Nerd School: So, How Long Will Terra Nova Last?

by Joe on September 26, 2011

Inevitably your new favorite show is going to  get canceled. Especially if it’s a genre show on a major network. Face it, Terra Nova looks awesome, but can the budget be justified by the viewership numbers? This is the biggest problem with shows that I like. I am a huge fan of genre TV, that is sci-fi, fantasy, horror, that’s intelligent and forces me to think. Unfortunately most of America thinks differently. It seems that in an era of Tivo, Hulu,and DVRs, networks wouldn’t rely on Nielsen ratings as much, but the sad fact is that the asshole cousin who watches nothing but Chuck Lorre sitcoms and WWE wrestling has more say in what’s on the networks than every fanboy who posts on Firefly.net.

But this isn’t necessarily a condemnation of the Nielsen system, but more the people who have the boxes. America, as a whole, doesn’t get genre television. Looking at the numbers, look at how many genre shows are currently on TV as opposed to what genre shows were on TV in the 70’s and 80’s  as opposed to now.

click to embiggen

Now why did that number drop? Well there are lots of reasons why, but the biggest reason is the rise of the better story telling.

look at some of the shows that were big in the 70’s and 80’s, they well loved but terribly written. Have you ever analyzed a script from The Six Million Dollar Man?

However, in 1981, Hill Street Blues, debuted on NBC, and it completely changed the way prime time  drama was done. Cop drama was nothing new, as shows like Starsky and Hutch and TJ Hooker had been on for a while, but Hill Street Blues added a complex narrative where episodes were not standalone, but interconnected throughout the season with an overarching story. There were also smaller arcs lasting only two or three episodes.  Hill Street Blues was not necessarily the first show to do this, but is a famous first example of a show too complex for America to handle, because even though the show was lauded by critics, America wouldn’t catch until later seasons. The initial ratings were so bad that the show was constantly having it’s time slot shifted (sound familiar) however after it’s  first year the ratings picked up and the show continued. I spend so long on Hill Street Blues because the success of this show led to the creation of shows like St. Elsewhere which had a very similar structure and critical reception.

It also had Sipowicz...

With this renaissance of hour long dramas being Fought across the networks, fledgling network FOX , which debuted in 1986 had been trying to find a hit drama, having brief success with 21 jump street. The network hit gold in 1993 when The X Files hit the air and ran for 9 seasons. Even though The X Files had initially low ratings, the network was still new enough and fighting for ratings, that even a modest viewership was enough to keep a show like X Files afloat.

not to mention the wierd early 90's sexuality Duchovny exuded

For anyone who is not aware, The X Files is the most important show of the last 20 years. Why? Well The X Files changed the landscape of genre shows for numerous reasons, and those reasons are why we’ll never see another successful genre show.

The inclusion of the mytharc.

as I was saying with Hill Street Blues, The X Files relied on the concept of an overarching storyline that played throughout the series. This got to a point were it was nearly impossible to watch an episode in the later seasons and understand what was going on without watching the rest of the series.

This is because The X Files developed a mythology of it’s own, or as some people call it, a Mythos.

Mythos is a word I hate using, because in the circles I travel, that word has a very specific context. It is mostly applied to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos.  However, I believe the term is suited to this argument. Mythos, of course, is a derivation of the word mythology. Without getting to much into what the Cthulhu Mythos is, scholar S.T. Joshi identified four major components that linked Lovecraft’s seemingly unconnected stories together. They were an unseemed helplessness (called cosmicism), a shared setting, pseudomythological entities, and a collection of arcane knowledge that yield insight into the Mythos.

Now, what Joshi wrote dealt specifically with Lovecraft, but strangely enough a comparable change in the way television was done in the 1980’s changed the way writers wrote and viewers watched.

Now this is the reason I went at length about the Lovecraft Mythos, because The X Files established it’s own Mythos by following many of the components Lovecraft had. There was a cosmicism sense in Mulder as he seemed to be fighting an unwinnable battle. There were modern psuedomythological figures factoring into the story. Most importantly the writers teased us with knowledge of the conspiracy without revealing too much. Every question we had answered we had to ask two more.

This created a cult following as viewers tuned in every week to see what would happen next. Not to mention the Internet presence the show had before fan forums were as common as fake nudes of Natalie Portman.

However, even as The X Files was becoming a critical and ratings hit, another show was changing the way genre TV was done. In 1994 Star Trek: The Next Generation was chugging toward its conclusion, and television was a glut with genre shows like Earth: Above and Beyond, Timetrax, Hercules, Earth 2 etc… However, one show debuted with little fanfare, Babylon 5. B5 was not a ratings hit, and was threatened with cancellation numerous times. However the tight writing of the series by the creator/ only writer, J. Michael Straczynski, influenced fans of the sic-fi genre in a new and different way.

Babylon 5 had everything that a Mythos should have, just like The X Files there was a deep sense of cosmicism, osier mythological beings, and hints that drew viewers in, and just like The X Files it was impossible to watch a single episode in the later seasons without watching all the episodes.

BUT…. The biggest influence B5 had on genre television is that it was a planned series. JMS has gone on record stating everything in the first 4 seasons was completely planned. This has led to one of the most satisfying series finales in the history of television. Having a series planned from the beginning is something almost unheard of in television anywhere. but the idea that a creator/writer knows where everything is going is something people live for. A narrative with a conclusion is the hallmark of storytelling and legitimate literature, something television had never been compared to.

The ramifications of this is seen in the endings of probably the 2 most successful genre series in the last 10 years Battlestar Galactica and Lost.

At least with me, my biggest complaint with both of those shows is that the endings did not seem thought out/they didn’t plan what they were doing. Now I know they said they did, but just because you know the ending doesn’t mean you know how to get there. I know each show has its defenders, but to anyone who defends the Lost finale, I challenge you to watch Babylon 5’s first four seasons and the finale, and then tell me Lost’s finale was thought out.

I'm not going to get into how asinine the ending was

Now that leads me to today, we are living in a difficult time for a genre show to survive.

Shows like The X Files and Babylon 5 have upped the ante in terms of storytelling and planning, meaning that people  want to see stories that are complex and engrossing, but they also want closure. Can these ideas coexist on network television? The short answer is yes, but with genre shows having expensive budgets due to special effects, networks want immediate results in the ratings to justify their spending.

I know this looks common place with today's effects, but it costs a lot of money to do

Here is the Catch 22, people who are into genre television are often tech savvy first adopters who want to watch television when they want, this means Hulu, TiVo, or Comcast’s shitty shitty dvr. WHICH DO NOT COUNT TOWARDS RATINGS (or at least full ratings, sometimes recorded shows count as a fraction). So genre shows can be canceled fairly quickly on network TV which focuses on ratings from Nielson viewership.

Also fans of genre will often wait so as not to become engrossed in a show that will be canceled. So to reiterate, shows get canceled because people who do not to watch a show that might get canceled wait to watch. This is the big influence that you can see from The X Files and Babylon 5 is that people become engrossed in these stories.

Imagine if Harry Potter ended after book 5? That’s how I felt when they canceled Freaky Links.

So, does this seem a bit heady to you? Well that’s how most of America feels. Though there is a growing popularity in America with the popularity of Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, True Blood, The Walking Dead, etc… but those successes are few and far between on the major networks. Cable is now the respite of genre, but even networks like SyFy have been canceling their genre shows for *sigh* wrestling and ghost hunting reality shows.

If you watch this for any reason, you are a douche...

So do you want more shows like Terra Nova? Do you want Terra Nova to continue? The trick is to watch the show when its on, because the dinosaur-esque way of thinking at networks and Nielsen families will forever doom our shows.

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Firefly. Yeah, the show would have started going downhill after season 5 like all TV shows, but at least we could have seen that magnificent downward spiral instead of imagining it with wistful tears in our eyes.

I am aware that shows like the Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and Smallville thrive on network TV, but that’s the CW and it’s essentially basic cable.

Read Joe’s other articles: Star Trek Blu-rays 1 and 2  Doctor Who Season 6 Round Up, ConanPrimer, GOT COK: Casting Roundup  1 + 2, Trek in your Queue 1 and 2, Game of Thrones Primer II,  Obama Trek Mutant Fatigue Sci-Fi A-Team Star Trek: A Different Generation, An Alternate History of the Doctor, Inn at the Crossroads interview, A Love Letter to Natalie Portman, Failed Star Trek Spinoffs, Thor Primer, Doctor Who Season 6 primer, A Game of Thrones Primer, More

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


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Kevin September 26, 2011 at 9:52 pm

I try not to dwell on this too much in my review, but it’s definitely a fair point. It’s obvious that the networks want to take a chance on genre shows but because of the ratings and the need for ad revenue there’s more of a home for these shows on AMC, FX, and HBO than anywhere on network television. (Remind me again why network television is still a big deal?)

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Trevor Hubbard October 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I was reading this, and such a huge point was made so much that I almost fainted. Shows like Terra Nova are released multiple times every year; and then canceled about 5 episodes after their pilot. This is probably, as you said, because of people like me; people who watch the show 3 or 4 weeks after it actually debuts on air, through some kind of DVR recording or On Demand service. I can see now, how shows like Terra Nova, are canceled so quickly. I mean, look at Flash-Forward, The Event, and V. These shows had a huge hubbub before they were released, but the reviews weren’t that great. Of course, I wouldn’t know; I watched the first episode, thought it was half-decent, and said I would watch the other ones later, after they were shown on air. Little did I know, a month later, when I went to catch up on them, they were all canceled.

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Joe October 21, 2011 at 8:38 am

I know, Networks need to get out of that way of thinking. I usually watch fringe on demand through Comcast, and they won’t let me fast forward through the commercials. I think this is a fair trade off for watching the shows later, because I still am exposed to the commercials, and the network gets their revenue source. However, That on demand watch doesn’t count towards the ratings used in marketing. It’s an outdated system that isn’t fair to the intelligent, busy, or modern television watcher/consumer.

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