Costs keep sci-fi TV in realm of fantasy

Reality shows beat genre programming on networks facing profits pressure


March 14, 2004|By Maureen Ryan | Maureen Ryan,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The Lord of the Rings collected an awe-inspiring 11 Oscars, and its best-picture win was a first for a fantasy film.

But fans of fantasy, horror and science-fiction entertainment can't count on the critical success of Rings - and its box-office records - to sweep their favorite genre from the multiplex to the TV schedule.

The truth is stranger - and stronger - than fantasy: Market forces have a stranglehold on even the smaller networks and cable channels that used to nurture genre TV.

"I do think it's harder for science fiction and genre shows to make it than it has been in the past. It's harder for them to find their place," says Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN.

Witness: The vampire series Angel, a highly regarded spinoff from the cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was recently canceled by the WB. Fox's undead drama, Tru Calling, is in true jeopardy. Even the future of the futuristic genre stalwart Star Trek: Enterprise is in danger.

But the biggest indignity may have been suffered by Jake 2.0, the sci-fi flavored saga of a computer nerd-turned-superhero.

UPN recently aired a repeat episode of its reality show, America's Next Top Model, in Jake's time slot. The would-be cover girls' rerun beat the mutant computer nerd's usual ratings. The upshot: Jake is "on hiatus."

Reality is cheap

Veteran television producers and executives point to a variety of causes for the downward trend in genre TV:

Reality TV is crowding out scripted programming of all kinds.

"Reality programming is cheap to produce and has caught on with the public, and scripted drama is getting squeezed," says Paul Attanasio, the veteran Homicide writer/producer, whose Century City, a legal drama set in the year 2030, makes its premiere on CBS Tuesday. "There's no doubt that the universe for scripted drama has contracted."

Reality generally costs less to produce, and it often snags a younger demographic.

"It's absolutely cheaper," Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer says of the network's reality programming, which includes the hidden-camera show Scare Tactics and Mad Mad House. "But it's not so much about the money," Hammer adds. "The traditional [sci-fi] dramas bring in older audiences, the 24-49 [year-old] demographic. The advertisers want the 18-34-year-old demo - they're trying to sell to a younger audience."

Networks are under unprecedented pressure from their corporate owners to make serious profits.

"The bean counters are more in control than they ever were before," says Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, UPN's The Twilight Zone and USA Network's coming alien-abductee mini-series, The 4400. "It's not just what's on screen that's hurt [by small budgets], it's how many staff people you can hire, how many writers you can hire, which I think is a very bad trend."

Interference from network executives is at an all-time high, according to several veteran producers.

"The problem, in a nutshell, is the more hands-on involvement of network and studio executives, focus groups and creative committees in the process," J. Michael Straczynksi, executive producer of Babylon 5 and Showtime's post-apocalyptic Jeremiah, said via e-mail.

The networks' desire to follow established, successful formulas collides with the nature of science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV, which, at its best, breaks the rules.

"We're faced with two very large, looming presences on TV now, which are reality and the `procedurals,' such as CSI or Law & Order, Behr says. "To do genre television, it takes ... imagination. The more chefs you have in the kitchen, the more difficult it becomes to get any kind of vision on the screen."

"The genre audience isn't tuning in to see if the cops catch whoever murdered somebody this week," Moore says. "They're tuning in to lose themselves in a different world."

Genre TV, Behr adds, often "needs time to get the audience behind it and get comfortable with it. And time is just what they don't want to give shows these days."

David Greenwalt, who co-created Angel with Joss Whedon, saw his supernatural drama Miracles canceled by ABC last year and Jake 2.0 put on hiatus by UPN this year. He doesn't sound optimistic about the future of scripted television.

"When you've got a show like America's Top Model that costs a 10th tenth of what Jake does and scores better with a rerun, we're [expletive]," Greenwalt told the wire service Zap2It in January.

Long live King's show

Still, it's not a total horror show for genre TV. ABC is taking a cautious chance on the form with the 13-part weekly drama Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital, which premiered earlier this month. The horror-hospital tale is based on a 10-year-old Danish mini-series by director Lars von Trier - but ABC probably would not have developed the project without the involvement of a marquee name such as King's, an author with a huge, devoted following.

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