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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

SF on TV
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Ratings
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Firefly Firefly is coming to DVD! I did not think it would happen, with only a million viewers, but DVD's are cheap to produce once the film is in the can, and, ironically, those three unaired episodes prove to be an asset rather than a liability, since the only way you are going to watch them is on the DVD. No release date is set.

I watch a lot more SF on TV than I review. For example, whenever a reader recommends a program, I try to watch it. From time to time, I'm tempted to do a killer review on one of the really bad programs that are still running -- the kind of program where a white bread hero leads a team consisting of a Black, a Hispanic, a pretty woman, and a feisty woman against cookie cutter bad guys on Planet Southern California, and the entire plot consists of people shooting ray guns at each other from behind rocks. But to review a show I don't like, unless there is something noteworthy about it, is shooting ducks in a barrel. I find enough to shoot down in the best SF TV, no need to comment on the worst. Besides, if you like something you like it. Nothing is gained by me telling you some program you like is no good.

Children of Dune

We've reached the point where there is no really good SF on TV, except for the occasional miniseries such as Children of Dune. The reason is in the numbers. A TV show is very expensive to make -- at least a million dollars to produce 42 minutes of dramatic television that doesn't look hopelessly cheesy. Quiz shows, court shows, reality shows, are all much, much cheaper, and very popular.

Probably the most universal entertainment experience in the world today is Disneyland. At some time in their life, almost everybody in the First World goes to a Disneyland. After that, the next most universal entertainment experience is television. A successful television program attracts tens of millions of viewers. This means that it cannot be, in any way, difficult, subtle, or unusual. It has to address the common interests of a large percentage of the population -- most of whom never read a book and never went to college. There are three traditional networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, who attract most of the viewers, simply because they have the single digit numbers on the television dial -- you can get to them by flipping through relatively few channels. Time on the top three is at a premium, which is why Miracles, with four million viewers, was a flop, while Enterprise, with four million viewers, is a hit. Enterprise looks like a bigger frog because it is in a smaller puddle. On the other hand, Firefly and Farscape, with only a million viewers, are off the air.

Enterprise

A movie can sell a few million tickets and do OK. That is about what The Pianist has sold to date. Even the most successful movies, the staggeringly expensive special effects blockbusters that crowd the top ten, do not attract as many viewers as a moderately successful television show.

And books, which are very cheap to make, are considered wildly successful if they sell a million copies -- in other words if they do as well as a below average movie or a cancelled TV series. This means that books can appeal to a specialized audience -- they can appeal to you without having to dilute your pleasure by appealing to millions of other people.

I suspect that, after the demise of television drama, we will have television that combines mass appeal with the personal touch. Your television will have a chip in it that allows Pierce Brosnan to speak to you personally, call you by your first name, respond to what you say, and then, in the middle of fighting Dr. Yes, pause to tell you, you personally, about this great new brand of aftershave.

Meanwhile, I'll curl up with a good book.

But I do love television, and so, if you really want to watch some SF TV, I would say that, after Enterprise and Buffy, your best bets are Smallville, Angel, and Andromeda.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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