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Sci Fi's renewal of 'Battlestar Galactica' expected

The viewership isn't out of this world, but the network makes plans for 13 more episodes.

February 13, 2007|Denise Martin | Special to The Times

For a while, things looked iffy for "Battlestar Galactica." After the Sci Fi Channel last month moved the third-season drama about a human resistance movement against an occupying race of robots from Friday nights to Sunday nights in an attempt to goose ratings, viewership remained stagnant.

The network has ruled, however, that the show won't live by numbers alone: The Sci Fi Channel is expected to announce today that it has renewed the series for a fourth season. At least 13 new episodes will be produced this summer for a premiere next January.

The show's audience has always been modest, especially when compared with those for basic cable's "The Closer" and "Nip/Tuck," which typically reach double or triple the audience of "Battlestar Galactica."

Since moving to 10 p.m. Sundays, the science-fiction show's episodes have averaged 1.7 million viewers overall and 1.1 viewers ages 18 to 49, the key demographic targeted by advertisers.

But "Battlestar Galactica" stands as one of the most critically acclaimed series on television. It also won the prestigious Peabody Award and was counted among the American Film Institute's top 10 outstanding TV programs two years in a row. Critics often describe the show in lofty terms, referring to it as a multilayered allegory for a post-9/11 world that raises questions about the ethics and politics of war.

The Sci Fi Channel cites the series' strong buzz and critical praise -- a halo effect that can't be quantified in ratings points or ad dollars -- as the reason for its renewal.

" 'Battlestar' is a cachet show. It gives us a lot of credibility with the creative community," said Mark Stern, head of programming for the cable network. "It's the kind of series we want to continue producing in the future."

Once known for its "Star Trek"-style space operas and Saturday night B movies, Sci Fi now boasts projects in development from George Clooney, Darren Star ("Sex and the City") and Mark Burnett ("The Apprentice"), in addition to a second miniseries for the channel from Steven Spielberg, who was the executive producer of "Taken" in 2002.

Stern also pointed out that 510,000 additional viewers in the 18-to-49 demographic are watching the show on digital video recorders. They bring the total demographic average closer to 1.6 million, the show's highest numbers since Season 1.

Advertisers, however, do not yet pay for the playback ratings because the general assumption is that viewers watching recorded programs fast-forward through the commercials. It could be a crucial point for the channel, and Stern is hopeful that the business model is shifting.

"Who knows? This upfront season you might find that we can monetize that DVR usage," he said. "The important thing is when you add in the DVR numbers, the audience is there."

Bringing back moderately rated, critically hailed series has largely been the privilege of subscription networks such as HBO and Showtime, which don't make money from advertisers.

The Sci Fi Channel acknowledged that "Battlestar Galactica" is the network's most expensive original series, but costs are also offset by strong DVD sales (more than 1 million discs of the show have been sold).

Either way, executives and producers say they are comfortable with where the ratings have settled.

"The show is always going to be limited [in appeal] by its title," said executive producer David Eick. "We just tell the best stories we can and hope that it will convince some people it's not a show just for 'Star Trek' fans."

Ronald D. Moore, the executive producer who developed the remake of the 1978 series, and Eick are busy working on outside projects (Moore is writing a remake of the sci-fi thriller "The Thing" for Universal Pictures, while Eick is producing the NBC series pilot for "The Bionic Woman"), which gave some fans pause for concern.

Moore said with a laugh: "I don't think we ever doubted doing another season. I design my season-ending cliffhangers with the hubris that we'll be back."

Moore and Eick recently confirmed rampant online speculation that by the end of the season, one of the main characters would be revealed as a Cylon, the robotic race set on wiping out its human counterparts.

Moore said that he had a general idea of where the story would go in the fourth season but hadn't committed anything to paper. He and Eick went to Las Vegas over the weekend to get started.

"We'll hash it out over blackjack and Jack Daniels," Eick said. "We came up with the second season cliffhanger over a Johnny Walker Blue."

The season finale airs March 25.

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