Why Sci-Fi shows are dying

Last night, the new sci-fi show “V”, had a major dip in the ratings (from 13+ mil in the pilot, to 10.6 mil for the second episode). The only way from here is the bottom, just like any other genre show lately on TV: Dollhouse got canceled today too. FlashForward’s and Heroes’ ratings are a disaster too. Except Lost and BSG, no other genre shows have seen an actual return in their investment in the last few years, and a date for a natural, non-abrupt ending.

So what’s wrong with sci-fi shows? Why are bullshit like NCIS get over 16 million viewers, and genre shows hit rock bottom within few weeks of airing? Here are the reasons why, in my opinion:

1. The writers are buffoons

Except the two main LOST writers, I have been personally disappointed with all other writing teams on TV. None of these people have the vision, drive, and money to create an epic franchise of a show, rather than going to work 9-5, sitting behind a desk, and simply rehash whatever we’ve already seen on TV the last 60 years.

Add to that their scientifically weak plots, which drives the younger generations (who actually gone to college and they know that there’s no sound in space) away. Sci-Fi has to be “hard sci-fi” in this day and age. Having Flash Gordon-type bullshit doesn’t work anymore.

I think that the networks need to employ young writers. Just like Damon Lindelof was inspired by Twin Peaks and brought LOST a step further at 31 years old, the networks should find new writers, who have been inspired from *recent* shows, like LOST, and then try to innovate and bring their own shows one step further.

In other words, sci-fi writing must have innovation in the story telling method and plot, backed with hard sci-fi. And it has to be epic. Complex stories with many characters involved. Small stories about a small group of characters that no one cares about when there are bigger fish to fry (just like in V), just won’t work anymore.

2. Young people don’t watch much TV anymore

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Americans watch more TV than EVER before. Almost 5 hours a day (God help us, although I recently read that Greece is SECOND in that list!!!). But it’s the youngsters, the important 18-49 year old demographic that advertisers are after, that actually watch less. With the booming of the Internet, people spend a lot of their free time browsing (and not necessarily YouTube), rather than watching TV. And it’s that demographic that usually watches sci-fi shows.

3. Money

There’s a reason why LOST was so successful originally. Its 2-episode pilot cost in the excess of $14 mil, more than any other TV show before, or after. But the reality is, to create an epic show, with lots of characters and elaborate sets, you need money. Normal TV shows usually get between $1 and $3 million per episode to shoot, and unless you move to the cheaper Vancouver studios to shoot, or you only get uknown actors, your budget won’t be enough to create a truly great pilot to hook your viewers up. LOST hooked people mostly with its first 4 episodes for example.

4. No space ships

The last “space”-based sci-fi show on network TV was Firefly (BSG was on cable). That was 2003. Since then, we are fed with daytime-like soaps that happen to have sci-fi elements in them (e.g. the terribly dull Dollhouse). That’s just not enough to inspire the sci-fi crowd.

See, science fiction is mostly liked by people who try to look at the big picture, the future. They are idealists, visionaries. Therefore, offering them a soap with some sci-fi elements in it, just won’t work anymore.

5. People aren’t into sci-fi anymore

The truth is that NASA hasn’t exactly inspired people in the last 20 years. Their new spaceships look like ass, and are crammy as hell. All this make people not want to have lots to do with the whole space thing. Laugh it all you want, but it’s a factor. Why do you think Apple is selling like crazy?


William Eggington wrote on November 11th, 2009 at 8:40 PM PST:

Stargate Universe is a space show in space with space ships. But yea. . . its on cable. And its quite bad. 🙁 I think I’m going to give it one more episode and if its as bad as the others have been I’m done.

My rant about it, here.

I guess the days of Babylon 5, Star Trek, Alien Nation, Andromeda etc. Maybe gone for good. 🙁

Michael Reed wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 12:11 AM PST:

I’m half way through season 2 of Jericho. I liked season 1 because I’m a post-apoc nut. Season 2 has taken me by surprise with its ultra low budget approach. It really brought home how much the old show owed to elaborate cinematography, a massive cast and action sequences.

At the end of the day, I’d rather have a cheapy 7 ep closure than nothing though.

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Eugenia wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 12:17 AM PST:

Glad you noticed too. I blogged about Jericho last year when the 2nd season aired, complaining about the terrible look of the show too. I am all for digital footage, but if you don’t know how to use it properly, well, don’t use it…

mikesum32 wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 12:41 AM PST:

I loved Babylon 5 and Alien Nation, but Andromeda, not so much. Dollhouse is mostly about sex slavery and other excuses to get them half-naked. I’d rather have seen another season of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. If at all, I think they should’ve taken this season of Dollhouse and turned it in to one sweeping-13-episode-story-arc. That’d require balls, and a vision of where the show is going. Also, More Alan Turdyk !

l3v1 wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 1:19 AM PST:

“who have been inspired from *recent* shows, like LOST”

Oh no, please no.

On bad days I wish US channels would take into consideration not just the US ratings. A lot of times shows get cancelled that have a large viewer base, a huge part of it being outside of the US. Sometimes when a show begins to get aired abroad, it’s already cancelled in the US.

About writers… I don’t know what to think about them lately. They seem to excel to mess up even those shows which seemed to be fairly nice at the beginning. If they get tired so soon, then hell, invite guest writers, directors, whatever. Maybe they are like one-album pop bands, get together, make an album, get the money then disappear. I don’t know. But I’m a bit tired of shows finishing without ending.

From a different side, taking a look at which shows survive more seasons, one could have some really weird ideas about either the US audience, or the channels’ managements, I don’t know exactly, but wow, some of them are crap.

Rick Starr wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 8:07 AM PST:

Spot on, Eugenia. I would only amplify your point by suggesting that good sci-fi is inconsistent with the cynicism that drives today’s media markets. Complacence is the new integrity (thanks a lot, Bart Simpson), despondency is the new adventure, and voyeurism is the new imagination.

Chris wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 9:47 AM PST:

I was very disappointed by the new V. Probably because I loved the original one, and although there is some decent cast, characters are either terrible (eg. Anna) or way too predictable (eg. the priest, FBI agent). Sarah Connor’s chronicles had the same problem and died fast. SGU is going same way.

I thought Flash-forward had at least a very original storyline. But the development of characters also lack.

Problem is that good show (Firefly) don’t survive. So I am not sure what makes it that SciFi don’t/cannot exist anymore.

To be fair Babylon5 was pretty bad first season, and really become the show I loved with the 2nd season (and change of cast). May be just shows don’t have the time to become good anymore.

Guillaume wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 6:21 PM PST:

A show can be good without registering that many viewers, personnally I really liked these first Stargate Universe episodes… I think the characters are well introduced, they are human and it feels like a good second reality. There is some good intrigues like the weird interferences when they travel through the devices… I also really like this ambiance a la Firefly. But you know, it can’t please everyone.

What is so cool about Lost is the mistery and how it’s brought. The show in itself is not incredible, its not as epic as you seem to think… its just a bunch of guys on an island who are trying to survive while encountering weird phenomenons. This is just about mysteries. If they finally revealed these numerous mysteries I wonder if you would still like this show because as much as they would want people to like their ideas they wouldn’t surprise you, they wouldn’t please you. Because as soon as the thing is revealed you will be disappointed.

Many people I know gave up on Lost because they were tired of all these mysteries and a story that doesn’t evolve fast enough and felt they were being played… TV should not become what music now has become, writers shouldn’t have to worry about pleasing to everyone. Making a simple hit just by putting more characters or presenting big special effects. If you think you know the recipe then send it to them.

Also, about the “there’s no sound in space”… Seriously? Who cares?! Come on!

Like l3v1 said, there is so much good american stuff being cancelled because of this rating system.

Millennium, Dark Angel, Firefly, Tru Calling, Invasion, Mysterious ways just to name a few.

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Eugenia wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 6:33 PM PST:

>its not as epic as you seem to think… its just a bunch of guys on an island

Yes, but that island IS the universe on LOST. Therefore, it is epic.

>Who cares?! Come on!

I do! As I explained above, in this day and age, where most people went to some college, hard science matters.

>If you think you know the recipe then send it to them.

The recipe is linked from the above article.

Liam wrote on November 12th, 2009 at 7:47 PM PST:

I trust you don’t think Lost is hard sci-fi. Assuming you don’t, I can’t think of any sci-fi show that has been hard sci-fi. Also, look at the audience. Comics sell very well, along with the movies, and most of those are very far from hard sci-fi. Smallville has been on air around 8 years and, again, not hard sci-fi. So, hard sci-fi isn’t necessarily the way to go. However, intelligent writing is always necessary but not always sufficient(see Dollhouse or Firefly).
Basically I think nearly all (excepting the writers issue and great pilot) of your points are invalid. Though they certainly have elements of truth, I think the reasons for the failure is mainly none of the sci-fi shows I’ve seen recently(SG:U is the exception with its BSG style but my hopes have been dashed as it has rapidly returned to its Stargate roots) begin very strongly. Lost set the bar for recent shows, IMHO, but you can’t have something like Dollhouse where it takes a person more than a season before they actually get interested in the show (speaking for myself). If the show hadn’t been by Whedon (who always makes shows/movies I like, though his comics are very “meh”) I would’ve dropped it after only a few episodes. Only for the last few episodes has the show finally found its voice, IMO, and gotten to the point where I actually look forward to it.


Emi wrote on November 13th, 2009 at 8:01 PM PST:

I have to say, I think the problem has more to do with the impatience of TV Execs. Epic shows, whatever the genre, take time for people to connect with them. TV Execs want immediate results to justify huge budgets.

Also, the current ratings system still doesn’t accurately reflect the way people watch television programming now. Nielsen is trying to adapt by reporting statistics for shows being recorded on DVR. Time-/place-/format-shifting is really common, especially among the younger demographics, and TV Execs and advertisers still don’t really know how to capitalize on it.

Addressing your points, first, show after show has shown that good writing doesn’t really correlate with popularity. We can point to Lost, which I agree is a great show with good writing. But, conversely, you can point to well-written and engaging shows that have done very poorly – the mascot for which is Firefly (I <3 Nathan Fillion!). Your point about a lot of sci-fi television writing being space soap operas (a.k.a. "space operas";)) is accurate. But, again, look at how popular soap operas are, even primetime has become riddled with them.

Your second point is accurate. That's something that is true for TV as a whole and really has nothing to do with the genre.

To your third point, well, to be honest, I'm not really sure that Lost by itself is enough to really show a correlation between spend more $ = be more popular! I'd be interested to see some real stats for that. However, I would actually think with the continual improvement and price-reduction of CG, you can actually do a lot more with less on genre shows.

Fourth, sorry, I can't help but correct you, the last network "space" show was the recent "Defying Gravity" on ABC (unfortunately, very soap-opera-in-space). What, you didn't catch it? What a shock! </sarcasm>

Fifth, well, clearly from your post, you're really talking about hard sci-fi. Obviously, the space race drove a lot of interest in space and space exploration and science fiction as a result. That is long over, but to attack NASA for that is a bit harsh, don't you think? They are doing a lot with a little. (I think) Unfortunately, space exploration is not a priority in the US budget anymore, yet NASA is developing and just tested a new rocket to replace the very outdated space shuttle. They’re developing ion drives to speed up transit time to Mars. They’re BLOWING UP the friggin’ MOON. How cool is that? Okay, my NASA is still cool rant is over now.

(Wow, this post is long, I apologize to anyone still reading. 🙂 )

However, I think there is still a lot of interest in sci-fi as a genre, just not necessarily “hard” sci-fi. Personally, as a college-educated young person who is a big fan of the genre, I find a lot of hard sci-fi inaccessible. I much prefer character and story driven sci-fi over tech or science driven sci-fi. This is one reason I really like Lost, it’s very character-driven. I also really enjoy Dollhouse, and SGU is the only Stargate series I’ve had any interest in at all.

liptich wrote on November 14th, 2009 at 6:20 AM PST:

“LOST hooked people mostly with its first 4 episodes for example.”
That has been my analysis too, I didn’t know about the insane budget they put into the first two episodes.
I am also saddened by the quality of the scifi shows so far, and still can’t get NCIS audience numbers !!


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Eugenia wrote on November 14th, 2009 at 6:25 PM PST:

>the last network “space” show was the recent “Defying Gravity” on ABC (unfortunately, very soap-opera-in-space). What, you didn’t catch it? What a shock!

I actually did. It sucked. I tweeted about it a few times on Twitter.

ojimenez wrote on November 15th, 2009 at 10:58 AM PST:

I haven’t watched TV regularly, in nearly 5 years. (no elitist reason) When I do, I often peek over my wife’s shoulder at some of the shows she pre-records. One of those is LOST, and I’m basically, LOST, when I see the one or two episodes. She thinks is one of the smartest shows around, and she’s a good judge of these things.

When I watch it, I cannot help but think “yuck” if this is smart, I’m really glad I don’t torture myself by sitting in front of the flat-screen. The other few shows, which I barely stand, and shall remain nameless, so as to not bring the wrath of cult followers, have dialogue for five-year-olds, characters are as flat as the screen of the television, and plots so predictable my five-year-old could write them (oh yeah she’s their target audience, I think)

My biggest pet peeve is when the character’s dialogue is written to explain things to the viewer: ” yeah, and you know nursery rhymes dealt with death, like ring-around-the-rosy was actually blha-blah blah …” good grief! My feeling is that whomever is producing this rubish is using focus groups and polls to determine what will appeal to the “average viewer” and will not piss off their politicaly correct-average sponsor”…. *double yuck*

The world is stuck in Plato’s “second life” and entertainment is no longer a past-time but THE reason for living, it seems. I can’t offer any alternatives,like Melville said: “Go mad I cannot: I maintain The perilous outpost of the sane.”

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Eugenia wrote on November 15th, 2009 at 10:08 PM PST:

LOST is not meant to be viewed “here and there”. You will have to watch ALL episodes, in ORDER. Otherwise, of course and you will be lost. It’s a complex show.

ojimenez wrote on November 16th, 2009 at 2:18 PM PST:

The cover of the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine:
“How TV Can Still Save the World” with the famous image of a child in front of a snowy TV screen (Poltergeist.) The world’s most popular TV shows after surveying 66 countries with 1.6 billion viewers between them-from Australia to Japan, Latvia to Venezuela–Eurodata TV Worldwide named the winners for the world’s most-watched shows of 2008.

What does the world watch?

Category: DRAMA
Winner: House 81.8 million viewers worldwide
Runners up: CSI Miami and CSI Vegas

Category: COMEDY
Winner: Desperate Housewives 56.3 million viewers
Runners-up: Monk and Ugly Betty

Category: SOAP OPERA
Winner: The Bold and the Beautiful 24.5 million viewers
Runnners-up: Marina and The Yound and the Restless.

“In the future, the world will be wathing 24 billion hours of TV a day.”

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