So, that happened. V wasn't renewed. No Ordinary Family wasn't renewed. Caprica was cancelled. Stargate Universe was cancelled and now there's no Stargate show or movie in development. Smallville ended. Of those, only Smallville lasted more than two seasons. Syfy, formerly (but no longer) known as The Sci-Fi Channel, has one sci-fi show on air and one in production. I look at the list of sci-fi shows I'm following and I see two titles: Doctor Who, which is alive and well but produced by the BBC, which works based on a very different set of rules, and Pioneer One, a show for which the word “independent” would be an excessively modest description. Oh yeah, and let's not forget Star Trek: Phase II.
Was “the new age of sci-fi” just a fad, and already over?
I don't think so. But still, the times immediately ahead might be grim.
As I see it, V, Caprica and SGU all suffered “Firefly cancellations”. The shows had a fanbase and a following, and (I'm not sure about Caprica, but certainly for the other two) large enough to maintain the show. The flaw was in the business model.
The thing is, network TV shows are funded by advertisement. And advertisers pay based on Nielsen viewing figures. If I understand it correctly, based on a recent post by a SyFy executive, they specifically buy based on the 18-49 segment of the “L+7” figures, which means the people aged 18 to 49 who have either watched it live or via some sort of tracked DVR in the next 7 days. (I wonder what sorts of DVR are tracked. Tivo?)
There's a number of problems with that, because the prime sci-fi target audience is in some ways ahead of the curve of time:
It should also be pointed out that geeks, and again especially sci-fi geeks, have (on average) more disposable income than many other audiences; further, we're more passionate about what we like (that's a core part of the definition of geek), and we're famously willing to spend that income on those passions. If you take too long to sell your show on DVD, by the time we buy it, we'll already have action figures, pins, t-shirts, and a coffee mug to keep the box company.
Why is Doctor Who doing so well? Partially, because what decides its success are the UK figures, and the show is hugely popular over there, even with non-geeks. Partially because it's actually not doing that well, and based on sheer L+7 percentage versus production cost, it could be facing cancellation if it was an U.S. show; but it's made by the BBC (and more precisely by BBC Wales), and it doesn't hinge on advertisement to continue existing; the majority of BBC budgets come from the TV licenses, and while spending from that is still to a great extent a function of figures, popularity also counts a lot. And it does quite well with merchandise, in fact it was a profitable business even when the show was not airing (from '89 to 2005).
Serialised live-action sci-fi wasn't born on TV. The form was born, along with live-action sci-fi as a whole, in the age of film serials, more precisely with the Flash Gordon serial in 1936. Before TV became a common thing, sci-fi film serials were hugely popular, and in fact Star Wars was conceived as a homage to those (just as Indiana Jones was a tribute to the other big film serial genre, the pulp-based adventure). And Star Wars was the beginning of the modern sci-fi blockbuster, so there's definitely a pedigree there.
(And why do I emphasise “live-action”? Because sci-fi proper started as a serial. Jules Verne wrote in the age of serial novels, that would be published in a bi-weekly magazine. H.G. Wells wrote serials too. Then along came comic books, which are serial by nature. And of course let's not forget animation, especially anime. Serialisation and sci-fi have a long history.)
But my point was, the transition from film serial to TV wasn't smooth. Again, Flash Gordon (54) was a big part of it, but most agree the turning point where TV sci-fi found its footing was the “holy triad” of adult shows — Science Fiction Theatre (55-57), The Twilight Zone (59-64) and The Outer Limits (63-65). Then came the popular, all-audience shows, like Lost in Space and, of course, Trek. We tend to forget how rough that transition was because it happened long ago, and not that far after the beginning of the film serial era (compare 36 to 59, against 59 to, optimistically, 2010). But it was rough. And one of the reasons it was rough is that the business model was different; film serials were funded by ticket sales, TV shows by advertisement. The advertisement model wasn't new, radio serials had been doing that for a while, but adapting it at the same time to a new medium and to the very specific characteristics of the sci-fi audience, wasn't trivial.
And this is what I think we're looking at. It's time for a change of business model. And I don't think the big studios are likely to lead that, because they're tied to their ways and their existing contracts (just like the film serial studios didn't rush to make TV shows in the 50s).
Maybe it's time for us to start producing our own series. Maybe in 20 years we'll look back and point to Pioneer One and Star Trek: Phase II as the beginning of this third era of serial live-action sci-fi.
Disclaimer: I am in fact producing one. Read that as you like: shameless self-promotion, putting my money where my mouth is, knowing what I'm talking about, having an agenda, maybe even this post being the reasoning behind the project, or a combination of all these.