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!