Does the Sci-Fi Channel Know What Good Television Is?

I understand Dan’s frustration, here, but I’m not sure if I share his conclusions. I do agree that the Sci-Fi Channel’s treatment of Battlestar Galactica is bordering on abusive, but it might be going too far to suggest that the station’s executives don’t know what good television is.

The channel that decided to cancel Stargate-SG1 after 10 continuously successful seasons. The channel that decided to kill Farscape because quality television is too expensive to produce for the masses. The channel that enjoys making made-for-TV-excrement like MANSQUITO (and no, I’m NOT making this up)…

The channel that has destroyed Battlestar Galactica — not outright, but in a manner akin to being pecked to death by ducks!

Dan is complaining (and I agree with him) that Sci-Fi channel is playing fast and loose with the loyalty of Battlestar Galactica’s fans. The Season 2 DVDs were broken up into two full-priced sets to milk as much money from their audience as possible. The program has been put on hiatus arbitrarily and, worst of all, not only did the station refuse to give executive producers Ron Moore and David Eick two years to wrap up the show properly, when the executive producers agreed to wrap up the rest of the show in one season (a decision I can accept), Sci-Fi announced that the 20 episodes would be broken up into two viewing blocks, essentially seasons, likely shown about a year apart (March 2008 for the first ten, and January 2009 for the final ten).

When you add this with Sci-Fi channel’s treatment of its other better shows, especially Farscape which was abruptly cancelled on a nasty little cliffhanger and could only be rescued by a cobbled together mini-series, and when you add this with Sci-Fi’s disastrous made-for-tv featurs of Mansquito and a truly dire (and LeGuin condemned) adaptation of Earthsea, you start to wonder if Sci-Fi’s executives believe that science fiction is only sellable if it is poorly written. Add to this the station’s initial refusal to purchase the first season of the revived Doctor Who due “quality concerns” and you definitely begin to go “hmmm.”

But the explanation for Sci-Fi’s actions are far more mundane and come down to dollars and cents. Indeed, it starts with Sci-Fi’s decision to cancel Stargate SG-1. Far from an indictment against the station not recognizing a successful formula when it lands in their laps, the ten year run of this program elevates SG1 to an elite class of television programs that have produced new episodes each year for a decade or more. That’s a successful program well recognized. Every iteration of the Star Trek franchise died in seven years or less, including the fresh Deep Space Nine variant, for precisely the same reason. Keeping a show alive after seven seasons produces a diminishing rate of return, especially after the fortune has already been made with DVD purchases and syndication sales.

Sci-Fi channel is probably well aware that Battlestar Galactica is critically acclaimed, and that it has a staunch fan base, and it probably is grateful for those facts. On the minus side, however, Battlestar Galactica is an expensive program to make, thanks to the special effects costs, and to the huge and varied cast. And as we can see with Sci-Fi channel’s gouging of Battlestar Galactica’s fans, monetary interests trump all.

We are not dealing with a network program with an audience figure in the tens of millions. We are dealing with a speciality network competing for a highly fractured audience, suggesting that the profit margin is a lot smaller than the station’s masters would like. And this isn’t Sci-Fi’s problem alone. Witness the amazing dumbing down of A&E, which used to sell itself as a commercially-backed version of PBS but degenerated to Gotti-family reality programs, censored Soprano reruns and home renovations gone wrong. Or what about the Learning Channel now being less about learning and more about fashion tips for the terminally desperate?

Clearly what has happened is that the vaunted 500-channel universe has not delivered the democratization of programming that was promised twenty years ago. We used to believe that any niche program could find itself an audience here, but we forgot the other side of the demand/supply equation: television costs money to produce, and sometimes good television costs a lot of money to produce. Good television can’t all be about a small number of characters occupying a small number of sets. And a small number of viewers don’t have enough money amongst themselves to support that production.

It is shameful that Sci-Fi channel would even consider forcing fans to wait an entire year for a series to end, while the produced episodes gathered dust in a vault, but I’m just grateful that the revised Battlestar Galactica even got produced in the first place. As counter-intuitive as it might seem coming from a network called the Sci-Fi Channel, that was no mean feat.

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