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Why Sci-Fi Is on the Outer Limits of TV

July 28, 1991|SUE MARTIN | Sue Martin is an assistant in the Calendar film department

It doesn't take a Vulcan to figure out there is a black hole in television programming.

If eight out of the top 10 motion-picture grossers of all time are science fiction, fantasy and/or horror flicks, why isn't there more of the genre on television? The billion dollars or so spent on those movies would indicate that there is certainly a market for aliens, starships, the far future, the unreal and the unearthly. Just look at the box office for "Terminator 2," which is stomping to pulp the rest of the summer film crop.

But somehow, those numbers don't translate to the little box. Science fiction, fantasy and, to a lesser extent, horror are in thin supply and have been for sometime. That's not to say there haven't been any recent attempts. There have been plenty: "Beauty and the Beast," "Alien Nation," "Something Is Out There," "Dark Shadows," "The Flash."

But as for anything thriving currently, there's not much beyond "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and reruns of the original.

Cable has eroded the networks' hold on the genre, with shows such as HBO's "Tales From the Crypt" and the fact that cable in general seems to be amenable to cast-off network programming, such "Beauty and the Beast."

The upcoming television season is no different. The lone entry in the science-fiction/fantasy genre is NBC's upcoming "fantasy adventure show," "Eerie, Indiana," about a young boy who sees strange, weird events, when everyone else in town sees the same events as totally normal.

So why the disparity between all those "Terminator" fans and lack of same for TV?

Jose Rivera, "Eerie" co-producer and creator (along with Karl Schaeffer) said ruefully, "The Nielsen numbers don't register passion and the movie audiences go back because of their passion."

Danny Bilson, producer and creator (along with Paul de Meo) of CBS' most recent sci-fi corpse, "The Flash," said the main viewing audience for TV isn't the same audience that goes to the movies.

"Are they home and are they watching television? I think the TV audience is older and more conservative. I never felt (with "The Flash") it was a case of people going "yechhh!" It was just people didn't know it was out there. We also didn't need to be opposite one of the most popular shows on TV ("Cheers")."

"The Flash" returned in reruns on July 12 and will air Fridays at 9 p.m. through the summer. A spokesperson for Warner Bros. Television said, "That's the time spot we hoped for all along with the show. If for some reason it does really well, one could hope it would get renewed."

David Poltrack, vice president of planning and research at CBS in New York, said science fiction is "severely handicapped by the small screen, the cost and the demographic appeal." In the case of "The Flash," Poltrack said it was expensive "and so for it to stay on the air, it would have had to generate greater than average advertising revenue, because it cost more than the average show."

Mitchell Rubinstein, president of the nascent Science Fiction Channel, which is scheduled to be available on cable in the fall, said, "People go watch things based on word of mouth. Look at 'Batman.' What the audience wants on TV is not high-production movies, but they don't want something cheap either: They want something real." Rubinstein said that TV shows shouldn't compete with film: "They should go completely contrary--do minimal special effects. People want nostalgic stuff."

Based on results from a Gallup Poll conducted for the Sci-Fi Channel, Rubinstein said audiences don't want "E.T." or "Total Recall," they want "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Frankenstein", George Pal movies and the old "Dark Shadows." "They wanted the classic stuff," he said. "They could get the big movies on Showtime and HBO."

George R.R. Martin, a longtime science-fiction novelist and one of the producers of "Beauty and the Beast," said one problem is the networks are nervous about the words "science fiction."

"They feel it's a negative label, so producers slide shows in sideways like 'My Life and Times' and 'Quantum Leap.' Networks also allow stupidities on science-fiction shows that no one else would allow," he said. "If I was writing a cop show and I had a bomb go off under the cop car and the cop ended up on the Eiffel Tower, everyone would say, 'No way.' But, in "Space: 1999" they can have an explosion on the moon that sends it reeling off into space and that's OK."

Those interviewed for this article said good writing, not special effects, was the key to good science fiction on TV.

Paul de Meo, co-creator/producer of "The Flash," explained the bad science-fiction formula: "It's usually poorly produced, misconceived and doesn't have a feeling for the genre.

"And then (producers with a new TV show) have to overcome all that bad past."

Kenneth Johnson, producer of the successful "V" miniseries, "The Hulk" and "Alien Nation," said it all comes down to the writing.

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