Monday, June 11, 2018

An Age Without Trust: Science Fiction on Linear TV

               Every year in roughly the first two weeks of May, broadcast and cable networks announce their yearly cancellations like clockwork.  Many TV series pass unlamented and are quickly forgotten, victims of low ratings, attrition, old age, or simply apathy.  However, some cancelled series still have a devoted, angry fanbase ready to yell once the announcement comes, and The Expanse was one of them.  When SyFy announced its cancellation a few weeks ago, its viewers were so upset that many of them threatened to abandon the channel altogether.  Although it can be tempting for some commentators to dismiss such emotional responses as “overreaction”, this cancellation fits a pattern of negative behavior in terms of how linear networks treat their speculative fiction series that makes such disgust by science fiction fans completely understandable.

               Sci fi series on broadcast networks often have short and unpredictable lives.  The Fox network has had a long-lived reputation for giving its series a quick cancellation, from Space: Above and Beyond in the 90s to Firefly in the early 2000s to Almost Human in the 2010s.  Even series that manage to survive their first season have no guarantee of longevity on Fox; witness Lucifer’s abrupt third season cancellation, even though the writers were so certain of a renewal that they ended the season on a cliffhanger!  Most other broadcast networks don’t even bother with sci fi, except the CW, which typically only approves properties owned by DC Comics.

               With their emphasis on niche audiences and lower production costs, cable channels would seem to offer a better potential for sci fi series to succeed than on broadcast TV.  Yet cable channels are just as prone to cancelling their sci fi series as broadcast networks in favor of “reaching out to a wider audience”.  SyFy is particularly bad about frustrating its viewership by cancelling its series in the third season, as they had cancelled Dark Matter roughly a year before The Expanse.  BBC America has also been proven likely to cancel any sci fi series that isn’t Doctor Who, doing in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency at the end of its first season.

               Streaming platforms have proven to offer a strong audience platform for science fiction series, in contrast to the linear cable and broadcast stations of today.  Amazon began its streaming platform with an adaptation of The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick, and quickly “uncancelled” The Expanse after SyFy abandoned it, ensuring that a fourth season would exist on Amazon Prime.  Netflix has greenlit and showcased numerous sci fi series already, ranging from the family-friendly Lost in Space to the dark and gritty Altered Carbon.  Also encouraging is the fact that the streaming platforms seem much less likely to do a surprise cancellation with no resolution than the broadcast and cable networks; Netflix even went through the trouble of funding a 2 hour ending movie for the cancelled series Sense8, an action unthinkable for broadcast networks.  This suggests that the future of sci fi “TV” may not be in linear TV at all, but in the more fertile grounds of streaming.  Could a better future for audiences of speculative fiction be had away from the world of overnight ratings and early summer cancellations?