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False Positives Adventures in Technology, SciFi and Culture from Toronto

Sunday, July 17, 2005

SciFi on TV?

The New York Times saturday magazine has a piece on Ron Moore's Deep Space Journey (here's the no registration link, and now on SlashDot) and his re-creation of Battlestar Galactica (which started it second season on the USA SciFi Channel last Friday - Does any one know hen it's showing in Canada?), and the process and journey that it has gone though. (Mr Moore also has his own blog.)

Now I've enjoyed the new series and it interesting settings of people, places and things, especially how it contrasts to the "original" series, which seemed like the disco offspring of Star Wars, although with its own interesting angles.

It is that contrast that I find interesting. Star Wars and Star Trek are the templates for all Science Fiction (in any media) that the general public understands. When selling a concept to media executives it would be the path of least resistance to sell to that template, but I cannot think of the any such story that has interested me.

The stories that have interested me have been the ones with a) imaginative good writing, b) playing off the stereotypes of know science fiction. c) Explore the consequences and / or possibilities of the environment imagined.

However the constraints of Television are many:

  • A 1-hour time slot to tell your story, which makes then writing of them more like a short story (and Movies are a little better but still a very tight fit). Writing ongoing story arcs addresses this, but is the rare exception.
  • The cost for Science Fiction on TV is much high then for other dramatic TV shows with heavy use of special effects and / or unique sets, costumes and props. Movies have far bigger budgets, which make for less pressure to “re-cycle”, but still has economic consequences in the need to make bigger profits, and hence “safer” story telling.
  • Television (and the Movies) still seems even more geared toward mass-market mainstream audiences. Although Sci-Fi Channel has funded some good production it has been mostly based on best selling novels.

So it seems that Sci-Fi on the small screen or big screen still has a problem finding a big enough market to justify it costs. This is not news to fans (like me) of Babylon 5 / Crusader; Farscape, and Firefly (,or Enterprise for that matter).

So is it just a matter of waiting for the costs of production (special effects) to come down before Science Fiction can tell it’s stories in a visual medium without compermise?

John Roger (see his blog: ) the writer and executive producer for a television version of Warren Ellis’s makes some observations behind the economics of television production in 4th Generation Media:
we all know that the secondary DVD market on movies is now what's driving the business. Its superior profit margin has been estimated at, conservatively, 4-to-1.

TV networks survive off advertising, where they earn money by measuring the consumer as a metric of success. TV studios (in the pre-DVD days) made money off of syndication

To stay on the air, in order to generate enough perceived value for advertisers (for the network) and syndicates (for the studio), a show needs, regularly, ten million consumers a week. Five or seven on a smaller network.

In order for a show to create a profit on DVD (the fat pipe model of the present), it needs one million consumers.

There are a whole lot more risks one can take down here when you only need a million consumers.
I’ve long commented to friends that the possibilities for internet based marketing and distribution for a well known name to build a fan based syndication of a new series to sell DVD’s as a primary target and the Television market as a secondary market.

Imagine if Joss Whedon offered a $100 “Founders” membership to a his new series with which got you a) a DVD with this months 2 new episodes plus behind the scene footage b) the full season DVD’s with lots of new material c) unique access to purchase “Founders” only material d) a discount on renewal to the second seasons. How many hundreds of thousand of Fans would join even without a story outline? Then buy network time to show the plot episode plus a few more. Then sell (auction) to a network to show it to the “general” public. And continue to own the rights to material (and control), and sell the DVD’s.

Could you use a business model like this to fund new original stories? Could you use it to at least seed and or prototype new original stories?

Think HBO and the Sopranos. Think BlairWitch project. Also the leaking of the pilot of Global Frequency on to the internet after beginning rejected (Wired Story: Rejected TV Pilot Thrives on P2P).

A new United Artists for a internet age? Or just new repectability for "Direct to DVD" plus internet marketing?

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