May 5, 2010

What's Wrong with Network Science Fiction

Entertainment Weekly posted an article about the dip in ratings for shows like 'V', 'FlashForward', and 'Lost', which are all ostensibly science fiction shows. Why are these shows struggling? Here are some possibilities:

1) The shows kind of suck: What happens too often is that the whole of a genre is judged based on a few examples. The failure of Harper's Island more or less killed the horror tv subgenre for major networks. It says nothing about horror shows in general, just Harper's Island. TV Execs are reticent to flood the market with a single type of show if the flagship show doesn't work.

However, maybe it should be acknowledged that Lost isn't at the top of its game right now and V and FlashForward weren't really that good to begin with. It doesn't say that people don't like science fiction; it just says that maybe people don't like these science fictions shows. The ratings for both V and FlashForward plummeted after the first episodes, so maybe it's just not their bowl of grits. I personally like both shows (somewhat), but I can see why the general public may not be interested in them.

2) They don't account for the average tv watcher: This point has the potential of condescending to 'the masses', but the shows are kind of complicated and geeky in their lore. Lost may have alienated casual fans because of how different and complicated it is from the first season. They tune in and go, "What the hell's happening?" and then turn it on. It's not a show you can pick up in the sixth season, and, perhaps, it's not a show that people can keep up with after a hiatus. It's challenging to remember all of the details of the show, so I'm sure plenty of people have turned it off.

Additionally, and this may be a subset of 2), there are a lot of characters. It's difficult to pick up on shows that have so many different mutual story lines and situations.

3) The scheduling is messed up: After watching four episodes of the new shows, I wanted more! Four test shows with a hiatus wasn't enough to keep me interested, and now I'm feeling sluggish about getting back into them. That's probably my single biggest complaint. Had they produced more episodes and played them in a row, I would have felt more satisfied. But because they snapped the shows off - at critical moments, no less - people more or less lost interest.

4) Too much separates the shows: This may be a vastly idiosyncratic point, but I'm gonna make it anyway. V and Lost are completely, utterly different shows, and to lump them together is a mistake. Plenty of people who watch Lost are just fans of Lost, not science fiction as a whole. Assuming that viewers will carry over from one show to the other is problematic, to say the least. TV viewers are accustomed to (and sometimes request) samey shows, like all of the cop and crime dramas that permeate all networks at the moment. There are much smaller gaps between them than Lost, V, FlashForward, and Fringe. The spectrum of science fiction falls under a wide umbrella, so there will be disparities in the shows.

5) Maybe Lost was a fluke: Or, maybe Lost is the token science fiction show. Perhaps people can stomach one or two really popular science fiction shows at a time. The X-Files were really popular a decade ago, but (a) the show was really very good and (b) it was one of the only popular science fiction shows of the time period. It's only a hypothesis, but it can't be that far off the mark. And, the longer the show runs, the more Lost has upped the ante on the suspension of disbelief. The first season had a few mysterious things, but it was more character- than plot-driven. For the past two seasons, the show has been barreling along at such a pace as to undermine the personal element somewhat. So maybe people are less interested in the story of the survivors of Oceanic 815 than the people.

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