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The Future of Science Fiction TV is NOT the Sci Fi Channel

Last week, Entertainment Weekly online published an open letter to the Sci Fi Channel, wherein Mark Bernardin asks “Why are you not way more awesome?” Bernardin rightly points out the ‘good’ SF that is on the Sci Fi Channel, which, if you look at it, is really a very small percentage of the programming. The rest being made up of crappy monster movie of the week, cheap SF movies, questionable ‘reality’ programming, and wrestling. As Bernardin asked, why isn’t Sci Fi doing more in the way of adapting good SF novels into movies or TV shows? Why aren’t they creating engaging new SF content for their viewers?

While many of us probably have asked the same questions, I think doing so misses the point of the Sci Fi Channel. Sci Fi isn’t about being awesome, it isn’t even about science fiction, good or bad. It’s about making money.


Whether you like it or not, the Sci Fi Channel is the business of making money and not producing ‘good’ science fiction. For them, that means producing the dreck you see for most of its programming slate, because they are profitable. Quick, name the last successful broadcast network science fiction show not named Star Trek. I disregard Trek because it’s the exception that proves the rule and I chose broadcast networks because they reach the vast majority of television viewers and if there was a succsessful SF formula, they would have found it. They haven’t. Instead we get ‘soft’ SF, like Heroes and LOST. For purposes of our discussion, I am going to assume ‘hard’ SF to include things that we want to see. Namely stuff with spaceships, aliens and the like. It could also include more near-future type stuff with an emphasis on technology, and shows of the like.

The problem is, those type of shows don’t work. I bet you can’t find one non-Trek that was considered a success on broadcast TV. Babylon 5 comes close, though it had to move to TBS/Sci Fi when the independent TV station market was taken over by Fox/UPN. The shows you’re thinking of (Farscape, Stargate) we’re relegated to the backwater of cable, good though they may have been. They were there for a reason. Most people scoff when you science fiction is mentioned, and don’t even try to get them interested in a science fiction show. For all it’s critical praise and positive press coverage, Galactica maxed out at just over 3 million viewers for an episode. If NBC had thought it had a chance on broadcast TV, they would have done so. That they didn’t should tell you something. They can’t make money with overtly SF shows. So they get relegated to cable and the Sci Fi Channel.

Another problem with science fiction shows, is their cost. Galactica costs a lot to produce each episode, and I know Trek certainly did. If you aren’t pulling in the viewers, it’s hard to justify the costs. Which is why you see Ghosthunters and the cheap Saturday science fiction movies. Most of the shows on Sci Fi are cheap to produce, but do well enough to make money for Sci Fi. Wrestling also brings in higher ratings, which brings in more ad revenue, which allows SF to keep churning out the shows they do.

This also explains why Sci Fi keeps trying new series. They aren’t necessarily trying to make a ‘good’ SF show, just one that is good enough to make money. Hence we get Painkiller Jane, The Dresden Files, Flash Gordon and a bunch of failed shows. They are attempts to catch just enough people to make money, and to boost science fiction credibility of the network. Occasionally they hit paydirt, as with Galactica or Eureka. But even with the relatively few successes they have, you still don’t see Sci Fi trying much, if anything new, and certainly they aren’t spending the money to create something truly awesome. It’s too much of a risk.

Which brings us to the future of science fiction ‘TV’. TV viewership has been in a slow decline for years and the current writer’s strike certainly won’t do anything but increase the slide. We see how the strike has helped YouTube increase it’s viewership. You can imagine that other sites are experiencing growth as well as people look for something new. So, if you guessed the future of televised science fiction is the Internet, pat yourself on the back. The reasons are many:

  • The barrier to entry is low. You don’t need to convince some suit in a studio that your show is promising. You don’t even have to wrangle with the suits who don’t ‘get’ SF. All you need is a website, a camera or two, and some time and bingo, you have you’re own show on the ‘Net.
  • The only over-sight comes from the creators. You don’t even have any censors. You’re free to do, and show, whatever you want. This should be exciting for the creative people out there. True freedom to make the show they’ve always wanted.
  • As technology advances, the cost of equipment will decrease, making it easier for people to produce stuff. Good stuff, bad, all kinds of stuff, but stuff that you can be certain has never been seen before. This can’t be anything other than good in the long run.

You can probably think of more, but the fact remains that the future of science fiction ‘TV’ will be on the Internet, and not broadcast or cable. Heck, it’s being done now, with relative degrees of success. You have web-based series such as The House Between and Sanctuary, fan-created series such as Star Trek: New Voyages and independently produced shows like Venus Rises.

These are examples of what people can do given a bit of money (the costs will continue to drop over time), creative and web access. So I’m not going to get to worked up about the Sci Fi Channel’s failings. I’ll keep an eye open to see what they are doing in the future (and I still think if you like good SF, you should check out their science fiction anime shows on AniMondays and AniTuesdays) and hoping to be pleasantly surprised. But what I’m really expecting is for something to emerge from the Internet that will prove once and for all that compelling SF can be found on something other than traditional TV. I’m waiting, so you lot better get to work!

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

17 Comments on The Future of Science Fiction TV is NOT the Sci Fi Channel

  1. Remember way back when Sci Fi Channel tried to be a community, a science fiction/geek hangout? Scifi news shows, documentaries, anime saturday mornings, obscure old and international series… It was a destination, something special. Then Hammer came along and saw money in turning it into a slightly off-kilter USA Network. But that’s our media-conglomerate world. So, yup, you’re right… No turning back the clock… only turning away from TV. On both the creative and the consumer sides.

    The possibilities are wide-open… imagine the kind of stuff a decent small team of Flash animators and a couple of voice actors could do if they got together with some scriptwriters? But why isn’t this happening? We’re very, very lazy. This should be a neo-Renaissance… and we’re squandering it.

    Maybe we deserve wrestling.

  2. I did think of one successful series not mentioned above: Alien Nation.

  3. While I agree on the overall quality of shows and programming, SciFi Channel has done fairly well recently with mini-series. I enjoyed Tin Man, and I thought The Lost Room was pretty sweet; they are not hard SF by any stretch, and I’m certain the lack of special effects kept the costs down. But SciFi channel always seems to do pretty well in the mini-series department.

    I certainly don’t know what the cost equation is, they do promote the heck out of these shows. And most SF/Fantasy books would do better as mini-series vs. on-going shows/serials. Plus they can be repeated for additional rev.

  4. hear hear!

    sci-fi channel got a severe case of testosterone poisoning alright

    uhm….. heellllooooo?

    How is wrestling scifi?! Are they cranked full of designer drugs? Will they turn green when mad? Maybe if the greasy contenders were grown in a vat of pure biohazard; reclaimed tissues from freshman dormitories, 2 girls 1 cup, frat house mop, the tears of a transgender’d fanboy, and just a dash of fromunda cheese. The point is, I’d watch wrestling… if it were 2 quadriplegics with biomechanical limbs. (shaddup, thats way more ethical than bumfights!)

  5. Good Sci-Fi will never happen on Sci-Fi network, because it’s parent company is NBC – The worst network. NBC loves “Reality programing” because they are cheap bastards. Not to mention stupid.

    Sci-Fi network could and should be edgy like FX, millions of sci-fi books are sold, so there is a fanbase out there, you have to have decent programing:

    They killed Dresden by changing too much from the books, and then running the episodes out of order.

    Flash Gordon isn’t Flash Gordon, just a revamped Sliders-type clone.

    Painkiller was just painful. First they made a movie, which failed and then they completely changed the story, and tried launching it as a TV show.

    Why can’t they leave the product alone? Why screw it up so bad that it isn’t what they PAID for???

    Why can other networks live with shows that draw 3 to 5 million viewers, but Sci-Fi can’t? The ratings record for a cable show is the Closer(I think)with 5 million viewers…

    Sci-Fi maybe a “backwater of cable,” why can’t we get good/bad/horrid sci-fi content instead of wrestling, reality and moster movies? Why isn’t Sci-Fi running the internet shows you mentioned?

  6. You can make good science fiction without a big budget, look at Primer and Pi. Really good science fiction is all about the writing, not the effects. Now, I don’t know if shows like that could pull in viewers, but with the piles of crap on that network they could surely devote one or two hours a week to try it out. They’ll never do that, of course.

  7. science fiction tv is on life support but doesn’t know it. The viewer-ship isn’t there anymore. SF needs another Star Wars Renaissance. Could upcoming Lensman be that Renaissance? Hard to say but in summary, SF just isn’t sexy anymore. It’s not needed.

  8. Yeah, I checked out the Sci-Fi channel a few times and was severely disappointed. However, I did like the SciFiction section of their website. They’d publish short stories there, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of them. Unfortunately, they scrapped SciFiction a few years ago.

    I agree that the mini series is a good format for fiction. I think it beats the movie format by a mile.

  9. I totally agree that the programming on the Sci-Fi Channel is WELL below adequate. I also totally disagree with some of your assertions and part of your argument!

    Comparing a niche cable channel to a Network is ridiculous! The Networks are there to be bland enough to attract everyone. Channels such as Sci-Fi are niche channels like the Golf Channel or Speed – they’re supposed to attract viewers with a particular interest. They’re also partially supported by being on a higher tier of cable programming.

    Unfortunately, the current plan for the Sci-Fi Channel seems to be of the same mind as your comparison: Copy the Networks & you’ll make more money. The Dresden Files is a good example, true, but not how you used it. The ratings for the Dresden Files were good, in fact they beat the ratings for its lead-in Battlestar Galactica more than once and its worst episode rating was DOUBLE what Flash is currently bringing in – and Flash gets to count delayed viewing numbers while Dresden didn’t. The problem according to Mr. Howe (just made the new President of Sci-Fi), was that the Dresden Files didn’t “grow the network beyond our core audience.”

    There’s the answer to why there isn’t great science fiction on the Sci-Fi Channel.

    Their focus hasn’t been on keeping their ‘core audience’ but on attracting non-science fiction viewers. Hence shows like wrestling and Ghost Hunters 1 & 2. Instead of spending their money on making great entertainment that appeals to lovers of science fiction, the plan has been to bland-down, to mainstream the programming enough to appeal to the general TV viewer – like another USA Channel. They think there are enough mainstream viewers to replace and surpass their ‘core audience’ of science fiction fans, so they haven’t been trying to produce enough quality science fiction entertainment – just a couple of series to keep us pacified while adding lots of entertainment that will attract more viewers from the mainstream.

    What they don’t consider and what is very often discounted is the vast number of viewers who DO enjoy science fiction – good to great science fiction! Look at the Top FIFTY highest grossing movies to date. Nearly every single one is either science fiction or fantasy! While TV obviously can’t produce series with the kind of budget movies have, they CAN produce series with excellent stories, engrossing plots, believable and engaging characters, and fantastic writing that will attract and keep viewers!

    It would be wise and financially responsible to stop throwing away the very audience the Channel was named for and instead start courting us. Provide quality entertainment and quit wasting money on yet more low-quality monster movies. Once quality entertainment is back, advertise and promote it on mainstream channels to attract viewers from the mainstream. They should engage their customers in some honest feedback, reach out to us, and the science fiction fan will come back to the Sci-Fi Channel. Then they’ll have the ratings they’re looking for.

  10. I know of another good show that wasn’t mentioned “Earth the Final Conflict” This was one of my favorite sci-fi shows when it was on.

    I agree that a lot that sci-fi channel puts on is junk, I only watch Stargate Atlantis, Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, and Flash Gorden. I watched Painkiller Jane which was ok, but not great and I liked Dresden Files. Some of the movies they have on are ok, but most of it is junk. Wrestling I think is a waste of TV time but if it makes them money enough to make the shows I do watch then I say go for it. They’ll keep trying to make new series and they’ll hit on another good one hopefully.

    Yes I also agree that most shows will be made by the people and put on the net. As technology gets cheaper all the wanna be writers and directors will come out of the dark of their dingy apartments and make shows, some will be good and some won’t. I’ll be good to see the fresh creativity both good and bad because at least the little guy will get his/her chance to make a name for themselves.

  11. :-$

    I have to respectfully disagree with those who argue that the reason the sci fi channel sucks is because they are making programming decisions based on money.

    I argue that taking money into account would be a fresh change for the sci fi channel. With so much schlock out there, advertisers are looking for newer ways to get at the 20-30somethings with lots of income – you know, us college educated and employed types. In general, we don’t like melodramtic soap operas in space (BSG) and we are still able to come up with our own original thoughts and so dislike bad remakes (FG). Dresden is edgy and interesting. It isn’t going to solve world peace and it isn’t the West Wing, but it was brain food in a world of TV Cheetos. SCI FI has lost me as a viewer because I am sick of all the adolescent male leaning crap they insist on running day in and out. They destroyed SG1 when they cast those dorks from farscape, and assigned the writing to someone’s teenage son, but really, at least SG1 had a good solid run. Now, smart shows don’t even get a chance.

    SO – maybe you say, “that’s ok. SCI FI’s advertisers didn’t want your money anyway.” Good. ‘Cause I am putting my money toward whatever outfit grows a brain and some economic saavy and starts doing something different with TV – and with SCI Fi.:-S

  12. Anonymous // April 5, 2008 at 4:47 pm //

    In general, we don’t like melodramtic soap operas in space (BSG)

    Actually I’ll take that any day over rehashed star trek plots (stargate whatever)

    “advertisers are looking for newer ways to get at the 20-30somethings with lots of income – you know, us college educated and employed types.”

    Actually most of the types of people like things like “battlestar galactica” and “firefly” over the Dresden files and the extra ten seasons of Star trek the next generation Know as “Stargate sg-1”

  13. Chris mankey // April 5, 2008 at 4:48 pm //

    In general, we don’t like melodramtic soap operas in space (BSG)

    Actually I’ll take that any day over rehashed star trek plots (stargate whatever)

    “advertisers are looking for newer ways to get at the 20-30somethings with lots of income – you know, us college educated and employed types.”

    Actually most of the types of people like things like “battlestar galactica” and “firefly” over the Dresden files and the extra ten seasons of Star trek the next generation Know as “Stargate sg-1”

  14. Venus Rises is a cool show but some people forget that its completely volunteer-driven.  I get a little nervous for our indie filmmaker friends  when shows like VR are expected to have production value on par with Sanctuary (all pro actors and post production staff) or NBC’s webisodes. VR is really a fan-film caliber project with an original storyline. 

  15. SF channel is like that nerdy but cute friend you had in HS with whom you shared common interests with…  who turned fat and mainstream in college.

  16. DISCLAIMER-WHAT FOLLOWS IS MY OPINION.

    JEFF ZUCKER AT NBC UNIVERSAL IS THE PROBLEM.

    HE IS CRASHING THE MAIN NBC NETWORK WHILE DEBASING AND DESTROYING THE DISTINCT IDENTITIES OF THE CABLE PROPERTIES.

    HE IS STUCK ON CHEAP REALITY GARBAGE AND JAY LENO.HEY HE SHUNS QUALITY SCRIPTED PROGRAMING AND IN A KILL SHOT OF DESPERATION OR DELLUSION ANNOUNCED THAT LENO WOULD BE TAKING OVER THE 10PM PRIME TIME SPOT M-F IN 2009-2010.

    HIS IDEA OF QUALITY DRAMA IS “DATELINE NBC:TO CATCH A PREDATOR”.

    HE IS TOTALLY OUT OF TOUCH WITH WANT VIEWERS WANT AND IS ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC NETWORK TV FORCES BEHIND THE DUMBING DOWN OF AMERICA.

    THE SCI-FI BRAND AND MANY OTHER CABLE PROPERTIES NEED BOLD NEW LEADERSHIP THAT FOCUSES ON WHY THE BRANDS ARE THERE TO BEGIN WITH AND STOPS ADULTERATING THE BRAND THAT THE CHANNEL IS PURPORTEDLY REPRESENTING ITSELF TO BE.

    THE SCI-FI CHANNEL NEEDS TO LOOK BACK TO THE FUTURE FOR WHAT WORKS.

     

     

  17. david b conway // September 29, 2009 at 3:24 pm //

    dear  sf  signal  ,  hi   my  name   is   david   b   conway   ,   and   i   am   just   writting   to  ask  a   question  for   my  self     just  about  the  past  tv  shows   on  scifi  channel   that  was  canelled   just  from  the  past  off   scifi   channel  ,  just  as  a  long  as  we  have   a   new   channel  now   its   called   syfy   channel  ,   why   do,nt   they  make   there  own   verision  just  off  the   same  tv  series   just  off   same  scifi  classcics   just  for   syfy   channel  ,/   just   remeber   one  thing    right   now  ,  we  do,nt  have  the   scifi  channel  any  more  ,  and    just   let   syfy   just  to   make   there own  verision  just  off   those   same   tv    shows  just  off   same  scifi   classics  ./  love  david   b   conway

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