows out there. I only watch BSG and Doctor Who on it anymore, yet there was a time not long ago when the SciFi channel was the default on my tv.

    They need to be kept to a higher standard and we, the fans, are the only ones that will keep them there. Crom knows it won’t be NBC.

  8. Morjana Coffman // September 13, 2007 at 4:15 pm //

    I concur with Jeff P’s post regarding Farscape. The SciFi Channel supported that series with a passion. Not only did they air seasons one through three weekly (as season four was airing on SciFi Friday), but over the years they also aired several episodes back to back on Sundays.

    In addition, they ran commercials for the series on OTHER networks…I remember them promoting Farscape on NBC (and this is way before the merger with NBC/Universal), UPN, WB, FOX, TNT, etc.

    And when Stargate SG-1 and Farscape both shared SciFi Friday, the SciFi Channel provided postcards for FREE Comic Book Day, ran one page advertisements in various magazines (including Entertainment Weekly), and ran commercials for both series on a variety of networks.

    “Farscape” is an excellent series, but it’s not a generic scifi series — it’s very specific in its style, and that style only was attractive to a certain LOW portion of TV viewers.

    Even in syndication, Farscape has not performed well in the ratings.

    From MediaWeek (March 16, 2006):

    http://mediaweek.com/mw/news/networktv/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002198045&imw=Y

    Farscape 1.1

    From About SciFi (May 2006):

    http://scifi.about.com/b/a/257354.htm

    Farscape 0.9

    From Broadcasting & Cable (Oct. 2006):

    http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6383231.html?display=Breaking+News

    Farscape 0.8

    From SciFi Wire:

    http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php

    Farscape 0.6 Source: Nielsen Galaxy Report, 4/16/07 – 4/22/07

    Farscape 0.6 Source: Nielsen Galaxy Report, 6/4/07 – 6/10/07

    Farscape 0.5 Source: Nielsen Galaxy Report, 7/9/07 – 7/15/07

    However, I do agree that the SciFi Channel is missing the point in that their network is SUPPOSED to be SciFi — not horror, not fantasy, but SCIFI. They should return to airing the older scifi series — Babylon 5, Space Rangers, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, older versions of Doctor Who (especially the Tom Baker series), Quantum Leap — to name a few.

    Stargate SG-1 has been their best series decision, followed by Stargate Atlantis, Eureka and Farscape.

    Flash Gordon, Painkiller Jane, The Dresden Files, Tremors…all serious errors in programming.

    Morjana

  9. Morjana, I have an uncut sheet of those postcards around here somewhere. Neal Adams did the art.

    Also, syndication rates for a lot of shows, even old ones, have gone through the roof lately. Producers see what DVDs are earning and decide networks have been getting off light. A friend who works at SciFi (and who was responsible for much of the heavy Scape promotion you mentioned) once told me that the price Gerry Anderson asked for a single run of a Thunderbirds/Captain Scarlet package was twice their syndication budget for a year.

    You may also remember Fox ran a version of Thunderbirds edited down to an hour and revoiced with hip vernacular, an offense outstripping anything Scifi has done to date by an order of magnitude.

    As video and effects technology become cheaper, we can hope to find some independent productions that pass muster. But more than likely they will be about more people laden with emotional baggage trying to deal with a story that no doubt will involve a prophecy, angry aliens or demons, and some kind of government plot. Yawn.

  10. Great post, JP.

    One word: Mansquito.

  11. joshua corning // September 13, 2007 at 7:18 pm //

    I always thought the Sci Fi channel was in the money making business…not the make a minority of fans happy business.

  12. I’ve said this elsewhere. I have a simple theory about the problem: lack of competition. SciFi doesn’t have to make better shows, because we’ll keep going and checking out the new shows. Why? Because they are all we’ve got. If someone else shows up on the scene with an SFF themed channel, the competition for the audience would be stronger. I think then the programming will get stronger.

    As to the wrestling, I don’t know why they don’t “SF” it up. I was joking around on another blog that they should animate around the wrestlers. Get rid of the audience and the ring. Make it a cityscape, and have the wrestlers be the equivalent of giant monsters (ala Godzilla) trashing the city. Intersperse with Iron Chef style commentary (Including tacking commentary) and then I’d watch a few episodes. From what I understand the ECW stuff is all repeats from other channels anyway. Either they got the wrestling on the cheap, or they have someone with a faulty logic of SF is mostly a guy audience, and wrestling is mostly a guy audience, therefore they must be the *same* guys. Bleh.

  13. The problem with supporting crap is that you’ll likely end up with crappier shows in the future.

  14. The Sci-Fi channel only has good self-promotional videoblurbs, and, rarely, interesting stuff, like the new Dr. Who.

    Mostly it’s been wretched for years.

    When something wrestles with its own capacity for downfall, I say: leave it alone… and make a new one.

    I mean replace it with something that leaves the original so far behind in the dust that they’ll be embarrassed into black holiness, white-outitude and add your own…

    I’d use only director cuts for movies (so wait a few years from the theaters), instead of McVersions, and still carry adds, but only every 30 mins, lasting as long as it takes for the income to run the channel. One CAN get to “yes” for all parties.

    For content, well, stories need to have intriguing plots, be very well told, and be graphically excellent, as with great costumes, and tremendous visuals.

    Today, anime, Neil Gaiman, Storm Constantine, and many, many others qualify for all around watchable and readable material. And, the channel could even interview these authors and studios and I’d bet they’d get fine audiences of intelligent people. And we’d love it, and learn from it.

    It’s as simple as taking the things you like, and could experiment with to learn from, and excluding all the rest. How about a show on how to draw manga and make anime? Frightening. Imagine how we artists would feel?

    Go ahead, you imagine the rest…

  15. joshua corning // September 14, 2007 at 7:36 pm //

    The real question is when will HBO air a Sci Fi series?

    Sit Com: Flight of the condors, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lucky Louie

    Western: Deadwood

    Crime Drama: The Wire, Oz

    Drama: Sopranos, 6 feet under, Big Love

    Epic Drama: Rome

    Fantasy: John from Cincinnati

    War Drama: Band of Brothers

    The only TV genre not covered are reality TV, Game Shows, and Sci Fi…

    Does Sci Fi have the same astigmatism as Reality TV and Game Shows?

  16. joshua corning // September 14, 2007 at 7:41 pm //

    speaking of which….did you guys ever catch this?

    http://www.tvsquad.com/2006/09/03/hbo-to-launch-a-science-fiction-series-in-ancient-rome/

    Of course the news is a year old…and never verified as far as i can tell.

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