Yet another high-profile scripted original series met an untimely and unexpected demise last week, when Sci Fi Channel abruptly cancelled Farscape, citing the show's declining ratings performance.
The network said it would not pick up a fifth season of the space-fantasy drama — one of its first original series — even though it had contracted to do so. Farscape
was created by Rockne O'Bannon and produced by the Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment.
Other observers said the show's high production costs and an ambitious original programming slate led Sci Fi to pull the plug on Farscape's fifth season. The balance of the show's fourth season is still slated to air on the network, beginning in January.
Farscape's flameout follows the recent cancellations of several other long-running basic-cable series that seemingly resonated with fans, but failed to live up to network expectations.
Two weeks ago, Turner Network Television cancelled the fantasy police series Witchblade, starring troubled actress Yancy Butler. It said the two-year old show had run out of creative steam.
While ratings for both Farscape
had declined from last year's numbers, both remained among cable's highest-rated original fare during a record-breaking summer viewership period for the industry.
But both shows also suffered from unforeseen increases in production costs that their respective networks couldn't justify, in light of declining ratings.
A&E Network has also cancelled its original scripted series, Nero Wolfe
and 100 Centre Street, citing poor ratings.
executive producer David Kemper said during an Internet chat last week that despite a two-year deal which covered the series' fourth and fifth seasons, Sci Fi decided to invoke an out clause that allowed it to end production after year four.
"Just being the people who make the show, and not the corporate entities that fund and air it, we are as helpless as anyone," Kemper said. "We are sad. We are shattered. And we are sorry."
Sci Fi officials said ratings for the high-tech, special effects-laden fantasy series — starring Ben Browder as a space traveler stuck among aliens in a remote galaxy — had slumped compared to prior years.
Through the first 11 of the fourth season's 22 episodes, Farscape
averaged a 1.2 rating last year, down from a 1.4 in 2002. One of the network's highest-profile and top-rated series, Farscape
was eclipsed this season by Stargate SG-1, the venerable series that had migrated from Showtime.
New episodes of Stargate
averaged a 1.8 rating this past summer. Further, the Aug. 31 finale of Stargate
set a network series ratings record with a 2.0.
"There are no bigger fans of Farscape
than we here at Sci Fi Channel," the network said in a statement posted on its Scifi.com Web site. "It was one of Sci Fi's first original series and quickly became a critical and fan favorite.
"Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to reach a broader audience, Farscape
has been unable to grow beyond its core fan base. That, coupled with the extreme and growing cost of production, has led to the difficult decision to end the series at the conclusion of season four."
Sci Fi president Bonnie Hammer was traveling last week and did not return phone calls. But in an interview two weeks ago, Hammer gave no indication the Farscape
franchise was in jeopardy.
Sources close to the situation said the network had been negotiating a new deal with Hallmark and Henson, but were unable to find common ground by Sept. 6 on a number of scenarios that would have saved Farscape's fifth season.
Sources peg production costs for a series episode at around $1.5 million — pricey by cable standards.
SCI FI MOMENTUM
The decision to cancel Farscape
comes during a period of ratings momentum for the nearly decade-old channel. Buoyed by its Friday night block of Farscape, Stargate and repurposed episodes of USA Network's The Dead Zone, the network matched its best ever primetime monthly ratings mark in August with a 1.0.
The network is also planning an ambitious original programming slate for the 2002-03 season, including the reported $40 million, 10-part miniseries Taken
from Steven Spielberg.
The network also has on tap a new original scripted series, Tremors, and several original action movies all targeted toward a younger demographic.
Given Sci Fi's heavy investment in other original programming initiatives, industry observers believe the expensive Farscape
franchise became expendable amid sliding ratings.
The remaining new episodes of Farscape's fourth season will return in January 2003. The first two seasons of Farscape
are currently available on DVD and VHS, with season three set for release in 2003.
fans are declining to let the show drift into oblivion without a fight. Last week, Sci Fi's offices were inundated with calls from angry Farscape
fans upset over its cancellation.
In New York, several Farscape
fans even picketed Sci Fi's midtown offices in protest of the network's move to cancel the show.
The decision has also been decried in numerous Internet chat sites — so much so that the network had to shut down its server at least twice last week due to overwhelming usage.
One fan even threatened to cancel cable if the show isn't brought back on the air. Several fans have also begun a "save Farscape" campaign.
Sources close to the situation said Hallmark is pitching the show to other networks in a last-ditch effort to keep it on air. Representatives from Hallmark declined comment, while Jim Henson Co. officials did not return calls by press time.
While Hallmark parent Crown Media Holdings also owns the Hallmark Channel, sources close to the network said Farscape
does not fit the general-entertainment network's family-oriented programming profile.