Vancouver, B.C.— “I have to go blow up a planet!” declares Amanda Tapping with glee as she bursts from the door of Bridge Studios/Stage Six here, where Sci Fi Channel is shooting scenes for episode 200 of Stargate SG-1.
For 10 seasons, Tapping has inhabited the role of Samantha Carter, the Air Force colonel and physicist with girl-next-door charm who delivers bewildering strings of technobabble and carries a torch for her commanding officer. (In the fannish vernacular of the Internet it's called UST, or Unresolved Sexual Tension. Think Moonlighting, Frasier or The X-Files.)
It's starting to drizzle, so Tapping commandeers a golf cart and volunteers to chauffeur fellow cast member, newbie Claudia Black (of Sci Fi's former series Farscape), who hops in to ride shotgun. The contrast is striking — the long, dark-haired Black and the blonde, blue-eyed Tapping. Someone else offers to drive but Tapping shoos them away. “I know how to operate this thing,” she says, then grins and races off.
Despite grey skies, the mood on set is understandably jubilant and relaxed.
IT'S IN THE BOOKS
Stargate SG-1 has entered the television record books. According to Los Angeles Museum of Television and Radio Library Supervisor Martin Gostanian, it is now the “longest-running, scripted, made-for-cable television series in U.S. broadcasting history.”
Its formula for success, according to the producers, includes likeable actors. Executive producer Michael Greenburg, the former MacGyver show-runner, called the chemistry between the four original leads “as serendipitous as I've ever had in a casting involvement.”
Other factors are: movie-like production values, long-term stability in the show's leadership, the stargate itself as an iconic prop and a mythologically rich premise that allows for varied storylines.
In the first quarter of 2006, the show averaged 3.3 million viewers per new original episode on Friday night. The producers say another 3 million viewers watch reruns in syndication on weekend afternoons.
Stargate SG-1 is Sci Fi Channel's workhorse. Airing at 8 p.m., the series leads off the network's key “Sci Fi Friday” primetime block of originals, reliably shuttling viewers to spin-off Stargate: Atlantis at 9 and onward to the channel's flagship, Battlestar Galactica, at 10.
The 200th, a collaborative effort penned by the team of all seven writers, is an homage to fans of every stripe. If they've ever wished upon a Stargate, it's likely covered in this script — a two-hanky ceremony brings Walter, the Gate Guy (the minor but beloved character who operates the stargate), to tears, and forbidden romances finally bloom.
The spontaneous antics are led by Stargate's venerable pied piper, star and former executive producer Richard Dean Anderson (Captain Jack O'Neill).
After a one-year hiatus, Anderson returns to the show for No. 200 and one additional guest appearance. (He's also slated to appear in an upcoming three-episode Atlantis arc.)
On another set, a scene is being shot on one of the 10 stages occupied by the series. While someone pats down Claudia Black's braids, Michael Shanks (Dr. Daniel Jackson) and Ben Browder (Lt. Col. Cameron Mitchell) stomp and dance a little hokey pokey to break the tedium.
It can only be safely reported (without repercussions from NBC Universal) that longtime cast member Chris Judge, a former All-America football player at the University of Oregon who plays the alien warrior Teal'c, is slathered head to toe in silver body paint. And little else.
It's Bravo Take Two, then Bravo Take Three. Between takes the crew can be heard over the ComTeks (wireless headsets that transmit stage dialog and crew instructions), muttering their own opinion of Judge's costume: “Now that's some codpiece.”
During a lull, Frank Sinatra's “The Way You Look Tonight” streams over the headsets.
“Some day, when I'm awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you …
And the way you look tonight.”
Tapping laughs, “We're jumping sharks all over the place today.”
She said she's enjoying season 10 immensely, after a numbing season nine — a year of returning to the set only weeks after giving birth to her daughter, feeding on demand, and oftentimes finding herself up at 4 a.m., memorizing her famously complex lines.
Tapping is savoring a spotlight that rarely shines on the long-running series. The relative obscurity seems a little unfair: Stargate SG-1 has sold more than 30 million individual DVDs units worldwide and is said by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. to be second in its stable only to the James Bond theatrical-film series. (MGM declines to disclose the Bond sales figures.)
IN 120 COUNTRIES
The show is syndicated to Fox's owned-and-operated television stations, airs in more than 120 countries and is dubbed or subtitled in multiple languages. The franchise has spawned comic books, novels, board games and other merchandise, and an online game is in production that will let multiple players travel through galaxies as stargate explorers. An episode-download deal, via Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes service, is currently being negotiated.
The producers credit Stargate SG-1 and sister series Stargate: Atlantis (heading into its third season) with generating more than $500 million U.S. for the British Columbia economy to date. MGM now spends $75 million per year to make both shows.
Only a handful of scripted series launched since 1990 — broadcast or cable — have toughed it out to 200 installments. Among them are Fox's animated workhorse The Simpsons (often quoted by SG-1 character Jack O'Neill) and X-Files (which SG-1 will surpass in longevity after episode 202), as well as NBC's ER. Gostanian pegs that number at fewer than 20.
Standing in front of the 21-foot-tall stargate prop on the set, immediately following a celebratory gathering and cake-cutting, is Sony Pictures Television executive vice president of programming Jeanie Bradley, a 30-year veteran who started out at Norman Lear's Tandem T.A.T. production company. (SPT oversees production.)
Stargate SG-1 came under her auspices after MGM was sold last year to a consortium led by Sony, Comcast Corp. and several private-equity firms. The largest single shareholder is Providence Equity Partners, which specializes in media and communications investments (including cable operator Bresnan Communications and the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network), followed by Texas Pacific Group, known for investments in such branded companies as Continental Airlines and J. Crew. Comcast and Sony are strategic shareholders in MGM, owning 20% each.
Bradley reflects on the difficulties these days of launching and sustaining a series. One of her shows was ABC's Emily's Reason's Why Not, arguably the most infamous broadcast-network example of a speed-of-light cancellation (ABC aired only one episode, in 2006).
“ABC spent $6 million on promotion,” she lamented. “It's a shame. But competition is so great and there's such a need for the networks to go out of the gate big.”
She didn't say so, but even basic-cable shows sometimes get pulled after only a few airings. Stargate SG-1's achievement in this environment “is stunning,” she said.
Mark Stern, Sci Fi Channel's executive vice president of original programming, having flown up from Los Angeles for the ceremony, drags a folding chair over to a quiet corner and away from the crush of press orbiting SG-1's cast.
'IT'S A FAMILY
“I think what Stargate, and similar shows that last this long, [have] is a family that you want to see every week and invite into your living room,” Stern said. “It sounds a little corny, but ultimately it really comes down to that. It's all about great storytelling with characters you love.”
Thirty crew and cast members on hand for the pilot 10 years ago still work on the production. The original core cast — Amanda Tapping, Chris Judge, Michael Shanks and Richard Dean Anderson — remain on the show, though Shanks and Anderson both took a hiatus from their roles.
Stargate SG1 left Showtime, its original home, after five seasons and 110 episodes aired.
(In 2001, when the show was being phased out, then-Showtime programming chief Jerry Offsay told Multichannel News: “Although the audience is still there for it, it's not helping us draw new subscribers in the door when the show is available in syndication and [will be] on Sci Fi.”)
Untroubled by premium-channel considerations, Sci Fi nurtured the show after acquiring it in 2002. It paired season-six episodes with existing space-adventure drama Farscape (later canceled for ratings and cost reasons) on Friday nights and kicked off a high-octane media campaign. The tagline: “Good guys, bad attitudes, one great night.”
Sci Fi also aired previous seasons of SG-1 in a four-episode “stack” on Monday nights, introducing the primetime basic-cable audience to the show's mythology and characters and herding them to first-run originals on Fridays nights.
DRAWING 2.5M VIEWERS
By the start of season nine (in the third quarter of 2005), the show's following had grown to where it was averaging 2.5 million viewers per episode, a 2.1 household rating, according to Nielsen Media Research figures. It dipped about 14% in the ratings in the first quarter of 2006 versus first quarter 2005, primarily during the February 2006 sweeps period. (In winter 2006, the show averaged a 1.8 household rating and 2.1 million total viewers.)
But by the March finale toward the end of 2006's first quarter, ever-resilient SG1 had rebounded to its normal 2.0 rating level.
In any case, Sci Fi was the No. 1 cable network for the advertiser-desired 18-to-49 age group in SG1's timeslot, Fridays from 8 to 9 p.m., for the 10 weeks the program aired in the quarter.
Stern believes some of the show's tech-savvy, toy-loving, time-shifting audience gets missed in ratings compilations. “Part of it is the DVR,” he explains, citing digital video recording devices. “Nielsen's sampling is not representative of the larger universe yet. They're sampling 3% and the larger [DVR] universe is something like 10 to 13%.”
In February, Variety reported that the NBC broadcast network's ratings woes are filtering across to the NBC Universal-owned cable networks, and that such cable properties as USA Network, Bravo and Sci Fi are being pressured to favor NBC Universal Television Studios-produced content, thereby keeping revenue in-house. This new reality is said to be one factor among several working against the continued life of another underappreciated cable workhorse, The Dead Zone, a Lionsgate-produced show (in association with Paramount) on USA.
Stargate SG-1 is a mature series and production costs continue to mount: it's budgeted for at least $2 million U.S. per episode. Tax breaks remain in place, but the costs advantages of filming in Vancouver have evaporated due to unfavorable exchange rates.
Asked how these factors weigh on the future for Stargate SG-1 (owned and financed by MGM), Stern is emphatic. “There's absolutely zero, never, any pressure from anybody — and I'll tell you this straight — to make a decision on a show based on whether it's [an NBC Universal] project at all. Period. We and Bonnie Hammer have full latitude to do what she thinks she needs to do and what we think is best for our air.”
“This show has always had budgetary challenges,” he continues. “This show has always been trying to do and achieve so much more than it was budgeted to do. [Show runners Brad Wright and Rob Cooper] have shown themselves particularly adept at squeezing every dime out of that Canadian dollar.”
Stern says MGM actually has budgeted more for the show (and, in so doing, increased the gap between the show's actual cost and the license fee Sci Fi pays, a deficit the studio figures to regain later from syndication airings, DVD sales and other sources). He also points out that the studio paid to bring in additional big-name cast members Black, Browder and Beau Bridges.
NO TALK OF DEATH
Chatter about striking the Stargate SG-1 sets any time soon has thankfully died down. Four years ago, Cooper wrote the last season-six episode as the series finale, certain the production was destined to wrap.
Instead, Sci Fi reupped, and ratings grew. Stargate SG-1 cannot continue indefinitely, in Cooper's view.
“The economics of producing a show make it impossible,” he warns. “The simple fact is that salaries go up incrementally as seasons continue. At some point, it just reaches the place where there's no profit to be made.”
But MGM has big plans. Executive vice president Charles Cohen (see related story) says MGM “intends” to develop a theatrical movie “derived from the series over the last 10 years” that would ideally “dovetail” into a third Stargate television show.
Theatricals would “not in any way impair” SG1's television run, he asserts. He believes it's possible for three Stargate series to air concurrently, not unlike the Law & Order franchise. “If you look at SG-1 — with bringing in Claudia [Black], Ben [Browder] and Beau [Bridges] — we've retooled the series with it still being SG-1. I'd like to see SG-1 go another 10 years. I love the show. I'd like to keep it on forever and keep adding to it.”
“It's very ambitious,” Cohen admits, then chuckles. “Brad and Rob will cringe.”