Sci-fi – Why doesn’t it work on TV?

27 05 2011

Last week, I read the sad news that ABC was canceling “V” after its second season and NBC had decided to not renew “The Event” for a second season. Neither piece of news was super surprising, given the dwindling ratings both shows had experienced after strong starts. Also last week, as networks announced their new shows for the fall season, several much-hyped sci-fi or superhero shows failed to get picked up. The revamped “Wonder Woman” and “17th Precinct” by “Battlestar Galactica” creator Ron Moore were both passed over by NBC. With “Smallville” coming to an end after 10 seasons, the sci-fi/superhero prospects for next season don’t look very good.

Do all these things point to the death of sci-fi and superhero shows on TV?  I almost hope that it does. As a huge sci-fi fan, that is very hard for me to say. However, it is very frustrating to repeatedly get invested in a new show, only to see the rug pulled out after one or two seasons by the network. Thanks to the cancellation of these shows, we’ll never know what “The Event” really was or if the humans would be able to fight off the evil aliens with the help of Marc Singer. Even the network that is supposed to be all about science fiction (SyFy) doesn’t give its shows enough time to grow and build an audience. “Stargate Universe” ended recently after its second season with the crew in stasis for the next 3 years on a course for a new galaxy.

I almost wish they would never launch these shows if they aren’t going to give them time to tell a complete story. I hate being left hanging. That’s why even if I start reading a book or watching a movie and it’s not very good, there still is part of me that wants to find out how it ends. So if I feel that way about a story I don’t really enjoy, imagine how disappointed I am at not being able to find out how a  story ends that I really like. I guess I like closure. I think I need to go into therapy to deal with my issues of being abandoned by my favorite TV shows.

It’s nothing new. Very few sci-fi shows have had a long shelf life. Last year, the much-hyped “FlashForward” ended after one season. The “Galactica” prequel “Caprica” lasted only one season. “Dollhouse” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” each lasted two seasons. And these are just the recent examples. The last 50 years of TV history have seen many sci-fi shows filling the annals of short-lived shows. For example, the original “Star Trek” series only lasted 3 seasons.

Why is it that sci-fi movies and sci-fi books can have such a huge following, but sci-fi TV shows always seem to wilt on the vine? I think the reasons are much the same reason many other serial shows have failed.

1) People have short attention spans and want instant gratification, especially when watching TV. It’s called the Boob Tube for a reason. When we’re watching TV, we don’t want to have to think too hard or pay too much attention. That’s why reality shows are so popular. “American Idol,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “The Real Housewives of New York” and “Survivor” all have one thing in common: they are shows we can watch without really having to engage our brains.

2) Sci-fi and superhero movies usually have big budgets with explosive special effects and stunning visuals, while the story is secondary. People will plop themselves down in a comfy seat for 2 hours and escape from reality for awhile. Most TV shows can’t match the special effects seen in their movie counterpats due to budgets.

3) People are too busy to plan for watching a TV show every week. Even with Tivo and other DVRs, people just don’t have the time to invest in a show with an ongoing storyline that may run for seasons.  That’s why the top shows are the police procedurals and sitcoms. These types of shows usually have stories that are wrapped up within one episode, so if you miss an episode, you don’t feel lost.  Most sci-fi shows have an ongoing storyline, often steeped in a mythology and backstory that may leave casual fans feeling left out. Just look at “The X-Files” or “Lost.” 

Whatever the reasons for sci-fi shows’ failure, I hope either networks will totally abandon sci-fi/superhero shows or take a more long-term approach to the shows and let them tell their stories and build a fanbase. Since I’m doubting the latter will happen, I will just have to hope for the former. So long sci-fi TV. It was fun while it lasted.

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2 responses

27 05 2011
Paula Shene

Your number three comment is what keeps me away from most shows including scifi – but what I do like is that most of the shows popular or not eventually go to dvd and I get whole seasons at once and indulge in a glut feast.

27 05 2011
tbusbey

Paula, that is the best way to watch those shows. We do that a lot with shows, too. It can be hard to follow them through the course of a season with all the gaps between new episodes or if you miss a week or the kids or talking to you while the show is on. Much more fun to watch a whole season in one weekend.

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