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How Wrestling is Killing Science Fiction

Wednesday - May 4, 2011
Category: OPINION | Tags: , ,

WWE Smackdown

Usually we just report the news here at GateWorld, but every now and again I feel it necessary to abuse my privilege as chief and editorialize a bit. This is one of those posts.  Please just take it, for what it’s worth, as one science fiction fan’s opinion.


Thank you for the many years of outstanding entertainment you have given to me and my friends.  While I haven’t agreed with every creative or scheduling decision, every killed-off character or series cancellation, I do recognize that because of Syfy Channel I have laughed, cried, and cheered over the likes of Farscape, Stargate, Sanctuary, Battlestar Galactica, and so many others.

Since you ventured into original, scripted drama more than a decade ago, you’ve been one of the best places on television for the genre that I love so much.  And you’ve been one of the safest.  The big networks put the pressure on shows and cancel them after a season or less, sometimes not even airing all the episodes they paid to have filmed.  Firefly. Defying Gravity. The Event. No Ordinary Family. Moonlight. Earth 2. Surface. Invasion. Threshold.  But you give new series time to find their audience.  You’ve rescued shows from cancellation oblivion, you’ve aired those unaired episodes, and you’ve funded additional seasons when it looked like shows like Sliders and Stargate SG-1 were done.

Lately, however, your actions have started to concern me.  Consider this an intervention on the part of those who love you.  While your ratings are high and things seem like they are going great, you are on a self-destructive path.  And it doesn’t just hurt you.  It doesn’t just hurt those who fall in love with your outstanding scripted dramas.  It’s hurting the science fiction genre.

I understand that reality programming is here to stay.  Because it’s less expensive to produce and typically gets as-good or better ratings than scripted fare, reality TV has become a building block for the television landscape in the twenty-first century.  Hopefully that will come with some balance — something scripted, something unscripted, and viewers will choose what they like.  Face Off and Ghost Hunters are cool ideas. But please, do not forsake scripted drama because it doesn’t have as high a cost-benefit ratio.

I think you know this, and it’s not why I am writing today. I’m writing to talk about professional wrestling.  Your mother and I are very concerned about the kids you have been hanging out with.  I recognize that WWE Smackdown is the cool kid: he gets double the ratings of nearly any other show on the network, which is a huge boon to your ratings averages and, ultimately, to your profitability.  Money earned from wrestling can then be invested in making shows that don’t rate as highly. Like the Republicans say, the ratings “wealthy” can create jobs for the “middle class” of TV shows.  It’s not a terrible idea, even if I don’t think that wrestling fits with your network brand.

John Cena (right) delivers a crippling body slam to Caprica (left).

By changing your name from “SCI FI” to “Syfy” it became clear that you don’t want to program for the niche of science fiction fans any more — you want broader appeal.  You want to be popular.  If NCIS repeats became available and you could afford them, you’d snap them up and tell viewers to “imagine greater.”

Those of us who are first fans of the science fiction genre can see the writing on the wall.  When it comes to mass appeal, sci-fi is always at a disadvantage.  Good science fiction television needs to be nurtured, given space and time to grow.  But it will never be hugely popular.  And you don’t seem to be as interested in nurturing these days.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not writing you off. A two-year commitment to an expensive show like SGU was terrific, and Caprica‘s ratings were pretty bad. I’m not even saying that expanding to new nights of the week has been a bad idea.  I recognize the business strategy at work in your scheduling choices, and I see where it has paid off.  But the last seven months have told a powerful story to the programming department, and today you have to own up to your mistakes.  Let’s review the course of events that brought us here:

  • You acquired WWE Smackdown, and decided to keep it on Friday nights — where its own fan base expects it. Since it is a 2-hour block, the fall of 2010 seemed like the best time to branch into another night using those shows that were previously on Fridays.
  • So you planned to move Stargate Universe and Sanctuary to Tuesdays, where your other dramas have had great success during the (less competitive) summer months.  (With Warehouse 13 overlapping one week into the start of the fall season on the big networks, maybe you could hold on to some of those summer viewers and keep them on Syfy on Tuesdays.)
  • Caprica still needed an immediate renewal decision, however, so at the eleventh hour you put it in Sanctuary‘s place and kept Sanctuary on Fridays, after wrestling, in the one primetime hour still available there.
  • Tuesday nights during the fall season are incredibly tough.  Caprica sank below 1 million viewers and didn’t survive a month.  Stargate, meanwhile, flirted with disaster in its own ratings, hovering just inches above the 1 million viewer threshold.
  • Stargate finished out its fall run, but compared to its (falling) numbers on Friday last spring, things weren’t looking so good. You cancelled it in December.
  • In January you were ready to premiere a new scripted series, a remake of BBC’s Being Human. The show started strong and did very respectable numbers on Monday nights.  You renewed it and called it a win.  When Stargate returned for its final episodes, you moved it to Monday, too.  But it was a dead man walking, so no one expected a ratings resurrection.
  • Sanctuary, meanwhile, was still on Friday nights — and now it had WWE as a monster lead-in.  You know lead-ins matter.  You know that Fridays at 10 p.m. is now the plum time slot on your network.  You wish that the show you put there would retain a bit more of WWE‘s 2.5 to 3 million viewers, but Sanctuary was clearly doing well enough for a fourth season renewal.
  • Layla puts the squeeze on Sanctuary.

    When April arrived, things got truly telling.  Sanctuary started its spring season with surprisingly low numbers, considering it is a mid-season premiere and it has a 2.8 million viewer lead-in.  Meanwhile, your new Monday reality series Urban Legends premiered after Stargate on Monday, and couldn’t keep even half of SGU‘s already dismal viewership.  Sanctuary and Stargate have always had a similar audience, and Urban Legends could really benefit from that post-WWE time slot — so you did the logical thing and quickly switch them.

  • Now on Mondays at 10 p.m., Sanctuary is pulling in lower ratings than the already cancelled Stargate Universe.

What lessons is a programming executive to learn from this? Putting original (and expensive), scripted dramas on Tuesday nights during the fall season was a disaster.  Sanctuary is a good show, and it didn’t lose 40 percent of its audience because people decided to tune out.  It lost that audience because people expected to watch it on Friday night, where it’s always been and where science fiction has thrived on many networks. And because it had a monster lead-in there.

Now I understand that there are only three primetime hours per night, and you have a lot of good shows.  It helps the network tremendously to air original series on other nights of the week.  One million for a new original is better than 300,000 viewers from a repeat of Hercules.  But you must realize that the ratings for those shows will be proportionately lower than they were on Friday nights — about 40 percent, apparently.  Competing with the big networks on their big nights is still tough.

In short, cancelling SGU and Caprica because they couldn’t perform on Tuesdays was a mistake. You should own up to it.  You should admit that those shows would have performed much better (about 40 percent, apparently) on Fridays, and it’s your fault that they didn’t have the chance. They may well have earned enough viewers to warrant renewal.  But you decided not to nurture them, to give them the space and time they needed to solidify themselves creatively and in their audience.

You know that Stargate Universe is better now than it has ever been, and is even starting to win over some of the naysayers. But you cut it off at the knees, mid-story, without so much as a shortened season or mini-series to tie up this epic story in which you convinced us to involve ourselves.

Why? What was that one critical factor that brought an end to a 14-year franchise that made you a Top 10 cable network, that could have been your everlasting Law & Order or CSI?

Because wrestling has to air on Friday nights.

WWE Smackdown is your highest-rated show, far and away.  The fact that it is so highly rated — that no other show you make, scripted or unscripted, comes anywhere close — should tell you something.  I’d like to tell you it’s because it doesn’t belong on your network, but I’m resigned to the fact that it is a breadwinner.  But it is destroying good science fiction.  If you move it off of Friday nights, most of its loyal and ridiculously large audience will follow.  WWE does monster numbers for USA Network on Mondays. Wrestling fans will watch Smackdown instead of NCIS on Tuesdays, because they are already in the habit of not making good life choices.  Then your ratings still have the wrestling boost, but you’re back to having three hours of primetime real estate to nurture scripted drama.

Think of it this way: If your best friend moves out to the sticks, he’ll have a hard time convincing you to come and visit as often. But if you build a 50,000-seat sports arena in the sticks, fans will carpool and rent buses to get out there.

Big Show (right) prepares to finish off Stargate Universe (left) once and for all.

If you had renewed Stargate and demonstrated that your expectations for Tuesdays in the fall are proportionately lower (about 40 percent lower, apparently), we wouldn’t be having this conversation.  For the show’s creative growth, ultimately I don’t care how many people are watching it.  But to cancel one series and renew another, when the only ratings difference between the two was the night of the week you aired them, was incredibly short-sighted.

You’ve done great with Friday nights in the past, and you are doing great with Tuesdays in the summertime.  I think switching your summer dramas to Mondays will be an even greater success. I’m even happy with your foray into Mondays this winter and spring, even though it has been tougher-going. (I wonder if you had tried Mondays instead of Tuesdays back in October, if SGU might still be with us.)

But wrestling doesn’t belong on Fridays.  Your own ratings data shows that the scripted dramas you put there will thrive for years, and those that don’t get the coveted Friday hour — well, they get killed.  Not because of the show. Because none but the most loyalist follower want to watch an intense, thought-provoking science fiction drama at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday.

Syfy, move WWE Smackdown off of Friday nights. It does great there, and it will do great elsewhere.  It will make your Tuesdays or your Thursdays amazing.  But, more importantly, it will free up the Friday schedule to allow you to support scripted drama again.  Then all of your shows will thrive, and your ratings averages and your bottom line will shine even brighter. As the schedule stands, wrestling isn’t complimenting your scripted science fiction — it is destroying it.

These shows deserve it, and your viewers who watch you because they love science fiction deserve it.  Without it, you aren’t going to be a haven for science fiction any more.  You’ll just be like everyone else.

Darren created GateWorld in 1999, and today is the owner and managing editor. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and three children. (More)

COMMENTS (212):Rules | Report Comment | Trackback

  • I think i speak for SGU and science fiction fans when I say thank you Darren well said!!!

  • Now did you send this to Syfy? I’ve also read an article about a month or two ago and they pretty much said the same kind of stuff you were talking about. The head over at Syfy has complete disdain for the actual Sci-Fi drama and is slowly but surely trying to do what he/she can to kill it and it all makes sense with what we see happening over there. Its sad. Reality TV is a joke. Its so annoying seeing a show on TV that is a clear case of “everyone and their mom can get a reality show”. Reality TV really takes the art of acting out of TV. Its not the way to go.

  • the most clever, and balanced comments, that i had ever read about the science fiction gendere and its relation to scifi (SyFy) Network, i readed and its compells me to register to comment, and i think its, alot considering that when that network start, i was just on the verge of wainting it to get latinamerica, but since SG-1 , cancelation, that i did understand but get me angry any way, you know 10 years, 2 season with a diferent lead character, that in my opnion was brilliant all things considered (richard dean anderson shoes), then Movies, and Atlantis cancellation, i belive in the top of the ratings, not exactly in a cliffhanger, but i belive is terribly to let grown spectation, a the smash downs those hopes, but i undesrtand it was a world economy meltdown that coast many peoples jobs, homes, the MGM studios collapses, etc…so the fans buyed and wait, i wonder if the economy hadn’t fall a part did we still have Atlantis or the life spectancy of series is just 5 years, i remember the comments of SG-1 producers about creativity block that was so deseperate tha made mayor jack o’niell a Generall. Yours opinios its a relief son i can say i am really pist with the network, i really give the show its oportunity and it work for me i will miss all what its was about…

  • I didn’t think lead-ins mattered. I guess I overestimated the average american viewer, I won’t do so again.

  • Thank you Darren. You have described everything I have felt ever since SGU got moved to Tuesdays. I knew then it wouldn’t be long before it was cancelled. Now with the move for Sancuary. I don’t see them keeping it past the next season (thankfully they renewed it before the Tuesday move). SyFy has almost completely lost me as a viewer. The only shows I’ll be watching after SGU is finished is Sanctuary and Eureka. When they are done, so will I be. They have forgotten who was the reason the station was created for in the first place. Maybe someday, they will remember but it will be too late for many of us.

  • This is the absolute truth, well said.

    Thankfully the current owners of SyFy aren’t the former execs of FOX, who happened to cancel so many other great sci-fi series(X-Files, Firefly, etc.), so they’ll read this and come to their senses.

    Oh… wait… NEVERMIND.

    Sigh… Keep fighting the good fight, Darren. Those of us without as loud of a voice are with you.

  • I have no need to say anymroe, everything has been said. I just want to say…On behalf of not only Stargate fans, but fans of Science Fiction itself….Thank you Darren. Thank you.

  • Here Here! Well said Darren, I couldn’t agree more! I have long lammented the loss of the glory days on “Sci-Fi Fridays”. Lets hope the powers that be at SYFY hear you and right there ship before the loose all of their loyal veiwers. Though with Stargate gone, I’m not sure that is even possible anymore. For me the only shows they have I’m even interested in anymore are Sanctuary and Battlestar Blood and Chrome.

  • I don’t think Smackdown can be moved due to the WWE requires it to stay where it is, which lends credence to WHY THE HELL IS SMACKDOWN ON SYFY. The SciFi channel is DEAD and that’s why Stargate is going to die next week. I realized when they changed their name to Syfy Science fiction wouldn’t have a home anymore. Hell I can get better Science Fiction from Chiller. It’s over folks. They screwed us on Stargate and eventually Syfy will flirt with an all unscripted tv weekly schedule. Eventually Being Human and all those other new shows will get cancelled due to “ratings” cause that’s what the Lifetime lady looks at when she’s delivering her report to her new bosses at Comcast. Stargate is dead and sadly so is Science Fiction. With over 800 channels we are again scattered into the wind and now have to search out great science fiction. It was a great run, but we all need to accept that Syfy isn’t Science Fiction channel anymore. It’s a carbon copy of USA. Let’s just accept it and move on then we won’t be so angered when they cancel things like SGU.

  • I love it, it’s exactly what I was thinking. Syfy didn’t even give SGU a chance to rebound on a better night. For a franchise that has been going strong for 14 years, SGU deserved the chance to go back to Friday’s, even if Syfy would only take one show to follow wrestling. Now, it’s even sadder that SGU is being cancelled, given the awesome episodes that were being aired. This is something that I really wanted to see play out in a third season, but it looks like I won’t ever get that chance, until SGU gets picked up by another network.

  • We have nobody to blame but ourselves for not being 10 million people. I did my part by being 10 people, but the rest of you just weren’t even trying.

  • Well said Darren. However I would have been more blunt about. III guess some of us can be diplomatic and other prefer blunt. I have to agree with saxgod though. Science Fiction is dead of Syfy. I already miss the glory days of SG-1, Atlantis Battlestar Galactica. That was when Sci-Fi existed and they lived up to their name. I understand the idea behind ratings and I understand the need for them. However you can not put a great show like SGU against the likes of Castle (an other great show BTW) and other heavy ratings pullers. Its suicide. I honestly dont like Sanctuary, Its not my thing. But it doesnt change the fact.that other dont like it. I also feel that it is a HUGE mistake to put someone at the head of a Science Fiction channel who utterly hates and loths the genra. Its like putting a Columbian drug Czar at the head of the DEA. Doesnt make a damn bit of logical sense. But oh well. I know SyFy wont listen, us peons dont know what we are talking about and have to be force fed this horses&%t they call tv…

  • I actually just sent a link to this article along with some personal opinions to SyFy through their feedback email. I would love to have an email address for somebody on the top though so I can make sure they get it.

  • Darren, do you think SGU was getting enough viewers to continue, even when it was on Fridays? I don’t think it was. I agree that if there had been a Sci Fi Friday type of thing where SGA continued/SGU/Sanctuary all aired together, SGU would have fared better. It would have given it more time to find itself, as evidently these seson 2 episodes are much better than the season 1 ones were. But hanging out there, all by itself and not capturing the audiences imagination in that first year was it’s downfall. Since it was the only SG on it was easy to fall away as a viewer. If it had been run along with SGA, people would have been tuning in to see SGA, and would have been “in the neighborhood” so to speak, while SGU found it’s footing. Cross promotions, cross overs, events with the two casts would have been a great help, IMO. But no, they were bound and determined to go it alone, in a bold new direction and see where that got them! Sometimes you need to stand on the shoulders of your parent a bit before diving into the ocean.

  • A well thought out article. It was a pleasure to read and even better: it is true!
    Long live SciFi!

  • Thanks, Darren, for putting into words what so many of us are thinking. The alarm bells started going off when the name changed to SyFy and have grown louder ever since. If it weren’t for Eureka and Sanctuary, I would never watch the channel at all, and I fear for them too. That being said, the viewers who are out there not making the good life choices seem to be driving the bus right now..

  • Sylvia, it’s tough to compare the pre-wrestling world on Syfy with the post-wrestling world. Before WWE, SGU was doing “OK” on Friday nights, but not great. As the article says, its ratings were falling. I’d ascribe various factors to that, including periods where it was airing all by itself with no companion drama. And yes, I think the show itself (namely the pace of Season One, especially the first half) bears a lot of the blame.

    Who knows where the ratings for SGU would have ended up if it had stayed on Fridays. I’d bet good money that, if it had WWE as its lead-in, it would have done as well as Sanctuary did.

    But after Season One, when Syfy blocked out two-thirds of Friday night with WWE Smackdown, it became a different ballgame. The fact that the renewed show is now doing worse than the cancelled show on Mondays is very telling. That’s nothing against Sanctuary. It’s just to point out that sci-fi cancelled both of its fall dramas that weren’t airing on Friday with a 2.5-million lead-in audience.

    The double cancellation seems to indicate that Syfy didn’t lower its expectations for Tuesday nights enough. If they want to air dramas there, they need to be happy with 1 million averages.

  • Didn’t SciFi have wrestling on Tuesdays for several years anyway? Guess they wanted the Friday one instead?

  • @Darren, I suppose the producers of shows will have to learn to make cheaper series than SGU, in order for Syfy to be happy with lower ratings.

    But would we want to see Stargate made on the cheap? I’m not sure how they could do it. It is why there are so many crappy reality shows. A drama that generates profit with one million people watching would, necessarily be low on SFX, name actors and set locations. Someone who could produce a cost-effective scripted sci-fi show that was good would have my undying gratitude!

  • Well said, Darren, but I believe it’s falling on deaf ears as far as SyFy’s concerned. It’s terrible not only for the existence of scripted science fiction but for the little brains out there, starved for a weekly dose of powerful what-if’s and could-be’s. It’s those brains we lose. Wrestling never sent anyone into space, no matter how hard they throw.

  • AMEN DARREN!!!! We ALL should push for this!! How can this end now with NOTHING for a resolution!? Give us SOMETHING, my gosh!

  • Also, remember Tremors, the Series!!!

    I really enjoyed that show, even though they went off the beaten path sometimes. I was so hoping they’d bring back some movie actors for cameo’s. I miss that series too!!

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