What has the Fox network got against its own sci-fi shows?

The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Dollhouse. Fringe. Why does the Fox Network make interesting sci-fi shows, then strangle them with scheduling?

Until finding its niche with American Idol, the Fox Network was known for its animation, its crude comedies, and its science fiction programs. Unfortunately, Fox has lately developed a notorious skittishness towards one of the programming staples that launched it, and I’m not talking about the lack of three-camera sitcoms or the non-dearth of cartoons filling the network’s lineup. Science fiction, once Fox’s bread and butter, is now becoming a victim of a network with bipolar disorder.

Out of the Fox Network’s 15 hours of network programming, three hours of it is actual sci-fi, four hours of it is drama, and two hours on Sunday is animation, and the rest are game shows or reality programs. That means that 20 percent of Fox’s lineup is blatant sci-fi, and other portions of it dip heavily into the genre. Every season, Fox unveils a science fiction program or two. See, by giving Fringe and Dollhouse and Sarah Connor Chronicles the green light, Fox is showing that it loves science fiction.

Yet two of those shows, Dollhouse and Sarah Connor, are on the day where television shows go to die. Friday night is the night when people do things like go out or go to the movies. Even if the geeks that might watch the new Joss Whedon show don’t go out to the bars, they definitely attend movies like Watchmen. That’s one of the reasons why Sarah Connor and Dollhouse scored record low ratings last week, officially moving the network one step closer to pulling the plug on the programs. Dollhouse has never flourished on Fridays, and Sarah Connor‘s ratings have dropped in its new home. Both these shows, while having dedicated fans, are also very expensive and may not come back next year.

Meanwhile, Fringe, the new series from J.J. Abrams, is one of the biggest hits of the new season. Or it was until Fox started to routinely preempt it for American Idol on Tuesday nights. February 10: Episode 14 of Fringe. Episode 15? Won’t air until April 7. That’s TWO MONTHS with no Fringe. How in the hell is the show supposed to survive two months off the air?! I know American Idol is what makes Fox all its money, but didn’t they learn anything from the writers’ strike? Cutting a show off in mid-season usually kills it. Why would Fox do this?

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I have a theory. One of Fox’s biggest ratings successes was The X-Files. It lasted 10 years and after a horrible first season ratings-wise, became one of Fox’s strongest programs for quite some time. A lot of Fox’s efforts in the sci-fi realm, namely Millennium, Harsh Realm, and The Lone Gunmen, were attempts to spawn a second X-Files utilizing some of the same crew. Millennium did well for a while, but Harsh Realm and The Lone Gunmen were killed off before even being given a shot at developing an audience, setting the tone for the way Fox would go on to treat Firefly.

One of Fox’s biggest successes as a production company was, to speak of the devil again, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Of course, it was successful for WB and not Fox, but that’s beside the point. Because of Buffy, Joss got the green light for Firefly. Fox promptly killed Firefly by airing the episodes out of order, thus screwing the show’s continuity. Now Fox, because of Firefly‘s cult appeal, gave Joss the green light for Dollhouse, which is on TV’s death night.

Would Fox like to see its sci-fi shows succeed like Buffy and The X-Files? Of course they would. However, the Fox Network is a different place than it was in 1993 when The X-Files got years plural to prove itself. Fox is a company that, like all the other networks, needs instant results. If they can’t get instant results, then they can sabotage other networks.

I think that Fox likes to keep big name creators like Whedon and Abrams tied up and off the competing networks by any means necessary. Fringe and Lost would be huge back to back. You don’t think the CW would love to have a Joss Whedon show to give it an actual audience to go alongside Supernatural? You don’t think NBC would love to have something (anything) to put on the air instead of the awful Knight Rider or another iteration of Law & Order? The CBS show The Big Bang Theory promoted Sarah Connor more this week than Fox has in a month simply because they had Summer Glau as a guest star!

By green lighting shows and deliberately tanking them, Fox keeps potentially successful programs away from the competition while still being able to say, “Hey, we’re big sci-fi fans, you’re just not watching the shows we put on!” Why else would they take a show doing fairly good ratings and move it to Friday, or take a show that should do better and start it out on Fridays? Why would they completely preempt an otherwise successful show for American Idol unless they wanted it dead?

In television, it’s succeed right away or die. If a show like Fringe does good numbers, but not the expected or hoped-for great numbers, the easiest thing to do is save some money and kill the show. Rather than give Fringe a decent lead-in with a carry-over audience like House, Fox can just cram House and 24 together on Mondays to kill Chuck and Heroes and give Fringe… what exactly? Oh right, a vacation. Or worse, a completely unrelated lead-in show so that when Fringe loses half of American Idol‘s audience, Fox can justify shuttling the show off to Friday to replace whichever one of its Friday sci-fi shows dies first.

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I wish I could give sci-fi fans some note of hope, but the shows that should live on get put on networks that conspire to kill them, and shows that should’ve ended two seasons ago (I’m looking at you, Smallville) linger on because their home network has nothing better to show. Fox’s new network slogan should be, “If we can’t have it, no one can!”

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Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.