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 — in which 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: science fiction 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 roll out 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 and ABC's Lost certainly makes the case for such fare.

The only problem with broadcast's infatuation with sci-fi programming is that cable has already — and 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 appearing on cable.

ABC's new series Pushing Daisies, reportedly about a guy who can bring dead people back to life and works with a human detective to solve crimes, sounds similar to Sci Fi Channel's popular freshman series The 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 Moonlight. 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 miniseries The Lost Room, 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 is delving into the 1970's TV series vault to resurrect ABC's campy series The Bionic Woman. Fox only hopes that it can rebuild that cult sci fi show as successfully as Sci Fi Channel has done revising the 1970's series Battlestar Galactica.

Certainly cable has proven that there's an audience for the genre. ABC Family's series Kyle XY will launch its sophomore season this week, after garnering surprisingly strong ratings for the family-targeted network. The series, about a mysterious teenage “boy” who has no bellybutton, is the network's highest-rated original series ever and 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 green-light 10 additional episodes to air this fall.

Of course, Sci Fi Channel has been bedeviling critics of the genre since it launched the imaginative series Farscape eight years ago. Other space-based original series, such as Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica, as well as more earthly-based supernatural shows such as Eureka and The Dresden Files, have drawn critical acclaim and more than 1.1 million loyal viewers on average in primetime to Sci Fi during 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 a ton of e-mails and letters — as well as a reported 50,000 pounds of peanuts mailed to Black Rock offices, mocking a battle phrase in the show's story line — CBS is mulling the resurrection of the fantasy-laden show as a midseason replacement next year.

“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.

The broadcast networks are hoping to beam up millions of viewers with its fall lineup of sci-fi and fantasy-based product … that's if they can find any that cable hasn't already abducted.