Yesterday morning we heard that The SciFi Channel is moving Charlie Jade to a new day and time. Starting next week, it’ll be taking over the coveted Monday 3am slot.
I can’t be too upset by this. Clearly the show was underperforming on Friday nights and the programming wizards at SciFi needed to move it. What impresses me is the depth of analysis they performed to figure out its new home. Who knew Charlie Jade did so well with insomniacs and people who buy Flowbies?
Taking its place on Fridays will be a repeat of the prior week’s episode of Doctor Who. I can’t say anything bad about the great British import other than asking how he keeps his neck warm without a proper muffler.
SciFi made several errors with Charlie Jade, some of them specific to this show and some of them indicative of systemic flaws. I figured I’d use this opportunity not just to look at the ways they went wrong, but also to discuss the future of science fiction television.
Self-fulfilling Programming Prophesy
I watch the SciFi channel for two hours a week. One, now that BSG is done for the summer. But that’s more than enough time for me to have seen dozens of promos for Scare Tactics and Ghost Hunters. I believe I can repeat verbatim the voice overs from the ads for both those shows. The former is a retread of a show from a few years back that no one watched, hoping to garner ratings by riding Tracy Morgan’s coattails. The latter is one of SciFi’s biggest performers. I mean, bigger than Doctor Who. Bigger than BSG some weeks.
I’m not going to take this opportunity to bash Ghost Hunters. If you enjoy watching retards chase moths and fluttering leaves, that’s fine by me. I am going to bash the SciFi promotions department for failing to advertise or promote Charlie Jade in any way. How many ads for Charlie Jade do you suppose SciFi showed during episodes of top-rated Ghost Hunters?
Then again, why should the network have used up valuable ad space promoting a show that had no chance of performing? That doesn’t make fiscal sense. A dark, brooding mystery where the protagonist is an amoral anti-hero, one of your principals is a terrorist, and another a murderous sociopath is NOT going to do well at 8pm on Friday nights. Particularly not when it is taking over the spot of a show targeted at the under-12 set.
The Sarah Jane Adventures, for those who don’t have young children or extreme nostalgia for the Jon Pertwee/Tom Baker era of Doctor Who, is a spinoff of DW featuring the popular companion and a bunch of kids solving mysteries. I suspect when CJ premiered, not a few children tuned in thinking they were going to see their pal Sarah and instead were traumatized for life by Charlie’s stubble, not to mention 01 Boxer’s… unique ways of dealing with conflict.
SciFi had no expectation that Charlie Jade would succeed, so they spent little money promoting it and stuck it in a time slot where it was doomed for failure. But *because* they spent so little and stuck it in an inappropriate slot, they virtually guaranteed its failure.
SciFi used to be a niche cable channel. We’ve still got one or two of those: FoodTV and… um… QVC? Over the past few years, SciFi has slowly and subtly been repositioning itself, like several other cable properties. Their clear goal is to target the rich demographic bracket of 18-34 year-old males. That demo spends a lot of money on entertainment and big ticket items, and is much prized by advertisers.
Think I’m exaggerating? What does the ECW have to do with science fiction? Or Tracy Morgan’s down-market version of Punk’d? Or Ghost Hunters? I know an argument can be made for the latter, but anyone so doing would have to admit to being one of the retarded fans of the retarded “paranormal investigators”. (Huh, guess I am going to bash that show. A lot.)
Why doesn’t NBC Universal just build a new cable channel from the ground up to attract that demo? Because it’s *hard* to launch a new cable channel. The lineups of cable and satellite providers don’t change very often, and convincing them to add a new feed can take years. If no one offers it, the channel has no viewers, and that in turn makes it hard to convince the providers to offer it. If you think that sounds familiar to the promotion problem I outlined about Charlie Jade, you’re correct. These selection biases abound in entertainment.
Some of you probably have seen the network Spike. I watch it from time to time. It is a network that unabashedly targets that 18-34 male demo. I applaud them for their honesty and marketing savvy. Spike TV has only been with us since 2003, which might seem to shoot holes in my “hard to launch” theory — except of course that Spike used to be TNN, The Nashville Network. It was easier for Viacom to completely re-brand and reposition an existing property in its portfolio than launch one from scratch.
I expect in another year, after BSG has ended its run, NBC Universal will accelerate the niche-drift on SciFi and complete its transformation into a new network Aimed at Men. Then they can compete head-to-head with Spike for dominance: MMA vs ECW, reruns of Star Trek vs reruns of Enterprise. I’ll even offer them the name 18To34, royalty-free.
Science Fiction Mainstream
I find it interesting that the programming and promotions departments at ABC Family have a better idea how to schedule and market science fiction than the folks at SciFi. The Middleman and Kyle XY are both heavily promoted lynchpins in the network’s schedule. Both are as different in tone from each other as they are from Charlie Jade, but ABC Family finds a way to make room for them. And it’s not just on ABC Family. Across the dial you can find science fiction shows.
I’m tempted to argue the time might be past where we even need a niche channel devoted to science fiction. In the last year, the broadcast networks aired Lost, Heroes, Journeyman, Bionic Woman, and Chuck. Some are hits, some bombs. Clearly SF has become more mainstream. Still, there are certain types of SF that just don’t do well with general audiences.
During the WGA strike, NBC aired BSG to fill schedule holes. It got slaughtered. I want to blame NBC’s promotions department for doing as piss-poor a job as their corporate siblings at SciFi; however, only a small part of the blame can be placed on their shoulders. BSG *looks* like science fiction – unlike the castaways on Lost, or the polite nerd on Chuck – and that is a very hard sell. Science fiction, for all its mainstream acceptance, is still fundamentally a ghetto genre.
Just ask the Nobel committee. They, along with some uptight literary critics, had to invent “magic realism” in order to give Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez the Nobel Prize for Literature.
(No joke. Read “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. Then watch the episode “Cause and Effect” of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m not arguing that a piece of pop culture can compare to one of the greatest novels of the 20th century in terms of quality. But in terms of story?)
The Future for the Niche
I believe there is actually room for a true SF channel, one that can attract original voices and give them a chance to create innovative shows. But it’s far too late to do that on cable and satellite. We’ve already seen the lengths Viacom had to go in order to break through the calcification of the lineups. The providers already offered TNN, so Viacom just changed the name and every single show on it in order to create a “new” channel. Unless someone out there has a broadly distributed channel they would be willing to convert, that is not the way. The way lies with New Media.
There are already dozens of niche offerings out there, but no one has tried to create a single forum, a single broadcast channel in which to consolidate them. I’d imagine we’ll see some headway on that front in the next few years. Hell, all we need is for FOX to axe Dollhouse, Fringe, and Virtuality all in the first season and it might happen next year. Think of the possibilities of an Internet-based network founded by Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, and Ronald Moore, dedicated to developing and promoting innovative, cutting-edge science fiction.
I almost hope FOX does cancel all three shows, just to see that happen right before our eyes.
What of poor Charlie?
Charlie Jade *is* still scheduled on SciFi. They haven’t canceled it, just buried it. Since I imagine most people are time-shifting with DVRs anyway, it’s really not that big a deal for existing viewers. New viewers, of course, are off the table. No one is going to “discover” this little gem of a show at 3am.
Of course if SciFi decides they need that primo 3am Monday slot to sell Cortislim or “Hip Hop Abs”, then I guess I’ll give it up.