Cloning Cable’s Sci-Fi Success


Now that the television network upfronts are mercifully over, a few trends seemed to stand out regarding the upcoming fall season.

Serial dramas like Fox’s 24 are on the wane, while reality shows like CBS’s Kid Nation – where 40 pubescent teens run their own city – are not.

The other big movement for the broadcast networks is toward a genre once considered by network execs as the dark side of scripted TV: sci-fi and fantasy-based content. The category, often maligned for its weak storylines and cheesy special effects that resonated mostly with old, balding men living in their parents’ basements, is soon set to explode on the boob tube. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the CW will rollout nearly a dozen series that delve into the supernatural and the occult.

Maybe broadcast network executives are onto something. With the world offering all too many scary real-life scenarios via military conflicts and Paris Hilton, it’s possible that viewers will navigate to escapist programming that, even in our crazy universe of potential tuberculosis outbreaks is unlikely to occur in our daily lives. The success of NBC’s Heroes certainly makes the case for such fare.

The only problem with broadcast’s infatuation with sci-fi programming is that cable has already successfully been there and done that.

In fact, of the various over-the-air sci-fi, supernatural or fantasy-based shows on the docket this fall, you could find near clones of several already airing on cable.

ABC’s new series Pushing Daises, reportedly about a guy who can bring dead things back to life and works with a human detective to solve crimes, sounds similar to Sci Fi Channel’s popular freshman series Dresden Files, in which a warlock uses his supernatural powers to help a human murder investigator solve occult-like crimes.

CBS is also resurrecting the vampire legend with its new fantasy detective series Moonlighting. But Lifetime is doing a bitingly good job itself with bloodsuckers through its current, crime-based drama Blood Ties.

NBC’s The Journeyman, about a time-traveling newspaperman invokes thoughts of Sci Fi’s recent mini-series The Key, in which a detective uses a magic key to transport himself through time trying to uncover past events and find people lost in a mysterious hotel room.

Fox and NBC are developing takeoffs of sci-fi-based projects The Bionic Woman and Terminator respectively that follow in the footsteps of what Sci Fi has successfully done revising the 1970’s series Battlestar Galactica, which will end its critically-acclaimed five-year run in 2008.

Certainly cable has proven that there’s an audience for programs dealing with the unexplained and unbelievable. ABC Family’s extraterrestrial-based series Kyle XY will launch its sophomore season next week after garnering surprisingly strong ratings for the family-targeted network. The series, about a mysterious teenage “boy” who has no bellybutton and shows no human emotions, is the network’s highest-rated original series ever and is the staple of the network’s original programming lineup.

Lifetime’s Blood Ties, about a female detective torn between her human lover and a 450-year old vampire who helps her solve supernatural crimes, is drawing 1.2 million viewers – enough for the female-targeted network to recently greenlight 10 additional episodes that will air this fall.

Of course, Sci Fi Channel has been bedeviling critics of the genre since it launched the imaginative Farscape series eight years ago. Other space-based original series such as Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as more earthly-based supernatural shows such as Eureka and Dresden Files have drawn critical acclaim and more than 1.1 million loyal viewers in prime-time to Sci Fi during the first quarter 2007 – an audience the broadcast networks feel can no longer be ignored.

Or an audience that refuses to be ignored, as CBS recently found out after it cancelled the post-nuclear holocaust series Jericho. After hundreds of thousands of e-mails and letters – as well as a reported 50,000 pounds of peanuts mailed to CBS offices mocking a battle phrase in the show’s storyline — CBS has now decided to resurrect the fantasy-laden show as a mid-season replacement next season. 

“I don’t blame the broadcast networks for doing more of it because it stands out among the typical crime procedures and medical dramas,” said Sci Fi Channel executive vice president and general manager David Howe. “Suddenly you have shows that are different, and I think increasingly viewers are looking for an experience that takes them beyond the traditional television experience that we’ve lived through for the last decade or so.”