AngelIn The Voting Booth, Remember ’Angel’
By Scott Nance
Monday 25 October 2004, by Webmaster
In just about a week, a seeming eternity of campaign season polling, punditry and posturing will come down to this: Each of us as American voters will take on the solemn responsibility of choosing among competing candidates to elect those who will lead our nation into the future.
In so doing, we’re being asked to weigh a panoply of issues: defense spending, taxes, Social Security, healthcare, judicial nominations, and the list just goes on and on. Some of these matters are concrete concerns in our daily lives, while others are more academic or esoteric.
But what about electing candidates based on a true tangible issue that affects you day in and day out without fail? I’m talking about electing the candidates who promise you good science-fiction on television to watch.
Think that’s more the responsibility of the president of a television network than the president of the United States? Then think again.
Sure, basic content — developing and sustaining quality science fiction series — is the business of network and studio execs.
But through media regulation — or, more precisely deregulation — the federal government has had a dramatic role in creating an overall television atmosphere that has without question made it more difficult for sci-fi series to thrive.
The federal government, including the Federal Communications Commission, has eased media ownership rules significantly for several years now, enabling bigger and bigger media conglomerates to buy more and more media properties. The result has been consolidation: A small handful of Goliaths have bought all of the major television outlets, leading to fewer and fewer chances being taken on truly good, cutting-edge shows.
Like everything else in life, it all comes down to money. Television networks are no longer operations in-and-of themselves; they are simply profit or loss generators for much larger corporations, often companies whose main business may actually not even be in television. (The NBC network, for instance, is owned by General Electric.)
"The accounting focus on cost-to-profit ratio has caused the networks to emphasize cheap programs (like ‘Fear Factor’ and ‘Survivor’) that can predictably attract a younger audience," according to an online report from Changing the Channels, a project of the nonprofit Comenius Foundation. “Because advertisers will pay more for ‘young eyeballs,’ networks have canceled programs with huge ratings because they have older-skewing audiences. This practice has caused a huge loss of viewers in the 40-plus age bracket, who no longer find anything they want to watch."
Think this is still some abstract argument? Joss Whedon probably doesn’t think so. His innovative vampire series, “Angel,” is a direct victim of media consolidation.
Back in 1996, a fledgling network known as The WB took a chance on another Whedon project, a quirky show with a funny name, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” “Buffy” wasn’t an instant success, but The WB kept it on the air and let it build an audience. The WB invested in "Buffy" for a future return, and within a year or so, the Chosen One had indeed become a breakout hit. So the investment paid off.
Fast forward about seven years. The same network kills Whedon’s spinoff, “Angel,” even though “Angel” was often delivering ratings comparable to “Buffy” back in the day.
What had changed? The WB, which had already been part of the large Time Warner corporation, had been bought out in an even more massive merger with AOL. With a stock price to worry about, the folks at AOL were most concerned with maximizing profit and reducing costs.
The suits at The WB were at least as eager to please their masters at AOL by cutting costs as they were at putting on quality television, so they killed “Angel” at least in part to make way for something cheaper — their next “Fear Factor” or “Survivor.”
Still don’t buy into the evils of media consolidation? Then consider Barry Diller. Yes, the Barry Diller who once headed up the Sci-Fi Channel. In an industry hellbent on consolidation, Diller has been a welcome contrarian.
“Are we going to get real diversity? The program departments of these businesses are now so far down the chain of life in these giant enterprises that it’s a miracle that all shows on the air aren’t about rejection,” Diller told his former colleagues last year in a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters’ trade show.
“Conglomerates buy eyeballs. That’s it ... and they leverage — oh do they do that — they leverage their producing power to drive content — their distribution power — such as retransmission consent — to drive new services — and their promotional power to literally obliterate competitors. The old systems of course had flaws — but there was a tight yoke between what went on the air and the ultimate boss — and it was good that that chain was yanked both ways, often to the public’s great good fortune.
“No one knows what’s the best system for creativity, but for sure it doesn’t work great without the pride and passion of the boss on the line and engaged.
“Ten years ago, independents produced 16 new series. Last year they produced just one. It’s difficult to sustain an industry on one show, and, in fact the independents are dying in droves. Many of the small- and medium-sized ones are either out of business or work for the larger organizations, so they are, by definition, no longer independent.”
When Diller questions network diversity and points out the death of the independents, what he’s really talking about is the death of genre television, the senseless cancelations of “Farscape,” “Firefly,” “Wonderfalls,” and more. These series certainly are not “least-common-denominator” shows. They are most definitely not the next “Fear Factor” or “Survivor.”
What’s all this mean for the genre? It means for sci-fi television to ever return to the glory days of multiple “Star Treks,” “Babylon 5,” “Buffy” and more all on the air at once, it means we have to level the playing field so that the diversity and the independents Diller spoke of can once more thrive.
When you’re weighing a candidate’s stands on healthcare and the environment, while you’re at it, find out what they think about media regulation. And vote for the guy who’ll fight to make sure good sci-fi gets on the air and stays there.
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