`Terra Nova’ demise shows story is more important than money


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For all the talk about how new revenue streams, distribution platforms and the international marketplace are reinventing the television business, a show’s success or failure still depends on how well it does on its home turf.

Case in point is Fox’s ‘Terra Nova,’ the big-budget drama about a family that travels from 2149 to prehistoric times to try to save Earth only to run into some angry dinosaurs. Although the show was expensive — the per-episode production cost was about $4 million — it was not a money loser.


Because the show sold well overseas, 20th Century Fox Television, the production company behind ‘Terra Nova,’ was already making money on it, people familiar with the matter say. Fox Broadcasting, which was paying just over $2 million per episode in license fees for ‘Terra Nova,’ was also on solid financial ground with the show, the network’s entertainment chief Kevin Reilly said in January.

So why pull the plug? Ultimately the network didn’t believe the creative elements of the show were working or that the ratings would justify its big investment if the series kept going. Fox’s Reilly made no secret of his concerns about the show’s struggles to balance itself between being a family drama and a science fiction piece. The show, he said in January, was ‘hunting’ for an identity.

While ‘Terra Nova’ averaged about 10 million viewers and respectable 3.6 rating among adults 18-49 in its 13-episode run last fall, Fox needed bigger numbers. The production time on the special effects-filled series is much longer than a typical drama, meaning Fox could order only 13 episodes per season instead of the typical 22 or 24.

That being the case, it was crucial that ‘Terra Nova’ have a huge audience that would stick with the show through its longer than usual hiatus. Even if the show was profitable for Fox in Season 1, any falloff in the ratings might have pushed ‘Terra Nova’ out of the black and into the red in Season 2.

There will likely be debate about whether networks should still swing for the fences or play it safe. NBC is no doubt wondering the same thing with its musical drama ‘Smash.’ The problem with ‘Terra Nova’ wasn’t just that it cost too much. It was that all the special effects couldn’t overcome that ultimately the story itself wasn’t enough to pull in a big audience.



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— Joe Flint