Thursday, April 29, 2010

Culture Shock 04.29.10: Syndicated TV now just game shows and judges

I totally dropped the ball on this one.

I hadn't realized that the market for scripted TV programs in first-run syndication had completely evaporated until a few weeks ago, when I read that "Legend of the Seeker" was the only such series still on the air.

And now "Legend of the Seeker" has been canceled, too. That means the only first-run syndicated TV programs left are game shows and shows about retired judges telling stupid people exactly how stupid they are.

Chalk up another victim of the ever-changing television landscape.

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when most of the TV programs I watched regularly were in first-run syndication. That's probably because I am a science-fiction geek, and no genre thrived in first-run syndication the way sci-fi did during the '80s and '90s.

The show that ignited the boom was "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

When Paramount brought "Star Trek" back to television in 1987, it bypassed the broadcast networks, opting instead to sell the series directly to local stations and split the advertising revenue. It was a daring move at the time, and it probably dredged up memories of an earlier big-budget sci-fi series that tried to make a go of it in first-run syndication, "Space: 1999."

Unfortunately, "Space: 1999" didn't fare well. Airing from 1975 to 1978, it was the most expensive TV series of its time, and it starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, who were still well-known from their time on "Mission: Impossible." But "Space: 1999" failed to live up to its pre-launch hype, and only two seasons were produced.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation," however, was a ratings juggernaut. Its success led to a tsunami of sci-fi programs entering the marketplace, including its first spin-off, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Soon, the airwaves were full of syndicated SF, horror and fantasy programming.

Before he helmed the "Spider-Man" movies, Sam Raimi, along with Robert Tapert, produced "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and its even more popular spin-off, "Xena: Warrior Princess." J. Michael Straczynski created his ambitious SF "novel" for television, "Babylon 5." And the list of shows based on popular movie franchises seemed endless: "Highlander," "Freddy's Nightmares," "Friday the 13th: The Series" and "War of the Worlds."

Even "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry got back into the game, despite having died in 1991. "Earth: Final Conflict" and "Andromeda," both based on Roddenberry's unused notes, entered syndication in 1997 and 2000, respectively. And in a weird twist of fate, both enjoyed longer runs — five seasons each — than the original "Star Trek," despite being shoddy, poorly written and generally awful.

But the syndication boom didn't last.

Paramount started its own channel, UPN, which aired the next two "Star Trek" series. And the launch of UPN and The WB — now merged as The CW — meant there were fewer independent stations needing to fill airtime with syndicated shows. Also, cable channels began to invest in their own original programming, which included "Babylon 5" moving from syndication to TNT for its final year.

At the same time, foreign markets evaporated, cutting off a major source of financing for America's syndicated dramas.

There were no scripted shows left in first-run syndication when Raimi and Tapert decided to give it another try in 2008 with "Legend of the Seeker," based on the fantasy novels of Terry Goodkind.

Now "Legend," too, is the stuff of legend, and a once-important chapter in TV history has become a footnote.

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