Pragmaclast - September 2004
Are We Living in a Golden Age? - Lorna Robinson
(page 7/7)
Pragmaclast
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Are We Living in a Golden Age?

I was intrigued by some recent discussion of whether recent years had been "golden years" for science fiction on television and if they were coming to an end. I decided to actually work out some numbers and do some investigating. With the assistance of imdb, various other websites and beardies from across the country courtesy of livejournal I compiled an eventual list of 130 sf shows, many of which I'd never heard of. I figured the most important criteria were how many sf shows were on air in a year, and how many new shows were aired. The first criteria showing the general state of the airwaves while the second gives more of an indication of what the powers that be think the audience wants.

Graph by Lorna Robinson

There has recently been a golden age for science fiction with unprecedented numbers of shows on the air over the last decade. The previous two golden ages circa 1968 and 1977 (and the proto-golden age of c. 1989 that got swept up) followed a similar pattern of a peak year with 9 shows on the air and a decline to minimums of 2 or 3 shows on the air as current series come to an end and no new shows are created. The last decade however has shown a much wider peak and greater consistency in programming.

There are a few important notes regarding the results.

  1. Years are based on first airing information, so shows which aired originally in America use those years, shows that premiered in the UK use those dates. I'm not guaranteeing the accuracy of these dates, primary resource used was imdb and they've been known to be wrong.

  2. There are going to be some fairly major problems at the start and end of the time period. I limited myself to shows after 1960 fairly randomly to be honest, I primarily wanted to compare the golden age of the late 60s to that of the late 90s. So there will be larger margins for error due to shows running through from the 50s and shows that might not yet have made it onto the radar as sf this year.

  3. 'Science Fiction' is a tricky term. Accept it and move on.

  4. Dr Who has not been included. Basic reason - I didn't feel like working out what years it was actually on the air with new episodes and felt it would over complicate things.

  5. I'm not counting anything designed as a mini-series as they're trickier to find. Neither am I counting any cartoons as they were going to overwhelm the other shows and I couldn't face trying to work out just how many Power Rangers series there have been or what to do about the Jetsons which seems to have been on the air since the last ice age.

  6. This is all about quantity, not quality. I'm not going near that issue.

  7. The full data is available at: http://www.sulkyblue.co.uk/sf/golden_age.html

Analysis

Looking at the overall shape of the graph it is clear that there are waves in the number of science fiction shows on the air over the last 45 years. The first peak occurs in the late 60s and is what I would label the first 'golden age' of science fiction peaking in 1967. This was a time when there were two threads of science fiction, the American and the British . In America Irwin Allen lead the charge with the classic "monster/mad scientist/alien of the week" shows including Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The start of the Star Trek franchise in 1966 brought a huge amount of fan support to the genre. Meanwhile in the UK science fiction was mostly being aimed at children with Gerry Anderson's 'supermarionation' spectaculars like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.

A sudden plummet occurred in the early 70s, with 1971 having no new shows start. 1976 showed the first signs of a new peak and the following 5 years formed the second 'golden age'. The British continued to soldier on in the battle with some grittier less action/adventure based stories, bringing in politics and concern over the future with shows such as Blake's 7 and Survivors. The US meanwhile concentrated on a selection of 'heroes' from The Incredible Hulk to The Bionic Woman and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 'Big budget' sf of the time was probably best represented with Battlestar Galactica, while Mork and Mindy was the sf sit-com predecessor of Red Dwarf and 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Dark days set in again in the early 80s, with an eerie echo of the previous decade, no new shows were created in 81 and 82 had all existing shows come to an end and no new ones being created. The next few years saw a few short-lived shows but most of these were children/teen shows such as Terrahawks, Tripods and ALF. Things start to climb around 1987 as Star Trek: The Next Generation appears on the screens and brings with it what looks to be the third golden age. This seems to follow the same trend as the two previous ages, peaking at 8 shows a year in 89 and 90 and then starting to drop again as less new shows are created. Then something strange happens. The drop turns around and while in 1991 there are just 6 shows on the air, by 1993 there are 16, including an unequalled 9 new shows.

What led to so many new shows? I think Star Trek: TNG is owed a lot of credit for this. It was guaranteed an audience with the fans of the original series and they were making their kids watch it. TNG literally brought a new generation of people into sf and they were exactly the generation willing to sit in front of a tv for hours on end. The popularity of scifi supported the launch of the Sci Fi channel in 92, although at first it showed mostly repeats it later became able to fund original programming.

Another factor I believe is that shows start lasting longer, popular shows like Star Trek, Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf were still on the air after more than 4 years, and people were even watching the repeats! Networks realised that there was money to be had, this wasn't just a brief craze and they jumped on the bandwagon with enthusiasm. And the really good news - these shows were not just mindlessly following the crowd with cheap knockoffs - of the 9 shows created in 1993 3 of them lasted more than 5 years (Star Trek: DS9 (7), The X-Files (10), Lois and Clark (5)) and all but 2 returned for at least 1 more season. 94 was less of a success with two 1 season only shows, but we'll forgive all it's sins as the 3rd new show was Babylon 5. 95 however returns to form with 5 new shows including Voyager, The (new) Outer Limits and Sliders.

With these shows living longer the golden age is drawn out, people don't lose interest in science fiction, they will follow shows for 7+ years whilst also giving new shows a chance. Shows either die in their first or second year, or last more than 5 (an important number for the complicated American syndication target that really starts to bring in the money). The big franchises kick in as the names behind the shows once again come to the fore. While the 60s had Gerry Anderson and Irvin Allen, the 70s had Terry Nation the 90s give us Gene Roddenberry, J Michael Strazinski, Chris Carter and Joss Whedon. These names on a project is enough to get it green lighted and guarantee a fairly hefty budget.

I believe that an important element in keeping this age rolling was the internet. Science fiction fans are predictably enthusiastic about this new technology and flock to newsgroups and message boards in droves to talk about their favourite shows. Sf fans form and join communities and propagate support for the shows and their creators to anyone that will listen. The marketing forces kick into overdrive again with spin-off books, comics, trading cards and lunchboxes adding to company profits quite nicely. Video and dvd sales continue to increase the lifetime of shows from the point of view of the economists.

The big concern for television sf fans at the moment is that we are reaching the end of this golden age and entering another dark age. I was one of these, but looking at the data it doesn't seem to be a cause for concern. Whilst there has been a decrease in the number of shows over the last 2 years with 21 in 2001 and 18 in 2003, which seems a large decrease in recent terms. But really isn't anything particularly significant when compared with earlier data, 2000 showed a drop to 17 shows and was followed by a resurgence. I think we are more conscious of the fact that several long running and/or high profile shows have come to an end. Also genres are starting to blur, standard ship based sf shows are being joined with shows like Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me, that have sf/fantasy concepts at their cores but are maybe not in fact sf. It's possible that this is the start of the end of this golden age, but I think it can still be turned around. Now is not the time to give up on tv, it's the time to support shows and prove there's still interest.

Lorna Robinson



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