Will Sci-Fi Become The Invisible Genre On TV?

With news of more fall pilots slowly trickling out from the networks, we're wondering if other networks may be following Fox's lead in looking for shows that definitely aren't science fiction.

We noted on Wednesday that none of Fox's seven recently-announced pilots were the kind of sci-fi fare that we've come to expect (and worry about) from the network, and now that news of ABC and NBC's latest pilots has been released (more here), it may be time to wonder if sci-fi's lure has faded in light of recent ratings flops.

Of course, NBC's sci-fi phobia isn't entirely unfounded; in the last couple of years, Journeyman, Bionic Woman and My Own Worst Enemy have proven to be high-profile SF launches that flopped for the network, and with falling ratings for Heroes and rumors of the possible cancellation of both Knight Rider and Chuck circling, NBC could be forgiven for thinking that science fiction isn't really something they can succeed with long term (They'd much rather stick with er clones; two of the network's few announced pilots are medical dramas: Mercy and Trauma). In fact, you could make the argument that science fiction as a genre doesn't have a great track record for broadcast networks in general, especially considering the ratings worries of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and content concerns leading to reworkings of both Dollhouse and Virtuality over at Fox. Maybe the success of Fringe and Lost has more to do with JJ Abrams' name and the personal dynamics of the shows over the science portion (Remember, too, that Lost's producers have talked about having to introduce the sci-fi elements of the show secretly, over time)...?

(This is where you can insert your own argument about the failure of shows like Knight Rider or Bionic Woman being more closely attributed to their quality than their nature, and I think that definitely should be taken into consideration. But, at the same time, was Bionic Woman really that much worse that, say, NCIS? Or Law & Order? Do mainstream audiences hold sci-fi series to higher standards than other genres, or do the majority of them just stay away, and there's a discerning, curious crossover audience that'll give a show a try before bailing if it's not up to their standards?)

Instead, it's beginning to look as if television networks are beginning to look at more fantastical escapism for their audiences; Fox have a new pilot about reincarnation, and ABC have given the go-ahead to a television version of The Witches of Eastwick. Even Flash Forward, ABC's new high-profile series from David Goyer and Brannon Braga, could end up being played as a more spiritual/fantasy-based drama, depending on whether the series stays with the original novel's reason for the worldwide flash-forward (by-product of the Large Hadron Collider being activated), which - considering they've said that each season will end with another flash-forward, may not be the case.

(Interestingly enough, ABC may be the network to pay attention to next fall; in addition to Flash Forward and Eastwick, they've also greenlit Happy Town, a mystery pilot from the makers of Life on Mars that's described as being the next Twin Peaks.)

If we are about to see television networks shift away from hard sci-fi towards a particular urban brand of fantasy, there are some good reasons why, outside of the (relative) failure of sci-fi shows; the sleight-of-hand of urban fantasy allows for cheaper shows that require less world-building or technobabbled explanations that may confuse audiences, for example, and in the ongoing journey for television to grab as many youthful eyes as possible, exploiting the genre of Twilight and Harry Potter would seem like a no-brainer. Most importantly, of course, the term "science fiction" scares mass mainstream television audiences for some reason, despite the success of Fringe and Lost and Heroes, and the networks are just following the advertising dollars... which, of course, are following the mass mainstream audience.

It's not permanent, of course; all it'll take is another "surprise" hit SF show and we'll see science fiction stage another takeover bid, just as Heroes begat Journeyman, Chuck, Bionic Woman et al, and Lost's success brought us Surface, Threshold and Invasion. Jesse Alexander, we're pinning all our hopes on you.