When it was first announced that FRINGE would be moving from Thursday nights to Friday nights, everyone was relieved. It was believed that if there was a night specially designed and protective of sci-fi shows, it was Fridays. After all that was the night that Fox’s THE X-FILES flourished for many years (before moving to Sundays) and it used to be the sci-fi “go to” night for Syfy channel as well, back in the hey-days of STARGATE: SG-1, STARGATE: ATLANTIS, EUREKA and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.
But, in the past few years, an interesting trend developed. Fridays were no longer deemed “sci-fi” Fridays. It was not the sanctuary and safe haven for sci-fi shows. (All puns intended since Syfy still airs both SANCTUARY and HAVEN on Friday nights.) So with the abandonment of Syfy, which took its hardcore sci-fi shows to Monday and Tuesday nights (in order to secure more lucrative advertising and which ultimately killed off such sci-fi staples like STARGATE: UNIVERSE and CAPRICA), very few other broadcast networks wanted to venture into the forbidden territory of Friday nights – known for the past couple of decades as the Death Slot. It has been few and far between that TV shows could succeed on Friday nights. CBS’ GHOST WHISPERER managed to eek out a few years, and BLUE BLOODS also seems to be flourishing on Fridays – but both those series had big-name stars drawing the crowds. Plus, neither show is arguably considered sci-fi.
So with the relinquishment of Syfy as it abandoned its theme of “sci-fi Fridays,” other networks decided that Friday nights were a good night to park TV shows that needed a timeslot and significantly less competition in order to survive. Fox seized the day when it saw how badly its prized sci-fi show was faring Thursday nights and moved FRINGE to Fridays. It was a smart gamble and for the most part it paid off. It got FRINGE out of the position of having to compete against the likes of GREY’S ANATOMY, CSI, or successful newcomer PERSON OF INTEREST.
But even with FRINGE airing its most creatively strong season last year, Fridays were not exactly kind. FRINGE went from an average of 6 million live-viewers on Thursdays to an average of 3 million on Fridays. It essentially lost one-half of its live-viewing audience. Fox and the producers of FRINGE are quick to point out that it is the highest DVR’d show on TV with a 64% increase in viewership once DVR-viewers are added into the mix. But, as any savvy TV viewer/fan knows, DVR-viewing pays only a fraction of the advertising-dollars needed compared to the advertising-dollars obtained from a live-viewing audience. Whether Fox will stick with FRINGE beyond this current season when it is pulling in such little (if any) advertising revenue is questionable. Especially when FRINGE is pulling in lower ratings than its lead-in KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, which pulls in an average 4 million viewers and, because it is a reality TV show, costs significantly less to produce.
The curse of modern television is that reality TV shows frequently pull in higher numbers of viewers and can be made cheaply, which makes it an ideal television product when looking to maximize profitability for network shareholders. It’s simple math: reality TV brings in more profits. That’s why so many networks are keeping a healthy balance of reality TV shows on their schedule – it guarantees them money that scripted TV shows cannot deliver.
Returning to FRINGE and its challenge with viewer-retention, what specifically is the problem with FRINGE fans and other TV viewers? Why are they abandoning what is known to be one of the finest sci-fi shows on television?
Part of the answer lies within the question itself: it’s Friday. For a variety of reasons, fans and television viewers are not watching television on Fridays. From everything like “it’s date night” to “it’s family night” are preventing viewers from turning on the television. People are going to dinner, going to the movies, meeting up with friends, catching up with their kids – or some are just numb from the long work week and do not want to have to focus on anything. So that is part of it.
However, before quickly pointing out the fact that shows like GRIMM and BLUE BLOODS are able to capture a healthy number of viewers even on a Friday night, let me cite another reason viewers are not tuning in to watch FRINGE: it’s too complicated. Viewers that are intrigued by scientific phenomena and the mystery behind it are tuning in. But casual viewers are thinking the same thing: it’s too dark and too complicated. They are looking for something more lightweight and fun on Friday nights. FRINGE is innately the wrong type of show for a Friday night. It requires too much thought and concentration and the average viewer is simply not looking for a show that requires them to strain-the-brain. They want a “popcorn” show – which is why procedurals have succeeded in recent years and it was the secret to THE X-FILES success.
Whereas FRINGE embraced its heavy mythology and has become a magnificent show because of it, it also has made it harder for viewers to figure out what was going on from week-to-week without a cheatsheet of who all the characters are and how they figure into the increasingly complex intertwined storylines. Unveiling and reveling in the alt-verse has been spine-tinglingly awesome for the diehard fans – but it is confusing to the casual viewer. The procedural element is also exceedingly scientifically-complex and difficult to wrap one’s brain around. All these things are like discovering gold for a hard-core sci-fi fan; but the average viewer is not looking for a lesson from the latest issue of the Scientific American.
Most television viewers are looking for the human-element – a reason to care about the characters and an easy to follow story that allows the characters to resolve a mystery. FRINGE has introduced some of the most fascinating characters on television – Walter, Peter and Olivia, as well as their counter-parts Walternate, Fauxlivia, and their respective investigative teams made up of Astrid, Charlie, Lincoln Lee, Agent Broyles, and Nina Sharp. FRINGE has also lovingly crafted the intertwined destinies of each character and made us care a great deal about them. But only if you were paying attention. Someone just turning on the TV or tuning in for a handful of episodes would not see the careful construction and loving detail to each character and all the reasons that faithful fans have fallen in love with them.
FRINGE is a great example of a show that took its time to slowly unveil its secrets and ensnare us in a story so complex that it took two universes and two timelines to tell it. But that kind of time is not something television viewers are willing to invest anymore. They are not looking to “commit” to a TV show. The idea of being married to a television series and having to know every little detail about it is abhorrent to most viewers – especially when they can turn the channel and watch something as easy to jump into as GRIMM.
When FRINGE first debuted, it was considered a lighter-version of THE X-FILES. Interestingly, today, it is probably deemed a darker-version of it. Alas, the farther FRINGE moved from its easy to follow stand-alone episodes and took us “down the rabbit hole” into a world of extraordinary adventures and mysteries, the more casual viewers began looking elsewhere for something to watch.
Thus, FRINGE is falling victim to its own critical-success. The better it has gotten, the more problems it has had with viewer-retention. A higher quality story with better characters is only ensuring that viewers are fleeing from it because it is too good. Like reading Tolstoy or Dickens, television viewers are loath to commit the time and concentration to follow anything that in-depth and complex.
So, in the end, FRINGE is being killed off by the wicked combination of Friday night “death slot” problems and viewer laziness. It’s criminal that it is happening, but even BATTLESTAR GALATICA – one of the most decorated sci-fi shows in modern television history – could not solve the conundrum of viewer-retention.
FRINGE is dying because viewers are just not willing to commit to a complex sci-fi show anymore. Sad, but true.
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