You'd think that would be common sense but, apparently it's not. Case in point — today an Entertainment Weekly article questioned why so many science fiction shows this season are tanking while audiences are still flocking to science fiction movies:
Two weeks ago, Fox aired what was probably the final episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a pretty solid sci-fi show which nevertheless suffered from guttery ratings. Two weeks from now, Terminator Salvation will premiere in theaters — where it will likely make somewhere in the vicinity of $90 million in its first weekend, regardless of how "good" it is. Two separate extentions of the same franchise: one will be labeled a failure, the other a ginormous hit. Why?
Why don't we want science fiction on television anymore?
I think that the EW article is based on a faulty premise. People do watch science fiction TV shows…when they don't suck (good stuff like THE X-FILES, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, the first season of HEROES, etc).
Unfortunately, most of them suck.
People didn't reject TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES because it was science fiction…they stopped watching because it was lousy
(and I say that as a guy who, inexplicably, didn't miss an episode). People turned away from HEROES for the same reason. The bottom line for science fiction shows is the same as it is for all shows in any genre: they gotta be good or they'll die.
That said, science fiction is a niche genre that has always appealed to a limited number of viewers…perhaps enough eyeballs to make a movie a hit but not enough to sustain a weekly TV show (which is why the SciFi network is so eager to broaden their brand and shed the "scifi" label).
The other reason that science fiction TV shows haven't worked is that they are inordinately expensive to produce…which means they need to quickly and consistently draw a large audience to justify the expense/continued production. Most shows, sci-fi or not, have a hard time drawing viewers. But the networks understandably don't have the same patience with an expensive show as they do with inexpensive one.
So no, it's not science fiction shows that audiences are rejecting…it's poor writing, or a lousy premise/franchise, or bad acting, or the promotion was so weak, nobody ever noticed the show was on the air…or it's a lethal combination of all those elements.
As far as movies go, there is also the event/spectacle factor. A 100-minute movie like TERMINATOR: SALVATION costs as much to produce as 44 episodes of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. Of course the movie is going to be more awesome. Plus, you're only asking the viewer to make a two-hour committment rather than a 44-hour one. It has nothing to do with science fiction as a genre and everything to do with a dozen other factors.
In other words, EW was asking the wrong question. What they should have been asking is "Why is science fiction TV so bad lately?"
That would be a better question, but not a fair one, because I think science fiction is thriving on TV as never before. STARGATE just ended it's eight (or was it nine?) year run. It's spin-off ATLANTIS is also ending a long run (five years?). BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, which only ended a few weeks ago, may have been one of the best, and most-acclaimed science fiction TV series ever on television…and it gave SciFi Channel the respect it has sought for so long (which is ironic, considering they are changing their name with the premiere of the BSG spin-off CAPRICA). FRINGE is doing great. And if you throw fantasy/horror into the mix, it looks even better (SUPERNATURAL, MEDIUM, TRUE BLOOD, GHOST WHISPERER, etc).
So no, this is not a bad time for science fiction. It's a bad time for shows that suck…or that were once good and have slipped…or ill-conceived shows that take too much time finding their creative footing.