Television

TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011... Number 6

There was both good and bad news for the so-called geek and nerd audience, as Fringe survived its move to Friday night, but they were left with no Space Opera with the cancellation of Caprica and Stargate Universe.

High Point Number 6: Fringe Survives the Friday Night Death Slot

For the past three years Fringe has delivered some of the most interesting sci-fi on TV. So fans of the show learned late in 2010 that the series was being moved to Friday night, into what has become known more and more as The Death Slot (a designation so widely used that it has its own Wikipedia article).

For the past two decades Friday night on Fox TV has been the place where shows go to die. The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., Brimstone, Dark Angel, Firefly, Tru Calling,Wonderfalls, M.A.N.T.I.S., Sliders, and Dollhouse were all cancelled after failing to attract a significant audience on Friday night. More disturbingly, Fox has had a tendency to shift shows it intends to cancel into the slot, including such shows nearing their end as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Bernie Mac Show.

At one time Friday and Saturday evenings were major nights for television viewers. But this began changing due to significant changes in American TV viewing habits. The development of cable television came first, which resulted in an ongoing fragmentation of the viewing audience, a trend that not only continues, but has accelerated as the Internet provides more alternatives to cable. Many younger viewers, in fact, eschew cable TV entirely, relying instead on streaming content or downloading from Torrent websites.

But what redefined TV use on Fridays and Saturdays even more was first the invention of the VCR and then its replacement by the DVD player. Complicating TV programming further is the fact that many of the younger viewers tend to go out on Fridays, thus depriving the networks of the very ones they prefer to target in their advertising. DVRs mean that no one has to miss a show.

Most networks have taken either of three approaches to Friday nights (Saturdays they have simply given up on).

First, some target older audiences. CBS has had considerable success with this approach, while shows like Monk on the USA Network. Even though they are not able to charge as much in advertising because the audiences are outside the coveted younger age bracket, they at least are able to attract considerable niche advertising.

Second, some have opted for cheap reality television. Most of the networks have toyed with food programs, nanny shows, or other formats to try and retain some audience share.

The third approach has been to target the nerds and geeks. I suppose the assumption is that fans of sci-fi and fantasy have no lives apart from their weekly meetings to play Magic: The Gathering, or perhaps it's the memory of the massive success The X-Files enjoyed on the night in its early seasons.

Whatever the reason, Friday night has become the Night of the Nerd. The two networks that have most consistently tried to schedule sci-fiand fantasy on Fridays have been Fox and SyFy, though the latter has more recently shifted its post-Battlestar Galactica shows to other evenings. Two years ago the CW shifted Smallville to Friday, which did surprisingly well, encouraging them to pair it this past season with Supernatural this past season. With Smallville having finished its decade-long run, the Winchester Brothers will be paired this coming season with Nikita. NBC is joining the rush towards Friday night sci-fi/fantasy programing by pairing its nerd espionage series Chuck with the new fantasy series Grimm.

Nonetheless, despite all these signs that several networks see Friday night as the evening to vie for the nerd niche audience, Fringe fans were understandably nervous. Too many Fox series had, after all, been moved to Fridays as a preliminary to cancellation. Even as part of the weeknight schedule Fringe had not been a ratings beast, especially when compared to Fox’s other scripted shows like 24, Glee, or even House and Bones, not to mention American Idol.

Fans of the show felt that there was a lot at stake for fans of sci-fi and fantasy. During the past year a string of genre shows either were cancelled or ended intentionally, including Caprica, Smallville, Stargate Universe, and the two superhero disappointments No Ordinary Family and The Cape. There was also widespread disappointment that several TV pilots did not make it to series, with networks declining to pick up the magical detective series 17th Precinct, the controversial Wonder Woman, and the highly anticipated Locke and Key. Of the sci-fi series remaining on the air, Fringe probably is the most critically acclaimed. A few new shows are scheduled for next year. Alphas, about a government agency manned with individuals with superpowers, has already started on SyFy, and although extremely derivative, nonetheless has enough style to be a welcome new addition, unlike the poorly conceived alien invasion series Falling Skies. The teen-oriented witchcraft series The Secret Circle debuts on the CW, while Powers is one of the more promising series Fox is developing.

Fringe is definitely a show that deserves to survive. It has the marks of a great series: fine characters, strong writing, and its own style. In fairness, it's no greater than several of the other shows that Fox cancelled after being scheduled on Friday. But perhaps after all this time the network has decided that it's spitting into the wind, that no show is going to get better numbers than Fringe. I do suspect that the relative success of Fringe and perhaps even more the achievement of Smallville in holding its numbers upon moving to the night may be partly behind NBC’s scheduling two shows on the evening.

But not all the news for nerds is good. Just consider…

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