As Stargate Universe draws to a close this week, many viewers are still wondering just what happened. Why was a show that has reached its creative zenith, and holding its own (relatively speaking) on a very competitive night of programming, kicked to the curb?
Last week I posted an op-ed piece in which I detailed my own analysis of WWE Smackdown‘s effects on Syfy Channel’s schedule — specifically, the cable network’s ability to continue to offer scripted science fiction drama the time and support that those shows need. The piece has been getting a good deal of attention, thanks to many like-minded sci-fi fans passing it along. Our friends at TV By the Numbers even wrote about it on Monday, which has generated a great deal of continuing conversation about the network’s scheduling strategies.
Some readers questioned the timing of the publication. After all, Syfy has been airing wrestling since late last year, and SGU has been officially canceled since just before Christmas. We weren’t trying to grab readers the week that SGU is set to go off the air — there’d be no shame in that, but that actually wasn’t the reason we published it when we did. The piece was motivated by Sanctuary‘s startlingly low numbers after its move to Mondays. I drafted the op-ed after those first ratings were announced … then sat on it for a week. The already-renewed show getting fewer viewers than the canceled show? I was prepared to accept that it was a one-time fluke, the result of a change of night for Sanctuary, and potentially even trash the editorial.
So I waited for the second week of Monday ratings to see if Sanctuary would rebound. Instead … it went down. (This week, it went down again.)
Surely, I thought, the gang at Syfy was seeing what the rest of us were seeing. Stargate may have had creative issues, may have suffered seriously in the ratings on Fridays during its first season. (That’s without a 3 million viewer lead-in, remember.) But Sanctuary‘s sustained Monday free-fall proved that the night of the week was critical. After the show lost 40 percent of its audience in the move, SGU‘s drop of 20 percent (from 1.469 to 1.175 million) in its Tuesday move looked pretty good.
Soon after the editorial went up (and sci-fi fans the world over pummeled the network’s Twitter feed and inbox with the link), a network representative offered some words in response via Twitter.
“I think the real issue is that running on Friday, straight through, one-third of the audience who tried [Stargate Universe] by episode 3 left by episode 7,” Craig Engler, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Syfy Digital, said. “Then we saw a promising recovery in [episodes] 8/9, then a big drop at 10, then another small recovery after hiatus for 11/12.”
Whether or not SGU would have benefited from the post-WWE time slot on Fridays — enough for a renewal — is “hard to say,” Engler said. “By that point I think everyone who was going to sample the show had watched and made up their minds.”
“It’s frustrating because the audience grew from [episodes] 1-3,” he added — “not a lot, but any growth during the first few episodes is usually quite promising. In hindsight, I also think [episodes] 1-3 being somewhat self-contained unintentionally provided an easy break point for sampling viewers.”
Engler is absolutely right that Stargate Universe struggled in the ratings over the course of its first season, when it was airing on Friday nights. The show had lost 43 percent of its premiere ratings by the mid-season break, and rebounded to 37 percent down by the season finale. Drop-offs from a heavily promoted series premiere are, of course, par for the course. But as a particularly expensive show, SGU had a tougher case to make for renewal.
I don’t dispute any of this, and I don’t dispute that Stargate may have still been cancelled if it had aired after WWE Smackdown last fall. Even if it had accomplished Sanctuary‘s numbers of 1.3 to 1.4 million viewers each Friday, SGU might have been cancelled — because it was significantly more expensive than Sanctuary. Fans may speculate, and Syfy execs may muse over the effectiveness of their strategy. But the fact that Stargate has been out-performing Sanctuary on Monday nights (by as much as 35 percent, this week) is telling.
Again: It’s not only the show itself, but the night of the week it is broadcast.
When challenged about Sanctuary‘s drop when Syfy moved it off of Friday night, Engler suggested that “[it is] too soon to say about Mondays. [The] change is still quite recent. We’ll see how it does.”
But he did agree that “night of the week and lead-in always matter. TV is a complex beast … hundreds of factors impact shows also, not just the obvious. The issues SGU had retaining viewers were on Friday nights well before wrestling.”
Engler also intimated that he might write a blog post to respond in greater detail. If he does, I hope he’ll address whether or not Syfy had already largely written off Stargate Universe because of its first season ratings performance. (The Season Two pick-up, it turns out, was a contractual requirement stemming from an original, 40-episode deal.) His statements about the ratings losses in the fall of 2009 seem to point in this direction. Syfy certainly hoped that Tuesdays would help stop SGU‘s viewer erosion — but remember, the network had never before tried airing an original, scripted drama on Tuesday nights in the fall season.
What I tried to stress in last week’s article is not so much a case for SGU‘s renewal (that ship has sailed) as a case for giving the Friday night time slots back to scripted drama. (WWE viewers have noted for us in the past few days that, unlike WWE‘s live programs, Smackdown tapes earlier in the week, and originally ran on Thursdays for several years.) I’m not making the case to bring back SGU (… which would be awesome); rather I fear for the safety of quality, scripted science fiction. Friday is simply a stronger performer for the genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect from the average viewer of police procedurals and medical shows — something that other networks (especially FOX) know well. Now, the summertime is one thing — but to force scripted dramas to go up against network programming during the fall and spring, on nights when the networks are at their strongest, is to handicap those shows.
This should be undisputed. The question, then, is how to judge those handicapped shows when the ratings data starts to pour in.
As I said last week: If Syfy had renewed one of those struggling shows, it would have demonstrated that they are adjusting their ratings expectations accordingly.
It’s true that Syfy is building a successful Monday night of original dramas, starting with Being Human (renewed for Season Two) and the sure-hit block of Warehouse 13, Eureka, and Alphas starting in July. I expect they will try to keep that momentum going on Mondays when the more challenging fall season arrives. But when their fall dramas run into ratings trouble against the likes of Dancing With the Stars and Castle, will Syfy acknowledge that 1 million viewers is realistic (especially for a show like Sanctuary, which will be in its fourth season) — or will it cancel those shows for “under-performing” on a difficult night?
In other words: Stargate aside, Syfy must recognize that genre shows do better on Friday night — especially when they are serious character dramas with a demanding mythology and story arc. If Syfy’s programming strategists are not willing to give Fridays back to drama, they must anticipate significantly lower ratings elsewhere in the week — and be prepared to renew those shows in spite of it.
However one might spin the numbers (and, as someone who loves the show, I’m certainly guilty of putting SGU in a positive light), what is clear from the swell of support that last week’s editorial received is that Syfy has an image problem on its hands. The network has succeeded in broadening its appeal through rebranding, airing wrestling, and developing scripted dramas that are more accessible to casual viewers than traditional science fiction fare — whimsical procedurals rather than, for example, the arc-based “space opera.” But that change of image comes at a cost.
Other than BSG: Blood & Chrome, which has not yet been granted a full series order, Syfy has announced no such “traditional” science fiction shows on its development slate. Perhaps the closest would be Sherwood, produced by the team behind Sanctuary and described as a sort of Robin Hood meets Firefly. So far that one is just an idea, however, and hasn’t been given the go-ahead to cast and film a pilot.
We’ll continue to watch Syfy’s creative development and programming strategy in the months to come.