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FireflyWhy "Firefly" failed on Fox - This Is Why We Have A Channel Called SciFi
By Scott Nance
Monday 8 August 2005, by Webmaster
Ronald D. Moore’s new "Battlestar Galactica" has opened a triumphant second season and is on its way to someday potentially earn the title of "Greatest Scifi Series of All Time."
Meanwhile, the venerable, time-proven "Stargate SG-1" has just opened its ninth season with new characters and new energy.
But Joss Whedon’s short-lived series "Firefly," on the other hand, will always be a case of what could have been.
In just its handful of episodes, Whedon’s groundbreaking space-western set 500 years in the future arguably was already on track to lay claim to greatness. But when the Fox network canceled the show, fans were left only to ponder the possibilities.
Scifi author Keith R.A. DeCandido recently noted that Fox canceled "Firefly" for the same why any network cancels any TV show: it was not making enough money to justify its existence.
"’Firefly’ was an extremely expensive show to make," he told me and other fans at a recent convention. "It was over $2 million an episode, which is a ridiculous amount of money. It needed to draw in more viewers than it got in order for them to make it back on the advertising."
Fox needed "Firefly" to get considerably better ratings than even Whedon’s hit series "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," because the standards for success on Fox are much higher than they are for the WB and UPN, DeCandido explained.
"If they just get ’Buffy’ and ’Angel’’s audience, it’s gonna tank by Fox’s standards," he said.
Certainly, "Firefly" will rise phoenix-like in movie theaters as the feature film, "Serenity," and we fans are glad of it.
But instead of a movie, what if "Firefly" had stayed on the air as Whedon had intended, left to unspool week after week the kinds of original and thought-provoking stories we only tasted ever so briefly during that truncated broadcast run back in 2002?
Those possibilities that will go forever untapped ought to serve as a cautionary note to would-be producers of scifi series who rush to sign their projects to heady-but-dangerous deals with the major broadcast networks.
It’s enough to make one wonder, "What if ... ."
Such as: What if Whedon sold "Firefly" not to Fox, but to the SciFi Channel, or the USA Network, FX, or some other cable network?
Broadcast networks are just not a hospitable place for scifi.
A recent news story reported that of a list of the longest running shows on network TV, "X-Files" and "Star Trek: Voyager," are the only two scifi series to make the rankings.
As DeCandido rightly points out, it takes time for a scifi series to develop an audience. But the broadcast nets are watching their viewership bleed away, and are desperate to stop it. That means the suits are endlessly trying any series they can to capture audience share, and if one show doesn’t deliver immediate results, they axe it in favor of the next one that crosses their desks. They don’t have the patience to let a series grow.
Once, the "netlets"—UPN and the WB—were the last outposts where broadcasters were willing to nurture small shows. No longer. Today, they’re as eager to cancel such series as "Star Trek: Enterprise" and "Angel" as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the same manic craze to find something supposedly bigger and better.
So if TV viewers are dropping out of watching broadcast, where are they drifting to? In a television universe that today supports channels on such narrow topics as history, game shows, and gardening, clearly they are moving to this new world of niche cable outlets.
If science fiction is such a niche, so be it. Rather than fight it, we ought to embrace it. Isn’t that what the SciFi Channel is for, for heaven sake? It’s a niche outlet for scifi fans.
Not that the SciFi Channel need be the only home for science fiction series—just watch the success of "The 4400" over on USA Network.
Cable channels in general are going to be a friendlier home for scifi. As DeCandido explained, a cable outlet will put on three original shows, period. By contrast, a broadcast net like Fox puts on three shows per night. The difference is that by focusing on fewer shows, a cable channel has fewer shows to juggle and is likely more willing to take a chance on something.
That mother of all scifi series, "Stargate SG-1," is a great example. With a more-manageable budget, the series sailed under the radar for years, first on Showtime and later on the SciFi Channel, the series has delivered one year of great storytelling after the next.
Also, standards for success on cable are lower than broadcast.
Which gets us back to "Battlestar Galactica."
A recent "Battlestar" episode aired on NBC got only a paltry 2.3 million viewers. That’s a failure by broadcast standards, but fortunately, the series’ main home is the SciFi Channel, where those kinds of numbers provide the outlet with its highest ratings.
So what’s all this mean? It’s too late for "Firefly," and we fans will have to look forward to the forthcoming "Serenity" movie.
But a word of advice to would-be scifi producers: yeah, you can take the fancy-pants network development deal, take your chances, and probably end up back in the unemployment line in six months. Or, scale back your expenses, skip the networks, put your show on cable, and like "Stargate SG-1," someday you might find yourself still on the air, nine years later.