As the latest Sci-Fi fad Battlestar Galactica Revised has come to a close, one of the many things that the fans of this show complain about is the lack of high Nielsen Ratings, especially after the release of the Mini-Series. This has made fans of this modern retelling of the Glen Larson blockbuster sad and lamenting when not attempting to talk this series up for non-fans. This has now continued on with the latest series called Caprica, which is supposed to be a prequel to Battlestar: Reimagined.
This state of low ratings isn’t just limited to shows like Galactica or Caprica. But what makes shows like these unique for the purpose of this analysis is that the fanbases of many of these shows make justifications as to why more people are not watching them. And often times, even without mentioning the show directly, they will point to the one show that was “low-rated,” but would revive and go on to become one of the most enduring and profitable franchises in TV land:
When Gene Roddenberry first penned the show in 1966, it faced some stiff competition and was originally rejected by CBS (which was airing Lost in Space at the time). To make a long story short, it was canceled after 79 episodes spanning 3 seasons. But the show had a very large following and would be credited to keeping interest in the franchise for decades.
Unfortunately, while this has meant that science fiction can be successful on the small screen, it has also meant that shows that have come after it which suffer from very low ratings and market share will have its fanbases looking at Trek and believing that Trek’s success can be duplicated. This is often done by looking at incomplete data and drawing the wrong conclusions from it.
I have deemed this The Star Trek Fallacy; The belief that, if given enough time, the show in question will surely prosper. So let’s look at some of the details of the Fallacy and put them into a greater perspective with regards to the Television Audience in general.
An argument of the Star Trek Fallacy is that the story being offered by the series is too progressive or liberal or too “forward for its time” or, the all-time favorite “not afraid to take on the issues that need to be discussed.”
However, the truth must be told: 99% of all science fiction and fantasy that is written, produced for television or movies, drawn for comic books – in other words, produced for consumption for the larger audience – is pure drivel.
Why? Because the stories themselves take the “safe” route; that is, they don’t really discuss the issue at hand, nor do they offer any real thought-provoking analysis. Instead, the writing attempts to inject a small “twist” to a similar story already told in the same structure and manner and makes do. This kind of writing may hold up for the week at hand, but when you write a series based on the trend of the week or month, the tapestry of the season fails to take coherent shape, not to mention the structure of the series as a whole failing because of it.
If science fiction is your vehicle for a morality tale, then you better know what your abject lesson is supposed to be. If you attempt to “blow the mind of the audience,” they will respond by changing the channel…and avoiding the channel at the timeslot your show occupies.
Indicators of a Larger Audience…Where?
Another of the arguments that make up the Star Trek Fallacy is that the Original Series had a larger audience than the Nielsen Ratings accounted for. When the series was canceled after three seasons, there were many calls to bring the series back to television, with massive write-in campaigns for more than a few years. Interest in the show remained extremely high, and re-runs of the show kept the show in circulation – as viewers continued to watch the show in large numbers. The history and staying power of Star Trek would be unmatched in TV for its time – which brought about hundreds of TV episodes, 11 feature release films, many comic books, hundreds of novels over the course of almost 40 years, as well as board games, ship models, costumes and props. The list goes on. Thus, a “groundswell” was found and capitalized on. These numbers were not accounted for in the original Nielsen Ratings back in 1966 through 1969, and the subsequent sales and interest showed an audience rating-to-interest disparity.
In order for a show to demonstrate the same kind of non-accounting whatsoever, there needs to be a similar kind of disparity in something that can be measured by actual metrics. However, when confronted with this part of the equation, the actual argument for such a indicator just does not seem to hold truth.
Also, when you think about it, this is an argument that should never, ever, be made by anyone who supports a particular show. Because a low-rated show is usually an indicator that the show itself is not entertaining at all. This is the most important thing that must be remembered above all else.
People watched Heroes in the beginning because it was entertaining. When it turned into the usual meandering mess that sci-fi shows become, no one watched anymore. The Bionic Woman remake is another example. This show had name recognition, a prime time slot, so-so competition on the other three networks, and an ad campaign that costs more than the majority of Hollywood blockbusters. However, the show itself was a mess; the characters were unappealing, the story was pedestrian, and the general feel of this show was similar to that of Battlestar: Reimagined (Dark and drab). The series premiere garnered the most viewers, mostly because the ads heavily promoted the Bionic Catfight in the Rain – and it still did not take the top spot that week. By the fourth episode, the Fox show “Kitchen Nightmares” had begun fighting with Bionic Woman for third place on a weekly basis. And considering that Fox probably spent somewhere around 10 percent of NBC’s advertising budget alone for the entire series run of Kitchen Nightmares, the return-on-investment for Fox brings them well ahead.
And that also means that Bionic Woman was not an entertaining show.
Another argument of the Star Trek fallacy is the awards that the show has received. The problem here is that awards for television, like any award that requires an opinion to be used as criteria, is that it is subject to undue outside influence. The second problem is that especially with science fiction, the number of actual nominees for a particular show are extremely limited; most networks do not carry a science fiction show in their schedule, and those that do are often the smaller networks. So, to round out the competition, shows that do not meet all of the general requirements are added.
Yet, even taking this into account, the only award that matters is the seal of approval of the viewing audience. Awards, especially the smaller trade industry types (Hugo, Saturn) only look good when the producers are looking to renew the show on the network. Awards themselves do a pretty poor job of adding eyeballs to Nielsens.
Where is the Outside Interest?
A few years ago, there was an event where NBC/Universal paid many dollars to “rent” the UN General Assembly Meeting Room to hold an event pertaining to Battlestar Galactica Revised. The reason why I have termed it as such comes from the level of press involvement concerning the actual event; the event was mostly relegated to 2nd and 3rd level mentioning on the entertainment and trade magazine pages.
However, to hear the spin on this, you would have believed that the United Nations invited the cast and crew of the show in the hallowed halls of the UN Building because many of the delegates had seen the show and wanted to share this “brilliant sci-fi show” with the world. And given the blog postings and mentions of the event as affirmation of this show’s place in history, the spin worked the way it was supposed to.
Contrast it with this event: NASA, when the new Space Shuttle Orbiter commissioned in the late 1970s, opened a naming contest for the new space ship. Almost not surprisingly, the name Enterprise, in honor of the iconic Star Trek ship, was chosen by the voters. To celebrate the choice of the name, NASA invited the original cast of the Star Trek show to the christening of the shuttle.
It Needs Time to Get Good…Why?
This particular fallacy was not made for the first Star Trek, but rather for its first first live-action progeny Star Trek: The Next Generation. The first season of this show was heavy on recycled concepts and scripts of the first series, and it nearly sank the show. The second season would be where the show would find its legs, and then propelled into the mainstream after Season 3, when Captain Picard is transformed into a Borg and has to fight the Federation.
And because of this, many science fiction fans hold out hope that their show or spinoff will be recognized similarly. However, what separates Next Generation from most shows is that the writing staff actually penned scripts that a general audience could follow, and the actors brought those scripts to life. Far too often, science fiction and fantasy shows run in one of two directions: Heavy action or soap opera drama. As mentioned previously, science fiction is best served with a helping of abject lesson. It also helps if the lesson is not intentionally muddled or ambiguous in an effort to placate a political opinion. If your show lacks this, then you better hope that your actors are oscar-caliber, because that is all your audience will have to look at, because action and bad drama are not science-fiction’s forte.
In other words, their needs for this are served better elsewhere.
The Final Word:
If your show is well-scripted, well-acted, and entertaining, then people will watch. But no one is under any obligation whatsoever to do so. This cannot be forgotten as a fan.