"The Lord of the Rings" collected an awe-inspiring 11 Oscars, and its best picture win was a first for a fantasy film, but fans of fantasy, horror and science-fiction entertainment can't count on the critical success of "Rings" -- and its box-office records -- to sweep their favorite genre from the multiplex to the TV schedule.
The truth is stranger -- and stronger -- than fantasy: Market forces have a stranglehold on even the smaller networks and cable channels that used to nurture genre TV.
"I do think it's harder for science fiction and genre shows to make it than it has been in the past. It's harder for them to find their place," says Dawn Ostroff, president of UPN.
Witness: The vampire series "Angel," a highly regarded spinoff from the cult classic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was recently canceled by the WB. Fox's undead drama, "Tru Calling," is in true jeopardy. Even the future of the futuristic genre stalwart "Star Trek: Enterprise" is in danger.
But the biggest indignity may have been suffered by "Jake 2.0," the sci-fi flavored saga of a computer nerd-turned-superhero.
UPN recently aired a repeat episode of its reality show, "America's Next Top Model," in "Jake's" time slot. The would-be cover girls' rerun beat the mutant computer nerd's usual ratings. The upshot: "Jake" is "on hiatus" (in other words, don't look for it next year).
Veteran television producers and executives point to a variety of causes for the downward trend in genre TV:
- Reality TV is crowding out scripted programming of all kinds.
"Reality programming is cheap to produce and has caught on with the public, and scripted drama is getting squeezed," says Paul Attanasio, the veteran "Homicide" writer/producer, whose "Century City," a legal drama set in the year 2030, premieres on CBS on March 16. "There's no doubt that the universe for scripted drama has contracted."
- Reality generally costs less to produce, and it often snags a younger demographic.
"It's absolutely cheaper," Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer says of the network's reality programming, which includes the hidden-camera show "Scare Tactics" and "Mad Mad House."
"But it's not so much about the money," Hammer adds. "The traditional [sci-fi] dramas bring in older audiences, the 24-49 [year-old] demographic. The advertisers want the 18-34-year-old demo -- they're trying to sell to a younger audience."
- Genre television, especially the spaceship-roaming-the-galaxy variety, is not only costlier than reality TV, it also can be more expensive than a cop show or a legal drama.
When he was the executive producer of HBO's supernatural-tinged drama "Carnivale," Ron Moore says his staff could conserve cash by renting some sets and costumes. That wasn't the case for his updated remake of "Battlestar Galactica," which is in production for the Sci Fi Channel. For that show, Moore says, "everything has to be created."
- Networks are under unprecedented pressure from their corporate owners to make serious profits.
"The bean counters are more in control than they ever were before," says Ira Steven Behr, executive producer of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," UPN's "The Twilight Zone" and USA Network's upcoming alien-abductee mini-series, "The 4400." "It's not just what's on screen that's hurt [by small budgets], it's how many staff people you can hire, how many writers you can hire, which I think is a very bad trend."
Behr says the relentless cost-cutting is the reason box-office success of such fantasy and sci-fi fare as "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" doesn't -- and won't -- translate to the small screen.
"They spent the money and went for it," Behr says of those films. "On TV right now, it's, `Pull back, pull back, cut corners.'"
- A corollary to the profit pressure: Interference from network executives is at an all-time high, according to several veteran producers.
'Rings' can't work its magic on the small screen
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