[Guest Post]: On the Death of Stargate Universe: a TV Industry in Flux

This guest post is brought to you by Matt Herron of TangibleMotion.  If you’re not a reader, then I suggest you become one.  Even follow him on Twitter (@tangiblemotion) if you’re feeling frisky.

With only a single episode left to savor in the second and final season of the SyFy original series Stargate Universe, now is the perfect time to examine the factors that led to the show’s cancellation.

The Sad Tradition

By now sci-fi fans expect it. They groan inwardly when SyFy cancels another awesome show, and yet they are not surprised. They saw Firefly beheaded; Dollhouse was murdered in its youth; Caprica went the same way; and the funeral procession for SGU has already been prepared.

The cancellations are expected. But are they understood?

Multiple theories have been posited to explain away the choice to cancel two of SyFy’s original series’, SGU and Caprica. Most agree (even Scalzi), however, that poor network scheduling is the main culprit, particularly the choice to move these shows from Fridays to Tuesdays. They were shucked aside in favor of the guaranteed revenue brought by WWE SmackDown on Friday Nights, which SyFy acquired rights to in 2010.

TV is a business, so it’s no surprise that the network values SmackDown over SGU. New shows still have to prove their worth, while SmackDown came with a Friday night audience. It’s simply bad business to put your best bet on the back burner.

But SyFy didn’t do that. They cut their losses, and SGU had to go. The fans are heartbroken, but the network will survive.

Could SGU have been saved? We can only speculate. Fans of the Stargate universe are quick to rise to SGU’s defense, and for good reason. It is a marked improvement over it’s predecessors. There are no cheesy alien costumes. The characters are likeable and they actually develop as the show progresses. For example, the scientist Nicholas Rush becomes less insubordinate and less secretive after he is left to die on a strange world.
The show also has a noticeable story arc, as opposed to the pre-boxed cracker-jack episodes that are common in other series’ like SG-1 and BSG. This may make it harder to gain a large audience, since someone joining the show mid-season could get lost without knowledge of the back story. But for someone who is a fan of the show from the beginning, the story is engaging and the progress the characters make in figuring out their situation is captivating (finally gaining access to the main system controls of Destiny; pressure from the homeworld that causes tension among different members of the half-civilian, half-military crew; mistakes they make along the way that cause the death of crew members and friends.)

If the audience for a good original sci-fi show is out there (and it is: SG-1, BSG, Lost, Heroes, Fringe all make further proof unnecessary), then why did SGU get the axe? What did SyFy do wrong?

The Shift to Online Viewing

What I’m going to call the online shift theory is touted around the sci-fi fan geekdom as the main reason for many a show’s cancellation, SGU and Caprica included. It goes like this:

“Sci-fi fans tend to be younger and technologically savvy, and so among the earliest adopters of new technology. We got DVRs first and stopped watching our favorite shows live. We were the first users of Hulu and iTunes, and sci-fi fans were torrenting new episodes illegally before most people even knew such a thing existed.”

And the reason, the theory continues, is that since the ratings systems doesn’t count online and not-live DVR views (when you skip commercials) properly, the ratings are poor for sci-fi shows and eventually the network drops the show.

Craig Engler, GM and senior vice president of Syfy Digital, wrote an article on Nielsen ratings and online viewing for Blastr, an “imagined by SyFy” blog. He writes, “There’s some truth to what’s being said, but there are also lots of misconceptions and things people overlook when the topic comes up.”

He goes on to explain how Nielsen ratings work, why DVRs that allow you to skip ads are a “bigger issue” than online viewing, how online viewing is counted, how sampling works, etc. You can read the article in it’s entirety at Blastr, but this is what it comes down to:

“Overall I don’t think there’s any evidence to support that Nielsens are wildly inaccurate or especially harsh on sci-fi shows. And sci-fi shows are actually canceled no more frequently than other genres. The reality of TV is that most shows fail, in any genre. That’s endemic to all entertainment businesses. Most movies aren’t successful, most books don’t become best-sellers, etc.”

In other words, the Nielsen ratings system isn’t great, but for now it’s good enough for the TV industry because they need some level ground to negotiate with advertisers on.
So the shift to online viewing doesn’t have that much of an impact. But if you factor in the tech savvy audience, the move to Tuesday nights, and the non-cracker-jackness [Note from Beej: Best Phrase Ever, Matt.] of the writing, it is really no surprise that SGU was cancelled after all.

A TV Industry In Flux

Engler does provide a few caveats, or back doors through which to escape from the unpredictability of the TV industry. First, he writes that Nielsen plans to unveil a new ratings system that includes online viewing:

“Later this year Nielsen is going to roll out a new rating that combines TV and online views for shows that run online with the same ads as on air, and that may entice more advertisers to buy their online and on-air ads in sync. Until they do, there is a real business need to track them separately.”

This seems like a good thing from the perspective of the online viewer. But it will only work if SyFy’s online viewing option evolves. Because the current online viewing option that SyFy offers on Hulu is not up to par.

In the case of Stargate Universe, for example, episodes can be streamed on Hulu. But as of now, the week before the final episode is to air, only the twelfth episode is available on Hulu. That leaves multiple episodes that the frequent viewer may wish to see that are unavailable on the only online service that brings SyFy revenue.

The missing episodes can be streamed on alternate streaming services, but they don’t do SyFy any good since they are not paying SyFy for their use.

It seems sensible for SyFy to create their own streaming portal, instead of going through a third party. If what the fans believe is true, then SyFy has a large, tech savvy audience just waiting for a decent online viewing alternative. If SyFy also manages to sell the deal to their advertisers, then they could capture the shift to online viewing before it overtakes on-air TV viewing.

The pattern is laid out, the audience is looking for it… and until SyFy takes advantage of the situation, sci-fi fans will continue to see good shows die young and full of potential.
The second and most important caveat Engler mentions is that online viewing is gaining worth as we speak.

“The TV and online industries are both in massive flux right now, and that will continue for a long while. Five years ago, online revenue for TV shows was counted in pennies, and now it’s counted in nickels. Hopefully it will get to quarters in the next few years, and then online viewing might really start making an impact on the ability of TV networks to renew shows.”

In other words, online viewing has increased in worth to advertisers 500% in the past five years. There is no reason to suggest that this will change.

Indeed, SyFy would be daft not to take advantage of the online viewing market while it’s still affordable.

Perhaps Stargate Universe could have been saved, if the industry were in a different, more tech savvy shape than it currently is. Things are changing, though, and if online viewing (including DVR’s, on-demand, etc.) becomes the norm, it’s a whole different ball game.

Comments

  1. Longasc

    While there can be reasons outside of shows that can negatively affect tem, like Friday night death slots and stuff like that, people are voting with their feet or rather viewer numbers. It is also going quite far to argue Nielsen ratings would be lower than they should be because of the tech savvy audience and so on.

    That wrestling is so popular is for me as SciFi fan very unfortunate. But even as a fan I must say: Caprica and SGU were not good (I didn’t watch Dollhouse). Maybe not bad beyond hope, but SGU did not have the cameraderie of SG1 and (harder to explain) was not as good as Stargate Atlantis either. They had so much better effects, and a potentially much more interesting setup, the Destiny was an awesome idea. But what happened? Mostly the same brownish interiors and odd switches back to Earth.

    I would put the blame on Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper. The story they tried to tell was not interesting enough. The overarching plot elements get lost if the episodes themselves are not good enough to keep people watching.

    • Did you watch it all the way to the end? I’ll fully admit the beginning of the series (the first half of season one, especially) is significantly worse than the other two in the franchise. But by the end of season 2, with the storyline that concluded in “Epilogue,” I felt the series hit a high note the other two–and we all know how much I adore me some SG-1–really didn’t get to.

      I think it’s a shame the rest of the story won’t ever be told, especially as they cancelled the plans for a movie and the finale is supposed to be a cliffhanger. I was hoping for resolution.

      • Longasc

        I don’t know how much of season 2 I missed, as I stopped watching. Germany saw an extreme dip in viewer numbers, season 2 launched after news from America about the cancellation.

  2. I have been following this trend for specific types of shows, day of play, etc for quite a while. Thus, when you state “however, that poor network scheduling is the main culprit”, the fact that Sanctuary, which was also on Fridays, then was MOVED to Mondays and subsequently saw a crash in the ratings..(Average ratings on Friday was a 0.4 to 0.6 with 1.4+ million viewers down to this past Monday’s 0.2 and 0.8 million views), says a lot of this “schedule bingo” that Syfy is playing.

    But, at the same point, as Longasc stated…SGU was not as good.

    At first.

    The show now has finally become masterful and these last episodes have been some of the best I have watched of ANY SG show.

    All of this should have been done in Season 1.

    As to Sanctuary, production values are not that high and the acting can be a bit “blah”…so, again…is it the show or the schedule? Being Human, Warehouse 13 and Eureka all have had success on mid day weeks, so….hard to say.

    I will miss Robert Carlyle who is a master of his art in this show, but I know when too little, too late has bearing…and SGU just took too long to get to where it is.

    • The thing about Warehouse 13 and Eureka is that they’re summer shows, which are held to a much lower standard than the flagship titles like SGU.

      I will miss Carlyle, too, but I think I’ll miss David Blue over anyone else. I really, really have come to like Eli because this character has legitimately evolved, not just superficially developed.

    • Longasc

      Let’s take a look at someone that was almost universally hated: Chloe.

      Bad actor? Or rather… silly character she had to play?

      I’m a huge fan of Robert Carlyle and Rush was awesome. But even he could not compensate for a weak start. I did not watch the final episodes. If they were really good, it’s a bit like salting the wound! 🙁

  3. What you all said about the show getting off to a slow start was true, but you can’t have a good show without a little setup. And it most definitely got better as it went on. The end of season 1 and the end of season 2 are absolutely fantastic. I’m excited for the finale. Thanks all for reading

  4. Had the first 30 episodes been condensed into ten episodes, and followed by the second-half of season two, I’d imagine that SGU would have been an unstoppable juggernaut. It seems to me as though the writers tried to focus on (indulgent?) character development, without managing to create tense, memorable episodes to hook the viewer.

    And even if my half-baked hypothesis rings true, shows like Mad Men destroy SGU in terms of character development. After one episode of MM, we know much, much more about Pete Campbell than the unnecessarily-enigmatic Dr. Rush. Of course, Robert Carlyle was brilliant.

    The second half of season two, though? Fantastic. Also fantastic? Lieutenant James.

  5. I couldn’t make it through the first episode. It was that dreadful. And it all came down to the main protagonist: an overweight teen-aged videogamer. A lumpen.

    Sorry, no.

    I did try another episode towards the end of Season One, and again, the lumpen was a complete turn-off. No, no, no. A boring character, boringly portrayed. And the premise was just a more grandiose version of Star Trek Voyager, so from a fictional standpoint it lacked originality. The other side of the Universe wasn’t far enough away as far as I was concerned.

    While network shenanigans don’t help — and I’m totally on board with setting up good streaming with all episodes available — the biggest problems for SF on TV are poorly drawn characters, bland acting, tedious plotting, drippy dialogue, sterile set design, unimaginative premises, and overused hooks.

    And lo and behold, when you *do* get a show that’s intelligently written and artfully executed, you have another case of Joss Whedon mistakenly believing yet again that Fox is going to let him get away it.

  6. I really like SG-1. Atlantis is tolerable, even good at times. SGU simply didn’t strike a good Stargate vibe in my book. It was too trashy, too dark, and tried far too hard to be an edgy BSG successor.

    I wonder what it would have played like as a different series with a different MacGuffin for interstellar travel, say, dimensional doors or the like. That way it could have carved out its own niche instead of trying to shoehorn the Stargate IP into territory that SG-1 spoofed with “200”.

  7. rae

    I miss Eli the most also. He came across as an annoyingly large 12 year old in the beginning but watching him become the heart and soul of the Destiny, well worth the struggle in the beginning. There were episodes that I liked less but the truth of having anyone and everyone at risk, I prefer that to the fluffy, “the star never gets hurt,” let alone left to die on an empty planet. But the NEED TO KNOW what happens next…..no one would have left Eli in charge in season one–they would have preferred to commit suicide. The final episode was the real start of SGU, so why was it the end??? with love to all the cast and crew for all you gave us.

  8. Rachel C

    SG1 and Atlantis were just more cookie-cutter sci-fi fluff! SGU had depth and character development but sadly most SG fans were accustomed to the pulp and disinterested in engaging with storyline beyond an episodic humans-against-alien-foe offering. I persist in the hope that SGU will come back from its cryosleep, but fear I’ll have to make do with SGU fan fiction.