People Don’t Watch Shows That Suck

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.

20 thoughts on “People Don’t Watch Shows That Suck”

  1. Good points all around.
    Heroes grew boring during the second year. I stopped watching.
    I embraced Sara Connor the first season and was looking forward to two. My DVR was set to automatically record first run episodes. Inexplicably, though, I let ten or so pile up before I watched any of them. Halfway through that group, I just gave up and erased the rest.
    I never warmed to SG: Atlantis and the last few years of SG1 paled compared to Showtime’s run of the show.
    The last two Star Treks were horribly written(to be fair, the last season of Enterprise seemed on the right track; too late though).
    SF, more than any other genre, needs well written stories.

  2. well argued, sir. though the one quibble I might have with your thesis is this: shows that DO suck are hits all the time, just as shows that are great often get cut down in their infancy. Sure, it helps when a show is good, or even great, but quality is never the arbiter of success that it should be, nor is it the chief reason why people tune in.
    I have no idea, for example, why people keep watching “CSI: Miami” — aside from gazing at the Carusobot’s desperate attempts at mimicing humanity — but they do. “According to Jim” hit 100 episodes. “American Idol” may be the worst produced show currently on television. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
    People will watch what they want to watch. But now, they don’t seem to want to watch sci-fi.

  3. Marc,
    I would argue that CSI MIAMI was a very good show for a long time…before Caruso morphed into a satire of himself….and it continues to do well now because it has become a habit for the viewers. Comfort food, so to speak. CSI isn’t as good as it once was either (though, speaking of long-running franchises, I think LAW & ORDER has had a creative resurgence)
    I’m not a fan of AMERICAN IDOL but I’m not sure why you call it “the worst produced show currently on television.” It may not be my taste, but AI seems very slickly and shrewdly produced to me.

  4. FIREFLY was a lousy, ill-conceived show that people didn’t want to watch.
    Yes, the diehard Whedonistas flocked to it on DVD…but there weren’t enough of them to either keep a TV series going or to make a movie profitable.

  5. About FIREFLY, I’d add that a lot of viewers, myself included, were more intrigued by the possibilities of the series than what we actually got in that set of episodes. I liked the idea of a space western with some weird eastern flair (though in fairness, I was primed pretty well by the excellent and successful OUTLAW STAR cartoon series, which FIREFLY swiped a lot of its oeuvre from, as well as similar fare like BLAKE’S SEVEN and COWBOY BEBOP), and I thought a lot of the characters and situations were intriguing as well.
    Of course, contrast that with some hilariously awful dialogue, hit-or-miss acting, accents that fade in and out, cheap sets, and costumes patched together from the old STARSHIP TROOPERS wardrobe, and, well… I wasn’t particularly surprised that the movie was a flop. If they’d wanted to keep going, cheaper DTV movies probably would’ve done much better.

  6. It seems that people can’t even agree on what is a good show vs. a bad show, regardless of the genre. Personally, I think that viewers that take enough time with a show to begin to identify with the actors or personalities they see week after week, develop a “relationship” with those characters. That relationship creates a loyalty to it. Viewers identify with those characters who come into their homes week after week. The relationship is a pseudo-friendship that establishes a fierce loyalty among viewers who go to great lengths to try to save those shows when they are canceled. Writing, marketing and acting (good or poor) have very little to do with it.

  7. I think you’re absolutely right, Patricia, about the relationships viewers form with television characters and the powerful bond that it creates…which translates into viewer loyalty and a successful series. But I would argue that without strong writing the viewers wouldn’t have those great characters to bond with. Characters are a product of what they say and do…and if what they say and do isn’t compelling, entertaining, funny, touching, believable etc, the viewers won’t relate to them. And it’s the “franchise” (ie concept) of the show and the writing that is the basis of all those things to happen. Obviously, the actors have a great deal to do with whether the characters appeal to viewers…but performance and personal charisma can only go so far if the script stinks and the series concept isn’t interesting. Viewers won’t take the time to get to know the characters… to invest in them…if they don’t like the concept of the show and the characters don’t appeal to them.

  8. Depending on the argument of the moment, a lot of people claim that popular shows are either always good shows or always bad shows. The truth is, it doesn’t seem to have much correlation. Part of it is personal taste, of course. But we can find universally reviled shows that were major hits for a long time, as well as beautifully produced gems that ran for 6 episodes.
    I agree that connection to the characters or the situation seems more significant to a show’s success than consistent writing or acting does. Lee could tell us, but does that fact make it harder to push for a high-quality show? Do studios ignore chances to improve shows, pointing out that a lousy show has as much of a chance of being a hit as a good show? Or do they honestly just think all the shows they produce are equally good? Or, ultimately, do they see a distinction between “good” and “hit”?

  9. I agree that the series concept has to be interesting. I’d go further to say that the series concept has to connect somehow with the zeitgeist. A western series could have the highest quality writing/acting/producing but the problems faced by characters in a western no longer interest me, even if it’s a space western. On the other hand, a series about business problems/the economy definitely would even if the quality wasn’t great. Entertainment has to be giving me relevant information, it seems, or there’s not a compelling reason to view it.

  10. I think both Lee and Patricia are wrong. TV is a mindless entertainment machine that people switch on for background noise in their homes when it gets too quiet.
    The phrase we learned in school was “Least Objectionable Program” which means people flip to find something that they don’t hate. Fans that go to great lengths to specifically program a show into a DVR will always be in the minority — and therefore unprofitable.
    And even as DVR use increases into the mainstream, the ability to skip commericials entirely ruins the funding model that has been unchanged for decades.
    So, everyone get your spec’s ready because staffing season is in full swing! And keep in mind that during the holocaust even the Jews themselves didn’t believe the rumors of mass killing.
    Yes, the holocaust reference is incendiary and somewhat offensive. I’m purposefully going to extremes to make the point that TV is dying.

  11. I think Lee may have nailed it in his earlier post, about how all the people making scifi shows lately seemed to think to be “quality” they had to be unremittingly grim. That is, people may watch a bad show and still get some pleasure out of it, but it’s really hard to get them to stick with something that’s both bad and depressing.

  12. Jonathan, this is definitely a case where I would state that I respect your right to your comments but completely disagree. The masses want to be entertained. The ancient Romans knew this and used it to great advantage. If it were not the current technology of television that currently entertains, it would be radio serials from the ’30s or ’40s, or books by Jules Verne in the late 1800s. We all have our heroes in our choice of entertainment. Wrestling is more popular than ever because it has turned into a soap opera. The viewers identify with their favorite personality and root for that person, hoping he/she will defeat the adversary based on how evil that character is portrayed.
    Perhaps I was too flippant with my remark about writing, acting and marketing. Because, in this particular case, character development, and how the wrestler portrays his/her character have a lot to do with his/her success with the fans. Bread and circuses are alive and well in the western world.

  13. I’m not sure that television is dying, but I am sure that conventional scripted sitcoms and dramas and soaps are dying. There are lots of channels, and lots of interesting shows, a lot of them non-fiction in nature.
    I remember a PBS hour-long show where Alan Alda went to Iceland to check out their moving to a hydrogen-based economy (there are only about 300,000 people in Iceland). Alda was absolutely amazed and fascinated by what the Icelanders were doing. It was just him, a cameraman and the persons he was talking to. And I was glued to the set. To me, the show was fabulous, although the production values only cost pennies. So I think TV has got great untapped potential to be really relevant, but unless a scripted show is Seinfeld, or as funny, why bother watching? To be successful, I would argue, TV shows have to bring the viewer piles of new information, or else the ratings will fall.

  14. I’d have to side with those who argue that quality and commercial success (or the respective lack thereof) are at best coincidentally related. That Lee seems to think “shows with ratings problems” = “shows that suck” mostly just indicates that his personal taste tends to dovetail with that of a critical mass of the viewing audience.
    That can certainly be a useful sensibility—especially when it comes to mass-marketing something—but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to unimpeachable aesthetic standards.
    OTOH, I’m not so cynical as Jonathan, whose argument that TV is dying actually undermines itself… if audiences were really so uncritical and easy to please as he supposes, then the business model really shouldn’t be having any problems at all.
    (But hey, what do I know? I’m part of that minority who only watches TV that I “go to great lengths” (pushing a few buttons!) to program into my DVR. Moreover, I actually liked Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Dollhouse, too!)

  15. Is this a joke? It seems like the only thing people do is watch shows that suck… well, because almost every single show on tv (sci-fi or no) sucks beyond belief. I can literally count on one hand the number of shows (from any genre) that I have somewhat enjoyed in the past 6 or so years.
    Firefly was the crown jewel. Totally unique, absolutely hilarious, fantastic writing, superb talent. And yet a show like that gets canceled, while crap like Idol, CSI, Dancing with the Stars, Grey’s Anatomy, etc. get great ratings. It’s the Britney Spears effect: the more dumbed-down you make a show, the more people will watch it, and the more money there is to be made.
    There is no room for clever, well-thought out plots with good acting anymore. You make a show like that and it will surely fail.
    LOST season 1 was amazing, and then it collapsed. Now it has kinda got back on its feet, but only barely. House season 1 was hysterical, but it’s been so boring ever since you can barely stay awake though half the episode. And these are probably the only scripted shows worth a damn that are on all of television as of right now.
    Firefly was the best damn show I have ever seen (on a per episode basis). People LOVE this show. I have shown it to dozens of people who have never heard of it, and by the end of the pilot they are absolutely blown away. Then they ask when it comes on…
    The fact is that I couldn’t even tell you one single show on NBC or CBS. Not a one. I have no idea. I have seen lots of crap shows, but if they are crap then you just don’t remember what network they are on. Those networks are totally dead.
    FOX… well, Fox has a way of making its shows all kinda feel the same. You flip on the tube, and somehow you always know if you are watching a Fox show? Ever notice that? I guess Fringe is the new big thing, but I can’t stand it (absurd mad scientist character, and the kid who can’t act… great).
    ABC had perhaps the only potential for good new shows this season. The Unusuals was actually more entertaining than 99% of anything I have seen in a while, but of course no one is watching it, so… And Castle, well, I have yet to really sit down and take that one in, but like all shows I’ll give it a chance.
    But that’s it. In this era, everything else (on ALL the networks) has been so forgettable that in 5 or 10 years no one on earth will remember any of it.
    And Sci-Fi… these BG and Stargate shows were so cheesy, so utterly lame, that I can’t even believe they were ever watched by anyone, EVER.
    And that’s coming from a Sci-Fi fan…
    You know what this modern tv era is like? The bubble-gum era of music in the early 60’s (pre-British Invasion). Talentless, hopelessly generic, and so devoid of actual art that it is almost offensive that these networks are even still in business.
    I say bring back Firefly, or we all just chuck our tv’s into the bottomless pit where all the good writers and actors have apparently fallen into.

  16. Stephen, all that I can say after reading your post is that you’re an idiot. Honestly, why do you even bother watching a show if 99% of them seem to suck, in your opinion. Shows like Supernatural or Dexter are unbelievably good. Just because YOU don’t like them, doesn’t mean they’re rubbish. I think you should stop watching TV shows because you’re too perfect for any of them to reach your level. In Europe, they say most Americans are stupid. I don’t believe that. I think you are just too selfabsorbed, the only opinion that matters to you is your own. I know only 4 Americans and 2 of them are like that. So I guess the percentage is 50% 🙂

  17. Yeah, except no one on earth will remember shows like the ones you mentioned in 5 or 10 years. Heck, we can barely remember them now.
    But Buffy, or Firefly, shows which continue to gain in popularity AFTER they have been off the air for years? Those shows are obviously never leaving the public consciousness, for very clear reasons. I mean, for god’s sakes, Firefly became a best-selling dvd YEARS after the show was canceled (with just a few eps that were ever aired to begin with), and the dvd continues to fly off the shelves and convert fans to this day. How many other shows can you say that about?
    No, the fact is that just like almost all modern music, the vast majority of the shows out there today won’t even be a footnote a decade from now. To pretend somehow that the Nielsen ratings are in any way correlated with quality, well-written shows is downright naive, and in fact those of us who actually study this stuff have ever found anything even remotely like that.
    The fact is that there is absolutely zero correlation between the Nielsen ratings and show quality.

  18. Producers are going to give people what they want. If people want to watch the fucking crap that gets made by people like Joss Wheldon and Tyler Perry than that’s what the producers in Hollywood are going to make. I don’t think there’s anything hard about what they do. Shows like Buffy are kind of like a fast food burger. They may taste good but that’s only because they’re loaded with fat. Buffy is loaded with ass and ultra-violence. That’s what people want to see and it’s not a very hard story to produce.
    I don’t get why some things in Hollywood go over bigger than others and I don’t think the people in Hollywood know much more than I do about the matter. Chris claims he is in a minority of some sort. I think he should stop kidding himself. The minority when concerning entertainment is the few people who watch shows like Buffy and Survivor for about five minutes before deciding to waste their time on something else.

  19. Very good points, SciFI is a great Genre but it gets mashed on TV. More recent example, Terra Nova. They can’t just have a great premise and expect that to carry the whole show. They need to always be answering the question: why should I watch it again next week?


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