2011: The Year Television Owns Comic-Con

When Doctor Who descended on San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, the British time-travelling juggernaut brought along megastar David Tennant and producer Russell T. Davies. But Comic-Con still stuck the Doctor in Ballroom 20, the smaller hall where television shows go.

This year, the show's bringing Matt Smith and Karen Gillan — and it's getting a spot in Hall H, the giant 6,000-seat auditorium where the big studios show off their movies.

It's just part of a trend — 2011 is the year that television dominates Comic-Con.

Besides Spider-Man and the possible inclusion of The Avengers, is there any movie coming to SDCC that fans are more excited about than Game of Thrones? Or Doctor Who? Is there a movie with a more heavy emphasis on special effects and big concept than Terra Nova?

While movie studios are staying away from Comic-Con, television shows are making a bigger impact than ever. That's partly because there are more television shows that are generating excitement among the core fan audience that Comic-Con represents. And partly, it's because with survival on television a riskier proposition than ever, almost every show needs to generate a lot of excitement just to stay alive.

So the studios are screening pilots for J.J. Abrams' Alcatraz and Person of Interest, and Kevin Williamson's Secret Circle. They're bringing out the big stars for Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and Torchwood. And they're hoping to heck that you'll get interested in Grimm, Once Upon a Time and Terra Nova.

Television actually needs fan buzz to a greater extent than movies — there are several TV shows on the air because their fan bases supported them, including Fringe and Chuck. The thing that Comic-Con is good at — whipping up a few thousand fannish tastemakers into a frenzy of excitement about a property — is just the thing that television shows need.

As we've pointed out before, it seems like movies and television shows display a similar trajectory: A movie will have a huge opening weekend and then drop off by up to 65 percent in its second weekend. Similarly, television shows like Bionic Woman, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Flash Forward and V all had massive ratings for their first episodes, followed by a huge drop in the following weeks. The only difference is, a movie only needs one great weekend to make money. A television show needs to stabilize its second- and third-week dropoff to survive. So movies gain only a minor advantage from firing up the fans, while television needs a loyal following.

But not only does television need Comic-Con more than movies, but also we're living through a time when a lot of the most interesting work is being done on television. People have been noticing for a while. Thanks to premium cable channels like HBO, some ambitious producers for channels like TNT, foreign imports, and the occasional network standout, television is rocking our world.

One of the summer's best movies might actually be Game of Thrones. And all indications are that Torchwood will be this summer's answer to Inception: a huge mindfuck with a human story at its center.

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out in last week's issue, a lot of movie stars are moving to television this fall, accelerating a trend that's been going on for a decade. This is partly because there aren't any medium-sized movies any more — everything is either a huge-budget blockbuster or a small indie film — and medium-sized movies are what allowed these stars to be stars. But also, the films that were in the middle were where the most interesting stories were often told: films with both special effects and ideas. That kind of work, increasingly, will be on television instead.

(Although bemoaning the death of the midsized movie seems a bit premature, given the success of films like District 9 and Battle: Los Angeles.)

Of course, it's not like Comic-Con promises a golden ticket for TV shows that put in a good showing there. Some television shows will crash and burn at Comic-Con, just like some movies do. Others may get some buzz and then burn out, the way The Event did last year.

But for the shows that are playing to an already-devoted fanbase, or which have something really special to bring to SDCC, this year offers a really special opportunity. In the big magic cavern of Ballroom 20 — or for a few shows, Hall H — the fans will gather in their thousands and soak up whatever new footage and clever in-jokes the television stars bring to them. And for a little while, at least, the creators of some of television's finest episodes will feel like movie stars.