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Science Fiction Delivers Mainstream Hits

10/24/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

The science-fiction and fantasy genre has nearly vanished from the lowest channel positions. The WB’s (and later UPN’s) Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Fox’s The X-Files capped a generation and, in spite of a committed rescue effort, UPN’s moribund Enterprise is shedding viewers.

Even in the best of times, broadcast networks never exactly embraced the genre. The rocky relationship dates back to 1968, when NBC banished Star Trek to the graveyard slot of Fridays at 10 p.m.

Fridays are traditionally light on viewers in the younger demographics — Star Trek’s core audience.

The time shift alienated creator Gene Roddenberry and proved to be the coup de grace for the series on the Peacock Network.

More recently, in 1994, NBC ditched seaQuest DSV’s science-fact premise and turned the show into an underwater, fire-breathing worm-of-the-week adventure, prompting exasperated viewers to dub it “Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel.”

TOO GEEKY

Hollywood has often deemed the science-fiction genre as too geeky, too technology-heavy and too much of a niche to work for broadcast television.

So forgive those Sci Fi fans — who tend to hold grudges and have memories like elephants — who were shocked to hear that NBC may replay the Battlestar Galactica miniseries as part of a cross-platform scheme to stir up interest in the series, set for a January launch on Sci Fi.

But NBC Universal is clearly reading the tea leaves. This summer, the genre sizzled on cable, siphoning viewers from broadcast networks like that planet-munching maw on the original Star Trek. For instance:

  • Season eight of Sci Fi’s Stargate SG-1 averaged a 2.0 rating, up 38% in viewers in the third quarter versus a year ago, even against Olympic competition.

  • Stargate: Atlantis’s premiere season averaged a 2.3 household rating (3 million viewers), to become Sci Fi’s highest-rated series ever.

  • The premiere of USA Network’s alien-abduction series The 4400 was basic cable’s highest-rated and most-watched debut ever, drawing 7.4 million viewers. Last week, USA ordered 13 more episodes.

  • Winking at research-department hair-splitting, Turner Network Television’s Salem’s Lot was ad-supported cable’s No. 1 movie for the year to date (5,944,000 viewers).

  • Court TV’s Psychic Detectives opened against Law & Order and CSI: New York, and the network improved 12% in households. The 11 p.m. special Psych Out With Nancy Grace doubled the audience versus the year-ago time period (up 171%).

  • Sci Fi’s “Saturday Action Movies” — campy flicks with titles like Frankenfish and Snakehead Terror — added 35% more viewers year-over-year during the third quarter.

  • USA Network’s Dead Zone jumped 22% in households year-over-year in the third quarter.

  • And Showtime’s Dead Like Me is generating ratings three times the network’s primetime average.

Strike the word “niche” from cable’s sci-fi glossary: Hollywood’s best and brightest have invaded the space, and the medium now spins the genre for broader appeal.

ANGRY LIKE SHE

Showtime’s Dead Like Me is part of a new breed of programs featuring confused or angry young women whose lives are overtaken by otherworldly forces, a concept also executed by Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls.

Plumbers moonlight as ghostbusters in Sci Fi’s new reality series Ghosthunters, from the creator of American Chopper. The show premiered to a 1.4 rating — it was Sci Fi’s most-watched Wednesday night program since January 2003. (The team may have to find a new cameraman, though: he got scared and quit after the hunters stumbled upon a real ghost.)

Court TV’s Psychic Detectives spotlights mediums who tackle real crimes, melding procedural crime drama with mysticism.

Network president Art Bell deliberately programs Detectives in the half-hour before CBS’s CSI: New York to encourage procedural enthusiasts to think of the two shows as a block.

The upcoming third season of Project Greenlight on Bravo develops Feast, a theatrical produced by Wes Craven. Logline: “Cannibalistic creatures inhabit a remote bar.”

This month, Hallmark Channel and USA aired competing revisions of Frankenstein. And Sci Fi’s epic Lord of the Rings-like fantasy Earthsea and TNT’s The Librarian debut in December.

The genre has gone upscale. Event originals (films and limited series) are now brought to the small screen by A-list theatrical producers who appreciate cable’s creative freedom and shorter development cycle.

Marquee names include Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael de Luca and Dean Devlin.

Concepts and budgets are big, involving international location shoots, sophisticated special effects and extravagant sets.

Thematically, the genre tends to be more upbeat in tone, paradoxically escapist but grounded in real time and place.

TWO FOR FAMILIES

There are early indications that the science-fiction tent is expanding even beyond the adult demographics. Both Earthsea and The Librarian aim to attract a family audience — a first for Sci Fi.

The Librarian is an example of how the genre is packaged for cable.

Produced by Devlin’s Electric Entertainment (Independence Day), the production is a Raiders of the Lost Ark/The Mummy-like tale about a librarian’s quest to recover a power-infused relic after it is filched from the repository of humanity’s deepest secrets.

Turner Network Television vice president of original programming Michael Wright said the film is “a great big epic adventure told with a smile on its face.”

Although Wright rarely talks budgets, it’s clear the channel ponied up in this instance. Half of the production was filmed on location in the jungles of Mexico, the rest on Los Angeles sound stages, where Devlin constructed his sets.

“I’ve only had one or two experiences where someone built such elaborate sets,” said Wright.

Still, Wright admitted it was the nerdish hero, played by ER’s Noah Wyle, that endeared him to the project.

“Dean can craft protagonists that are super-relatable and he puts them in this larger than life, 'Gosh what if this happened to me?’ fantasy,” said Wright. “I love that kind of storytelling.”

WORKS AS 'DRAMA’

Wright acknowledged that TNT is identified with Westerns, but noted the science-fiction genre is now one of four or five that fits “comfortably within the drama brand.”

The key in every case — Salem’s Lot, Witchblade, Call Me Claus — is to tell stories with [genre] elements that remain rooted in the contemporary world and real human behavior,” he said.

The Librarian might push the genre’s envelope. “Dean’s stated goal was to make a movie where people go, 'How’d they do that for TV?’ ” he said.

Where TNT made its mark with the Western, Sci Fi Channel set the standard for small-screen science fiction, culminating in Taken’s Emmy win. Bonnie Hammer, now President of Sci Fi and USA, presided over the renaissance and many of the aforementioned A-listers roam the corridors of Sci Fi Channel.

In 1998, then-boss Barry Diller directed Hammer to “unlock the value” of Sci Fi, which aired [cleverly packaged] off-network reruns.

The network was languishing, ranking No. 17 in the critical 18-49 demo.

Hammer’s challenge: Take a network encumbered by what she calls a “geeky, techy, boy” reputation and shape it into a general-entertainment channel while staying true to the genre.

Hammer set out to shift the perception that science fiction is only about what she terms “technology, space, and aliens set in dark, gothic environments.” Her goal was to ground genre in 'today, rather than many years in the future” — and also to “have some fun with it.”

Hammer particularly wanted to alter the notion that the genre is “just for boys.” The channel’s research shows almost as many women as men love science fiction.

“It’s a definition problem,” said Hammer. “Ask people if they like science fiction and 80% say no. But if you ask instead, 'Did you like Lord of the Rings or The Matrix or Harry Potter?’ they say, 'I love it!’ ”

Hammer’s motto: Don’t go too dark. “Taken was inspirational,” she said. “It was about hope. The best science fiction isn’t apocalyptic.”

The Sci Fi chief dabbled in originals by acquiring Sliders and a British Broadcasting Corp. miniseries called Invasion Earth, then soared with Dune and Taken.

The channel’s current programming slate is very rich, including Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1 and miniseries Earthsea and Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, as well as some younger-skewing reality series.

Currently, the channel ranks No. 9 in persons 18 to 49, is 10th among females 25 to 54 (the demographic that controls household expenditures) and has added 132% more viewers overall since 1998.

When asked to comment on why the genre is all the rage, Wright, Hammer and Bell mirror each other’s sentiments.

Bell said interest in the paranormal is “profound.”

“People want to believe in something other than what science tells us is there. We’re the investigation network. We have psychics demonstrating they know something because they’re helping to solve the case.”

Wright also acknowledged these times are complicated. “It’s wonderful to take an audience to a cool place for a couple of hours.

“There’s a part in all of us that wants to believe there’s this other, fantastical world out there. If only we could go down that elevator in the library and see the secret room.”

September