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Six Reasons SGU Was Cancelled

Friday - December 17, 2010
Category: OPINION | Tags:

OPINIONSyfy Channel’s programming strategy is largely to blame for Stargate Universe‘s failure to reach a third season.

I’ve been a long-time viewer of Syfy Channel.  How long?  Let’s just say I’ve been watching this network faithfully since before it existed.  (Does anyone else remember the week-long placeholder of a starfield with the weird “We’re coming for you …” voiceovers before SCI FI launched?)

News came this week that Syfy has canceled Stargate Universe after two seasons.  This comes on the heels of a 10-week experiment in moving the show from Fridays to Tuesdays.  In this editorial I’d like to explore six network programming factors that I think influenced the ultimate fate of the show.  This includes a little history of Syfy Channel, and some insight into their changing programming strategies over the years.

Other lists of reasons might look very different — focusing on the show’s content and the decisions of the writers, for example, or comparing SGU to its predecessors, or to higher-rated shows on the network.  (Observe that Syfy’s top dramas, Warehouse 13 and Eureka, are distinctly light-hearted.)  But for the purposes of this editorial, I’d like to look at reasons for the show’s cancellation from a network scheduling P.O.V.

So here are six reasons why I think Stargate Universe had an uphill battle to fight — regardless of its actual content or quality.

1) Year-Round Scheduling

Like many cable networks, Syfy’s overall programming strategy is to get maximum coverage throughout the year. But unlike the major broadcast networks, Syfy doesn’t have enough space in its budget for original programming to cover three primetime hours per night, 12 months per year. And so it makes strategic choices about which months of the year, which nights of the week, and which hours of the primetime block (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific) to program with its originals.

Louis Ferreira stars as Colonel Everett Young. From ''Air, Part 1''

When SG-1 first joined the network in 2002, there wasn’t much going on outside of Friday nights.  Shows like SG-1 and Farscape would air on “Sci-Fi Friday” several months out of the year, and then go into repeats.  A few years back (when it was still SCI FI), the network decided to commit itself to year-round programming. The thought was that it would do better by spreading out the few shows it had so that something new was airing each month out of the year.

That was the end of the classic Sci-Fi Friday block that so many fans knew and loved (in 2005 and 2006 it was Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica back-to-back).  The network also added more original shows (including plenty of reality programming) and branched out into nights of the week when it had never before aired originals.  Since then, its new shows have either aired with just one companion, or all alone (next to reruns and older shows, as was the case for much of SGU‘s run).

How did this impact SGUStargate was always at its best in the ratings when it aired in the summertime, took a break while the big networks rolled out their fall shows, then came back in the winter.  Since Season Four of Atlantis Syfy has aired Stargate against the major network programming (fall and spring seasons), rather than the old strategy of “counter-programming.”  The result is both higher competition, and fewer new shows to help strengthen the primetime block on a single night.  Syfy doesn’t have enough shows to fill three hours every night, but rather than pair up its shows to make a “must watch” night of science fiction, it spreads them thin.

2) The Move to Tuesday

The big networks, of course, have not stayed the same over the years either.  Counter-programming new episodes in the summer months no longer worked quite as well when ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX started airing new reality series and even the occasional drama during the summer.  But Syfy continued to do great business in the summer, with Eureka and then Warehouse 13 setting new ratings records — and on Tuesday nights, even.

It made sense, then, that the network would try to hold on to those Tuesday night viewers when the fall months rolled around, despite the higher competition from the big networks.  This fall it finally had a strong show to give it a go, and a reason why it had to try expanding to another night of the week (more on that next).  Stargate was moved to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. for Season Two — up against ratings monsters Dancing With the Stars and NCIS: Los Angeles (which drew around 16 millions viewers each).  Syfy was once again trying to expand its sphere of influence: it had never before aired original programming on Tuesday nights during the fall season.

Needless to say, the experiment was a failure.  Both of its Tuesday fall shows — both continuations of popular, classic science fiction franchises — were canceled in 10 episodes or less.

Young squares off with Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle). From ''Justice''

3) Professional Wrestling

But why did Syfy move Stargate from its long-established Friday night time slot?  From one point of view, it had no choice.  In 2010 the network acquired rights to WWE SmackDown, which had long-established its own fan base on Friday nights.  As much distaste as non-fans of wrestling have for WWE shows, they do get monster ratings in key demographics that advertisers love (more than double any of Syfy’s scripted dramas).  So SmackDown is great for Syfy’s bottom line … though execs have to stretch their creativity to justify why this show has any place on their network.  (Part of this stretch has come in the form of the “SCI FI” to “Syfy” name change, as the network shifts from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres to a more general branding around the concept of “imagination.”)

Not wanting to risk shaking up SmackDown‘s Friday night viewership, Syfy kept the 2-hour block on Fridays — leaving room for only one other show in primetime that night.  (And that’s a night that has traditionally been the night of the week where viewers are most friendly to science fiction.  See also: the FOX network.)

Originally Syfy was going to move Sanctuary to Tuesdays with SGU — but before the premiere, programming executives decided to pair SGU with Caprica instead, and keep Sanctuary on Fridays following wrestling.  (They needed a quick decision on whether to give Caprica another year, so they bumped it up on the schedule from January.)  It’s been great for Sanctuary, which seems almost certain to get a fourth season.  In spite of the fact that more than 50 percent of the WWE audience doesn’t stick around at 10 p.m., it’s still enough to make Sanctuary the network’s top-rated original drama this fall.  (Be sure to catch its mid-season finale tonight!)

Would the story have been different if Syfy had kept Stargate on Fridays and moved Sanctuary instead?  We’ll simply never know, because the network is not about to mess with a good thing and change its Friday night line-up.  Sanctuary has 20 episodes this season … meaning that as long as Syfy is filling up two hours on Fridays with SmackDown, Stargate has no place else to go.

NEXT: The power of new technologies, plus those long breaks


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 (269):Rules | Report Comment | Trackback

  • I think the wrestling was probably a critical factor and a lot of potential hits were lost for the sake of a completely different audience. I’m not American but from what I’ve read/heard SyFy is its- and it’s audience’s- own worst enemy.
    (What’s the point of having wrestling on THAT channel anyway? A fake “sport” doesn’t exactly scream science-fiction.)

  • Sorry Darren. All just excuses for a show that wasnt the show we all fell in love with. No RDA, no heroes, no chemistry. As the old saying goes, you dance with what brung ya. They took a gamble and lost.

  • Really good article Darren, nice to have it spelled out a bit, as I’m not too familiar with how the networks work in the States. I agree with ya about SGU, it was a great show in it’s own right with a strong cast and I’m so sorry that, for whatever reasons, it’s not getting the opportunity to go on.

  • If you think about it, wrestling *IS* science fiction. It’s fake, so therefore it’s fiction… that’s easy. But in faking it, they use things like physics, which is a science. So science + fiction = science fiction.

    It’s still stupid that they think it belongs on the channel, mind you.

  • I can’t believe ‘some fans’ are rejoicing themselves over this.
    You didn’t want SGU ? So you’ll get nothing guys. There is no new Stargate to come. It’s not SGU going away so something else takes its place. Stargate is over. Thanks a lot for your support.

    I am not angry, just terribly disappointed. I care a lot fort the cast and crew.
    Those folks did an amazing job, they couldn’t have done better. They did not deserve to lose their job over a scheduling and marketing mistake.

    Last but not least, I am terribly thankful to the cast and crew for making themselves so available on Twitter. It was a blast to be able to talk directly with them and get responses just after an episode. It was just a blast to have actors connect directly to the fans in such a manner. It really made you feel part of a family. All my thought and sympathy to them. Hang in there. Surround yourselves with friends and family through those hard and disappointing times and thank you again for the SGU thrills.

  • The characters in the show were extremely difficult to like and identify with, let alone look up to. That does make viewers lose interest.

  • I think its time to give the syfy channel the boot, SGU should do direct to Itunes or digital media distribution and skip the middle man. It’s how Sanctuary got started and it would definitely make MGM some desperately needed money.

  • Although these things may have contributed to the downfall of SGU, I do not believe they are the reason for low viewership. Lets face it SG:U was not SG:1 or Atlantis. It was a completely different show that just happened to have “Stargate” in the name.

    It didn’t have any of the campy sense of humor of the other two, it didn’t have any real villain, and so on.

    This doesn’t mean that it was a bad show. But, what I’m getting at is a lot of the people who loved the SG universe were completely let down, including myself. I wanted to see a continuation of SG franchise, not a completely new show.

  • I think you got Bingo!
    I’m sorry for all the fans of SGU that the show didn’t make it, but I do think that if it had been a Stargate show that appealed to more of the previous show’s fans, it would have survived. It didn’t. I hope the franchise will carry on in some form, though. The concept is still amazing.

  • In hindsight it would have been wise for MGM to give Atlantis another season or two to run concurrently with SGU. IF SGA fans still had their show they might have been more patient with letting SGU grow. I personally thought Atlantis was in a creative dead end but that’s nothing that a change in the writing approach couldn’t have fixed. SGU got it right in terms of creativity writing and production but the bad blood was already there.

  • I actually agree with skiznot about running the shows concurrently …but that still would not have endeared sgu to me…just some others might have given it a chance with sga as a lead-in.

  • @fadetoone
    If you think about it, wrestling *IS* science fiction. It’s fake, so therefore it’s fiction… that’s easy. But in faking it, they use things like physics, which is a science. So science + fiction = science fiction.

    Where did you get that load of nonsense from mate, if that was the case then every show ever made would be science fiction there’s physics in everyday life and most shows are fiction.

    And the name change from SCI-FI to SYFY does not give them the rite to say that it warrants putting wrestling on the channel where’s the imagination in a load of oiled up men touching each other its just gay(not that theres anything wrong with been gay). simply put it does not belong on that channel.

    there was plenty of chemistry in the show between all the cast of characters and i love to have RDA back on stargate and he was if i recall he was in 4 or 5 eps of the 1st season not bad considering he retired.

    And there were heroes just not the kind your used to i for 1 enjoyed the change from going through the gate save the day go home emphasis that had been part of stargate for 12 years, i liked the whole its a lot darker vibe and it worked well its just a shame that syfy caused a few disasters that led to the show been canned.

    Anyway thats my 2cents long live universe.

  • I loved SG1 and SGA but only made it 3 episodes into season one and had seen enough. They walked away from what made the first two shows successful. SGU was a poor attempt and a BSG crossover. Until I read that it was canceled I had forgotten all about it.

  • My love for science fiction began while in high school watching the original Star Trek with my boyfriend. While not yet “love” I did like it. The love affair began in earnest shortly after I got married in 1969.

    Loving everything Trek, I gradually branched out to other things sci-fi. I never really thought anything would top my all time favorite of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; that is until I received a gift of the 1st season of SG-1 on DVD. SG-1 was just beginning the second half of its 5th and final season on Showtime. I was immediately hooked. I purchased all the DVD’s when released and started watching all the Stargate Mondays on SciFi with its four hour block of episodes shown in order. I just couldn’t get enough. I even purchased copies of the first books (although they weren’t very good) and eventually the great books that were originally sold only in England. (Where the shipping cost almost as much as the books!) I even have duplicated many of the books to my Kindle where available. I have purchased the DVD box sets multiple times and gifted them to my children and friends; upgraded to slim line and ultimately to the complete box sets of both SG-1 and SGA. I even have both the DVD and Blu Ray copies of SGU; Continuum; Ark of Truth and the Blu Ray release of SGA.

    So, when I say that the cancellation was a crushing blow to me, I can only imagine how hard it hit the creators and crew; many of which have been employed by the franchise for the better part of 15 years. I know that the actors are also bummed but actors are “gypsies” of sorts and moving on to new projects is all part of the natural order of things in this industry game. But I know that they too will look back at their being part of something very special.

    I want to thank everyone connected with the production of the franchise in general, and SGU in particular, for a wonderful ride. I can only hope that it will return in some form in the near future.

    Thank you also to Darren and David for a wonderful website. Your podcasts are great and I hope that you continue both the site and podcasts in the future and for years to come.

    And to Darren: thanks for a wonderful article which said exactly what I have been thinking all along.

  • What a shame. SGU is so good. I probably would say at this point it’s my second favorite SG show after SG-1. If any of the haters think this is a justification, remember that some of the best shows of all time were cancelled too soon: Firefly, Arrested Development, Twin Peaks, the list goes on. I wonder if MGM would be allowed to take the show to another channel or if it had the same deal that SG-1 did where it could only air on Sci Fi.

  • I’ll personally blame SyFy for this. I too endured the wait for Sci-Fi’s launch; I’ve lived with the channel like so many, enduring it’s MANY up’s and down’s. And yeah I understand the business aspects – I don’t understand a lot of the television business, but I fully understand and respect the bottom-line.

    What is regrettable in my view, is SyFy’s apparent unwillingness to move with the times, and help move the advertising and television industry with them. To me programming like Smackdown is a joke.Yeah it is a target demographic behemoth – I get it, but instead of finding unique ways to grab your real target audience (Sci-Fi fans and hopeful converts rights?), they went for the money grab.

    Surely a show or script waiting in the wings could tie the hardcore Sci-Fi fan in with the would be fan. Come on SyFy.

    So where does this leave me in regard to Stargate? I’m saddened. Truly. I really, really loved this show – or perhaps the concept more than anything. I loved it as much as I loved SG-1 and Atlantis for entirely different reasons. Like BSG and Caprica to an extent, SG:U gave me the darker, deeper, more cerebral stories I’ve been waiting for from Stargate. I wanted a change, and SG:U was precisely the change I wanted.

    That said, the show was definitely not perfect, but neither were SG-1 and Atlantis – several episodes in each series are unwatchable to me. But that’s okay.

    I’d love to see SG:U go to someone with more money and ability to stretch boundaries.

    For now I am going to avoid SyFy – I am done. I love Eureka, and have some interest in Santuary, but I am now chosing to go where the future of television is going and SyFy isn’t: Off of the DVR and entirely to stream.

  • I thought I was the only one that remembered that week long placeholder :)

    While I agree with the points made in the article, I think the fact that SGU was Stargate in name only was a major factor in its demise. If you took the actual Stargate out of the show you would never know it was part of the franchise. It was a if someone added that element to an already written, poorly I may add, show.

  • Fenny

    I found it just took too long to get going. The first half of S1 was tedious. They took too long to develop characters into people we cared about. I gave up and came back at the end of S1. But it still took the first half of S2 before we finally found out what Destiny’s mission was, what Rush had been working on for all that time.

    I’m finally beginning to think that it’s not that bad, but if we’d seen this last season, I think that viewers might have stuck with it.

  • Is it not possible for other networks possibly from another country to fund SGU ?

  • Ultimately, I think the downfall of SGU was season 1. Not that there were not any other factors but at the core of the issue was season 1 whether you liked it or not. Season 1 had some terrible episodes, mixed with at least 2 or 3 great ones and a lot that were pure mediocrity to a large enough number of viewers, apparently. That being said I thought the cast did a great job with the material they had and the show was shot well for what it was supposed to be. But the story itself was not very compelling it was too slow. In season 2 they absolutely turned the story around by having episodes with story lines and drama. I would like to have seen a show like what has been done in the 2nd season from the get go, rather than what they had in the 1st season.

  • You can come up with as many reasons as you wish apart from the content and quality, but I’m fairly sure that those were the elements, or rather the lack of in certain people’s opinions that killed Stargate Universe.

    And season one was dreadful.

  • Star trek survived Voyager and Nemesis, Stargate can survive SGU. SyFi didn’t kill SGU the writers did. The writers are the ones that thumbed their nose at the fans. The writers didn’t listen when the fans told them they hated the whiney characters. They are the ones that damaged the brand by trying to copy other shows instead of being true to the franchise. SyFi has its issues; Ghoast Hunters is a big one, but they didn’t do this.

  • Did some of you who bash his article even read it fully? He states that the final reason was purely it did not convert casual to true fans and didn’t hold on to viewers. He’s not making s**t up or sugar coating it.

    Get off being the all-knowing person and just act like a reasonable people. I cant go back and watch shows of SG1 & SGA or even SGU. Why? Cause once I’ve seen it, I’m not able to enjoy it. It’s boring. I much rather have new content, then repeats or dead air.

    I don’t blame other fans. But this is the nature of being on cable. Less casual viewers watch shows outside of the core networks. Sure it’s nice to have support in terms of money, but if a show cannot get people coming back it’s not going to last.

    I’m happy Syfy is airing the rest instead of holding on to them for a year or so like they have done. I personally wished I was able to watch it live but just graduated, moved to a new state, got a new job, and got my first apartment at the end of Nov makes it hard to even have TV service during the in-between times.

    With a cast as wide as this, I hope a, SGU movie is able to get fast tracked before an SG1 or SGA one. But either way, I prefer some Stargate versus no Stargate.

    And while I said I don’t like repeats. I am thinking about getting the seasons. But after not even watching the seasons I already have for other shows, I’m hesitate to spend money in my new living environment.

  • If you don’t watch live with commercials and also have a Nielsen box, you watching really doesn’t matter.

    I personally believe the show failed due to the incredibly noting-happened first half of the first season. When you have a show which is arc based as this one is you need to hook people from the start, the exiting part should be in season two. The point in the story we are right now should be 3/4 of the first season rather than already midway season 2.

    Or just the way the show was announced, the same week as SGA’s cancelation as to imply SGA got canceled for SGU.

    That along with the stupid things the creators said, like blaming the fans of SGA/SG-1 for its failure or telling that if you don’t watch you ruin any chance for another show. And lately saying it’s a five season arc but saying they can finish the show with one season, which really tells something about the ridiculously slow and non-eventfull storytelling.

    But the long midseason breaks and time-slot shift certainly didn’t help.

    I watched the show, and am fully aware that my viewing didn’t count, but every episode I was like “ok nice episode, nothing exiting, lots of filler, should have moved on quicker”, the constant cliffhangers (which I always see as desperate pleas to watch the next episode) were tedious, and failed to excite me for the next episode but rather irritate me.

    The funny thing is SGA did better in its fifth season than SGU did in its first, some Syfy executives are probably hitting themselves in the face right now.

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