Saturday, June 27, 2009

Science Fiction and Fantasy Television: Trends and Longevity

There seems to be a significant increase in the amount of science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) programs on television. It feels that the premise of every new show had some fantasy, supernatural or 'fictional science' element behind it. "We won!" was my initial geek response. Then I had a nagging doubt. Is this a sampling error or bias on my part? Did I think this because I was looking for such a result, or was there an actual trend in prime time television? Truly a more scientific survey had to be taken.

These are the questions I seek to answer:

"Are there more SF&F shows on now than in past years?"
"What is the longevity of a typical SF&F program?"
"What factors govern the amount and longevity of SF&F prime time programs?"

Methodology and Bias
I found that Wikipedia had a great collection of almanac articles that detailed the prime time lineup of every television network since 1946. I scoured the listings and attempted to catalogue every "North American prime time show whose premise was based on supernatural, fantasy, or science fiction elements." I endeavoured to have a consistent methodology that would mitigate sample bias.

As the programming trends in other countries and markets are quite different, and my focus was on North American television culture, most BBC and ITV shows were not on the list, unless I could find evidence of broad prime-time American syndication. Nor did I count Saturday morning kids shows and cartoons as they almost always contain fantasy elements and it would skew the data.

Also, there is more documentation available for more recent shows, so there is some accuracy biases between the years.

I logged the number of episodes produced, when known, rather than the number episodes aired. I did not include any "made for TV" movies or mini-series' as this was difficult to track consistently, and would bias the data to shorter runs.

I did not count shows that may have introduced a fantasy element late in its run, because that was not its primary premise, and again there would be a bias toward later shows that I have actually seen, and could identify this change. Though if it is documented that bulk of the episodes produced did have a sci-fi or fantasy element, despite some retooling, the show was added to the list.

Shows with a religious premise, involving Judeo–Christian elements such as angels and demons, may be included among the supernatural programs, if the cosmology presented was typically unique, and differed from established dogmas, which is most often the case.

Data and Results
I have identified 232 television shows that meet these conditions and criteria. Some minor trivia from my search: The first SF&F show was "Captain Video and His Video Rangers" from the Dumont Network in 1949. The oldest running SF&F program is Smallville, which started in 2001. The single series with the most episodes Bewitched with 254.

The raw data can be viewed on Google Docs, and I encourage any reviews, suggestion or further analysis of my data.

To answer my first question, I created the following graph showing the number of SF&S shows that debut in each television year, starting in September:

This graph shows a marked upward trend, indicating that, for the most part, more new SF&S shows debut every year. The 2007-2008 season brought 13 new shows, and 2008-2009 saw 14 new shows, the highest number of shows in my sample. But some recent years only posted a modest 3 or 4 new shows comparable to the volumes found in the late seventies or early nineties. A slight sinusoid can be seen with spikes at ten-year intervals, however more rigorous statistical calculations have not yet been done. But for there to be more new shows, it old shows must be cancelled.

The average longevity of these shows is estimated with arithmetic mean of 44.96, corresponding to an average of two, 22 episode seasons, which is a typical "full season". The median, or centre value is 22 episodes and the mode, is 13 episodes. Long running standouts such as Star Trek and Stargate, bring the average up, while the bulk of SF&F shows survive for only one season, as 14 is a typical "first order" of episodes before renewing for the rest of the season.

To see if SF&F shows typically get longer or shorter runs than police procedurals, westerns, medical dramas, or sit-coms, I would have to accumulate comprehensive data on those shows. However random sampling of non SF&F shows, which I had to take in order to determine their genre, indicates that most modern shows don't make it out of their first season alive. In the 70's and 80's, even if a show was tanking in the ratings, it would typically get all episodes aired, and then not renewed. In the last few years, the trend is to order fewer episodes up front, then pull shows after 3-5 episodes if ratings disappoint. Gone is the September season start, with mid-season replacements debuting throughout the year. In fact, a good portion of the shows announced for the 2009-2010 are already primed as mid-season replacements for shows that have yet to be cancelled.

I found some obvious-if-you-think-about-it trends regarding the kind of environment that creates more genre programming. For one, more broadcast channels are good for SF&F programming. When Fox started a national broadcasting schedule in 1987, there is a spike in the number of recorded programs, and the same can be seen when UPN and WB started in 1997. Likely more channels means more of every kind of programming, but importantly for this study, and fandom, SF&F was not overlooked by new general themed channels.

The history and trends in syndicated shows is not fully clear to me, but one can say that syndication is generally good for SF&F programming. Since syndication means that the initial financial burden is taken by a production company, the broadcaster can try out new shows with reduced risk. This leads a varied array of programming including, more often than not, SF&F.

Another big conclusion one can draw from this data is that Firefly, with only 14 episodes, is not an anomalously cancelled show, rather it has the longevity of a typical show in this data set. Its cancellation was not atypical of shows from that era, with none of the scripted shows debuting in that same year lasting until the current season.

If this survey suggests anything to those who love science fiction and fantasy programming on television, it is this: Treat every new episode of your beloved show as if it were the last, because history shows it may very well be. When your show ends, another one will come along soon.


davidd said...

I'm a little bit hazy on your parameters here. Specifically, are you including only "broadcast networks" with over-the-air programming? Or do you include cable networks, like the Sci-Fi channel?

Obviously, or at least, rationally, which I realize is not always the same as "accurately," there is more sf/fantasy programming today than in the past because there are more channels available than in the past. During much of my youth, back in the dark ages, there were only three networks, or four if you count PBS. Today we have these, plus WB and Fox, and a plethora of cable channels. Sheer volume of outlets would dictate that there's more programming today than one, two, or three decades ago; of that increased programming, assuming a constant percentage of SF/F programming, the numbers of SF/F shows, which is what you are tabulating, would increase simply because the number of all types of programs has increased.

Some areas had independent stations which ran syndicated programming. By focusing on only broadcast network programming, you're potentially ignoring significant SF/F programs which often aired in prime time on other stations, or on network affiliates which did not necessarily adhere strictly to the network offerings. For example, the 1970s series "The Starlost" and "Space: 1999" would fall in this category. Indeed, other than the original "Star Trek" series, each of the following incarnations was a syndicated program, and would not be counted in your sampling if you are adhering strictly to a "network programming" model.

Personal opinion: dude, if you're ignoring "Space: 1999," well, that's just not right! Ignoring the "Star Trek" franchise, as well as a host of additional 1980s syndicated offerings ("Xena: Warrior Princess" comes to mind) calls the validity of your approach into question.

You've put a lot of work into this project so far. I'd like to see a clarification, as I said, as to "which stations/networks" are you counting, and how are you accounting for syndicated offerings.

Is there "more" fantasy/SF programming today, as measured by number of programs? Your tallies so far suggest there is. However, has the percentage of SF/F programming changed over time in relation to other types of programming? That might be an equally, if not more, meaningful statistic as far as indicating whether there is an increasing trend toward SF/F programming on the whole.

Here's a potentially useful link on syndication trends over the decades (assuming I can post links):

Once you get the numbers hammered out, then you can address: is the SF/F programming today "better" or "worse" than that of previous decades?

Oh, and: does "Mister Ed" qualify as a "fantasy" show? How about "My Mother the Car"? ;-)

Drhaggis said...

If you had read my raw data table, as indicated in the article ( you could have saved yourself a lot of time.

I counted national large market, prime-time broadcasts, as indicated. Though I think I missed "Mr Ed", Thanks for that!

There is no unbiased, scientific measurement of "better" or "worse", but you are welcome to make your own top 10 list.

davidd said...

Uh... d'oh! So you DID factor in as many syndicated programs as you could find information on. Including "Space: 1999." Fine work!

Of course, being a lazy slacker, er, I mean, a denizen of the "digital generation," I like to have my information presented in a simplistic, immediate, pre-digested visual format, which means I glanced briefly at your graph and then started spouting off!

I still think a "percentage" analysis would be interesting.

Oh, and, as far as "Mr. Ed" (I see you already had "My Mother the Car") goes, I can see another challenge here is actually determining which programs had "fantasy" or "sci-fi" elements. Did you go by "memory," did you research every title, or, did you kind of quasi-wing it?

davidd said...

There was a "Flash Gordon" television series (not the Buster Crabbe serials) produced in 1954, which aired in syndication and, apparently, on the Dumont Network, altho' this is not indicated in the Wikipedia data set.

Additionally, "Jonny Quest," although a "cartoon," was originally aired during Prime Time in 1964.

This is fun, but I'll stop now. ;-)

davidd said...

Okay, I won't stop now.

1959-1960 you overlooked a Prime Time series, "One Step Beyond."

I cannot find air time data for "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," a syndicated program from 1954. Perhaps it was not shown in Prime Time.,_Space_Ranger

"Tom Corbett: Space Cadet" first appeared on television in 1950. The program jumped around through all four existing networks until 1955. The program's brief appearance at each network might explain its failure to appear on the Wikipedia schedules. Again, I can find no information indicating whether this was a "Prime Time" program.,_Space_Cadet

Oh, heck, what am I doing piecing things together like this? I would posit that due to the difficulty in documenting anything as ephemeral as television schedules, particularly from an era when much programming was live, and even recorded programming was not always preserved for posterity, your analysis under-represents the number of SF/F programs broadcast during the early years of television. Perhaps the following site may be of interest:

SF Television: Chronological Television

Thanks for addressing the topic. I'm having endless fun reading about all these long-forgotten SF/F genre programs from the early years of television!

And, y'know, trying to mess with your methodology has a kind of perverse appeal, as well! ;-)

Drhaggis said...

Thanks for reminding me about Johnny Quest. I originaly skipped it because it's a cartoon, which are inherinatly "fantastical" but if I include Futurama, the Quests must be added.

Many sf&f shows in the early days were classified a children's programming, which is why the were programmed outside of prime time. The trends of SF&F as an adult genre, is what I want to track.

The documentation bias towards modern shows was cited as a known bias in my original post. I believe my sample size is large enough to support my original findings, though there is no reason the sample can't be complete.

Your perverse appeal is a common trait among sf&f fans. The oft herd mantra is "I don't really know what you are trying to do, but I do know you are doing it wrong". It's part of our skeptical nature.

davidd said...

There was a Gerry & Sylvia Anderson precursor to "Space: 1999" called "UFO," which I remember watching in early Prime Time. From what I can find, it appears to have been syndicated in the U.S. in 1972.

I don't see "Doctor Who" among your data. Is this because it was originally conceived as a series for children; because it did not originally air in Prime Time in the U.S.; or because production and scheduling has been so sporadic over the decades, it's too much trouble to bother with? And where would "Dr. Who" place among the data: 1961, or would it start with the current revival, geared more toward adult audiences (and more widely available in the U.S.)? From a longevity standpoint, wouldn't "Dr. Who" trump "Smallville"? ;-)

Drhaggis said...

Doctor Who was definitely a kids show, until the reboot.

BBC programming is designed to compete against ITV and other European shows. Its a different market and a different creature.

Smallville is still the longest running network show in my sample set.