Unanswered questions with sinking of Atlantis

by Paul William Tenny

Stargate (TV) co-creator Brad Wright had an enlightening interview with GateWorld's Darren Sumner which answered a few of the lingering questions I had after hearing about the demise of Stargate Atlantis.

Perhaps most striking was how indifferent Wright was to the cancellation of Atlantis, going to great lengths to assure fans that the decision wasn't pushed on him by the network or MGM; it was mutually decided to cancel a series which was ticking up in the ratings, while it was surging creatively, in favor of one TV movie with no guarantees of more.

Forgive me Mr. Wright, but I'm not buying it.
There's a lot of disclaimer type stuff that I should begin with before I get into this so that you don't get the wrong idea. I understand that five years of Atlantis was a really great thing, and that everyone involved with the series has nothing but good things to say about Scifi and MGM across the board. That's their perspective and I'm fine with that, but from where I'm sitting I think Scifi is being anything but supportive. I also recognize that Brad Wright guides the franchise, has done so very well over the years, and in all likelihood will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As a fan of the franchise, I owe a lot to Wright, Glassner, Mallozzi and all the others. We all do. But that doesn't mean there aren't some questions that need to be asked, if not from a fans perspective, then from a critics.

Presumably a lot of people -- if not all of them -- working on Atlantis are disappointed that the show wasn't renewed, but that doesn't appear to be the case with Wright. To the contrary, Wright made it clear that the decision to move Atlantis from a weekly series to a single TV movie with the possibility of more was a consensus decision between himself, MGM, and the Scifi Channel. You'd think that a series creator would fight to keep a good show alive so long as there are stories to tell, and such is the way of the business that the network is always the one to pull the plug due to ratings.

I've never heard of a series creator agreeing with a network and studio that a show which is gaining in the ratings and hitting its stride creatively should be taken off the air. For the studio it means an immediate loss of revenue and as far as a weekly series is concerned, no potential for more episodes than what has already been produced. The studio makes most of its profit from DVDs, merchandise, rights, and syndication, not necessarily in that order. No more new episodes means no growing stockpile of episodes to syndicate or sell on DVD, which makes the TV movies almost automatic. By canceling Atlantis, the studio has to replace that revenue with something.

The network has to replace the show with a new one which is why we're getting Universe, so that much makes sense. The process, that is, makes sense once the decision has been made, but it's that decision that doesn't add up. Why cancel a series that is gaining in the ratings when ratings are all that matter to the network? At first glance, one would assume the ratings weren't high enough to justify continuing costs which, presumably, is why SG-1 was taken off the air.

My point is that ratings are only the concern of the network in an isolated sense, where the studio only cares by proxy. If the ratings don't make financial sense, then studio is going to want to do whatever it can to change that, to keep that revenue source intact since they are basically protecting a property they own -- the network doesn't own the show and doesn't pay for the full production costs anyway so it has less at stake. The series creator is even further removed where they just want to keep going so long as they feel like there's still something left to say, ratings be damned. Everyone knows that MGM looked at some other options for SG-1 after Scifi lost interest, and that came after MGM successfully shopped the series to Scifi after Showtime chickened out. Where is that kind of enthusiasm for Atlantis? Why were MGM, the Scifi Channel, and Brad Wright willing to abandon it without a fight after just five seasons when all parties had worked so hard to see SG-1 continue on for twice that?

That shows lasting 10+ seasons is rare is not lost on me, but I could name several series that went that long and would argue that it's not quite as rare as some people think, and that strong original cable programming is still somewhat new as compared to original broadcast network programming and that ten years on cable is not the same thing as ten years on a big network.

I don't claim to understand the absolute detailed inner workings of a cable network, television studio, or even a television show, but I do understand the basics involved. Either Atlantis was still making money and it was canceled for other reasons, or it wasn't and fell victim to simple economics. It doesn't seem likely that a series up-ticking in the ratings, even if we're not talking about a huge gain, is going to run into serious cost concerns, especially if the network supposedly has the show's back. It's not unprecedented for a network to keep a show on the air that isn't pulling its own weight, with Friday Night Lights being a prime example. NBC went to great lengths to find a partner to help fund the series and recently Scrubs was dumped from the network after NBC decided it wasn't worth the money anymore, where somebody else apparently disagreed and picked it up for live beyond seven seasons.

The ratings of that show didn't magically change when it moved, someone else simply had different priorities or someone at NBC simply didn't like the show anymore. Ratings are not always absolute.

In that light, it seems likely that Atlantis was not canceled purely because of its ratings alone, that it might have fact been pushed aside before its time to make room for Stargate Universe. The Scifi Channel has been diluting its brand at a disturbing rate with out-of-genre reality shows, horror movies that have no sci-fi elements at all, and outright insulting and irrelevant programming such as "pro" wrestling. It's clear that at the network level or above, the genre couldn't possibly matter less nor what the networks current audience wants and enjoys. This just proves the point I was trying to make earlier about ratings. Wrestling appeals to the golden demographic of young males that advertisers cry for; it's all networks care about, which makes it so odd.

But I guess that's just the way things go sometimes. I'm not privy to what goes on in Brad Wrights mind, or what the numbers are on Scifi's desk. I'm of no mind to complain about getting an Atlantis movie and I'm pleased that another Stargate series is on its way.

Something deep down tells me we're not hearing the whole story, though. I wonder what we're missing?
in Feature, Television


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Thanks for the analysis and the hat-tip to my interview, Paul!

I think there are two elements missing here. The first is the very high creative priority that Brad and co-creator Rob Cooper place on the movie format. Brad's original deal with MGM to do Stargate in 1997 included a movie deal. When they thought the show was ending in Seasons Six and again Seven, they planned (and even wrote) a movie (which became the 2-part episode "Lost City"). He's been eager to move Stargate into movies (but not OFF television, mind you) for several years.

The second missing factor is that this move was made with the long-term health of the franchise. MGM, SCI FI, and the producers all want Stargate to last many, many years to come. As much as Atlantis and its continued performance are an issue, they are playing to the bigger picture. Another year or two for Atlantis risks eroding the potential interest in an Atlantis movie (at least from their POV); and the franchise needs something new and rather different to try and draw a new audience into Stargate.

Put those two things together, and you can start to understand why Brad says that Atlantis wasn't cancelled for Universe.

Thanks again!

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