"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.
"The problem, in a nutshell, is the more hands-on involvement of network and studio executives, focus groups and creative committees in the process," J. Michael Straczynski, executive producer of "Babylon 5" and Showtime's post-apocalyptic "Jeremiah," said via e-mail.
"There's nothing more wonderful than getting a really great exec who understands story, and they're certainly out there, but . . . in the minority," he continues. "When those who don't understand story start imposing things on a show, matters get dicey. . . . And they interfere at levels they didn't generally touch in the past."
- The networks' desire to follow established, successful formulas collides with the nature of science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV, which, at its best, breaks the rules.
"We're faced with two very large, looming presences on TV now, which are reality and the procedurals" such as "CSI" or "Law & Order," Behr says. "To do genre television, it takes a certain kind of focus in terms of imagination. The more chefs you have in the kitchen, the more difficult it becomes to get any kind of vision on the screen."
"The genre audience isn't tuning in to see if the cops catch whoever murdered somebody this week," Moore says. "They're tuning in to lose themselves in a different world."
- Many sci-fi, horror and fantasy shows have complex, ongoing story arcs, which fans love but which make network executives break out in hives.
With cop shows and legal dramas, "the audience knows what it's going to get," Behr says. "Science-fiction and genre TV has the reputation of asking somewhat more from audiences."
Genre TV, Behr adds, often "needs time to get the audience behind it and get comfortable with it. And time is just what they don't want to give shows these days."
David Greenwalt, who co-created "Angel" with Joss Whedon, saw his supernatural drama "Miracles" canceled by ABC last year and "Jake 2.0" put on hiatus by UPN this year. He doesn't sound optimistic about the future of scripted television in general.
"When you've got a show like `America's Top Model' that costs a 10th of what `Jake' does and scores better with a rerun, we're [expletive]," Greenwalt told the wire service Zap2It in January.
"I think that there aren't too many genre shows that are as broad-based as some reality shows," says Ostroff, who wouldn't comment on the renewal chances of "Enterprise" or on the prospect of UPN reviving the WB's canceled vampire drama, "Angel."
Still, it's not a total horror show for genre TV. ABC is taking a cautious chance on the form with the 13-part weekly drama "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital," which premiered Wednesday. The horror-hospital tale is based on a 10-year-old Danish mini-series by director Lars von Trier -- but ABC probably would not have developed the project without the involvement of a marquee name such as King's, an author with a huge, devoted following.
"It would have been much harder to do without Stephen King," says Quinn Taylor, the network's senior vice president of movies and mini-series.
"It's just different," Taylor says of "Kingdom Hospital." "Anything to break through the clutter of sameness. Why take on `Law & Order' with another cop show?"
There are a few other signs that genre TV isn't quite dead yet. The supernatural drama "Joan of Arcadia" has turned out to be a surprise hit for CBS; the quirky fantasy show "Wonderfalls" is getting a tryout on Fox starting March 12; and the WB has hired "X-Files" director Rob Bowman to helm a new version of the classic '60s vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows."
The Sci Fi Channel, which raised the ire of genre fans in 2002 by canceling "Farscape" because of the show's "extreme and growing cost," remains committed to scripted programming. That's partly because, as various executives noted, the lower cost of reality shows is offset by the fact that those shows don't have much of an afterlife as repeats or in syndication.
The Sci Fi Channel recently picked up the syndicated sci-fi show "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda"; it has a mini-series adaption of Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea" books in the works; and it ordered a "Battlestar Galactica" series after a two-night mini-series did well in December (it averaged a 3.5 rating, which is big by Sci Fi's standards).
Another success for Sci Fi has been the consistently entertaining interstellar drama "Stargate SG-1," a pickup from Showtime that finishes its seventh season on March 19. Sci Fi is so pleased with the ratings for the show -- lately it has been averaging a 1.9 rating or more than 2 million viewers -- that the channel is developing a spinoff called "Stargate: Atlantis," which will debut alongside season eight of "SG-1" in July.
"You have to be able to minimize your risk," Hammer says of the network's affinity for well-known franchises such as "Stargate" and "Battlestar." Going with proven genre performers "doesn't mean you'll have a surefire success, it means that it's a calculated risk, if you have a strong template."
"What we develop has to be grounded in our reality," Hammer says. "There's a whole audience that loved `The Matrix' that might stay away out of ignorance [about what's on Sci Fi]. We want to capture that huge audience that went to see `Lord of the Rings' and `Harry Potter.'"
And maybe, once the reality craze dies down, the next "X-Files" or "Angel" will get a chance.
"For the past few years, networks have been so trigger happy," UPN's Ostroff says. "This past season I think they're sitting with shows a lot longer than in past years. What you look for is some growth. A show doesn't have to be a huge success right away -- you just need to see the arrow going in the right direction."
Attanasio says part of his strategy for getting the futuristic law drama "Century City" on the air was to sell it as a legal show and to keep the sci-fi element subtle -- costumes and courtrooms on the show are only slightly different from what you'd see today.
"Really, the trick with sci-fi is to figure out a way to make it about us," he says. "If it's a world you don't recognize, then you shouldn't watch it."
Dick Askin, president of Tribune Entertainment, which syndicates genre fare such as "Andromeda" and "Mutant X," says he's not looking for the next "Star Trek" -- a new show about people roaming around in spaceships is, he says, "a long putt" in today's TV environment. But he'd think about developing the next "Smallville."
"TV runs in cycles," Askin says. "We may just be in one of those dormant periods. [Genre TV] inevitably will come back."