Genre series are all the rage in cable with the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead and HBO’s True Blood, which have been breaking series records to rank as their network’s top-rated series and become pop culture staples. A genre series, The Vampire Diaries, also is the highest-rated series on the CW, which has had continuous success in the sci-fi arena with veterans Smallville and Supernatural. But, with the exception of ABC’s Lost, sci-fi, vampire, zombie, fantasy and comic book-based series have struggled to attract sizable audiences on the major broadcast networks. That has not deterred the nets to heavily pursue such projects this development season. The 2 drama pilots ordered so far by Fox are both in the genre category: Locke & Key is based on Joe Hill’s comic, and Alcatraz features missing Alcatraz prisoners who reappear in present day. Genre projects have also attracted some of the biggest writer-producers in town: Lost‘s J.J. Abrams is behind Fox’s series Fringe and Alcatraz, David E. Kelley, who dabbled in sci-fi with Life on Mars, is developing a series adaptation of comic book icon Wonder Woman, Greg Berlanti co-created and is executive producing ABC’s freshman superhero family drama No Ordinary Family, Fringe co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are executive producing Locke & Key, and Battlestar Galactica‘s David Eick is involved in a series adaptation of The Hulk for ABC and Marvel.
ABC, the network that had the most recent genre drama success with Lost and has 2 such series on the air, No Ordinary Family and V, is making big bets in the field. What’s more, it is looking to translate the genre movies’ big success at the box-office to the small screen by bringing in the auspices behind some of the biggest genre feature hits. Melissa Rosenberg, the writer of the hugely popular Twilight movie franchise, is writing AKA Jessica Jones, a drama about a former female superhero based on a Marvel comic. Oren Peli, the writer-director of the blockbuster Paranormal Activity franchise, is behind a paranormal drama set in the Amazon, and Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy mastermind Guillermo Del Toro is partnering with Eick on the adaptation of The Hulk.
But can genre movies’ box-office success be replicated on mainstream TV? For the most part, the answer seems to be no. The closest to a genre hit on the big broadcast networks these days is CBS’ hit comedy The Big Bang Theory, which has geek overtones but is broad enough to attract wide audiences. But CBS’ vampire drama Moonlight and horror drama Harper’s Island and ABC’s sci-fi series Flash Forward lasted a season each, while Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse were axed after 2. The 4 genre dramas on the major broadcast networks right now, Fringe, No Ordinary Family, Human Target and The Event, attract the same average audiences of 5-6 million viewers as cable series The Walking Dead and True Blood. (Fringe‘s viewership is even lower, 4.5-5 million and will probably go further down when the show relocates to Fridays, but the series is a major DVR gainer, which brings it up on par with the others.) Maybe this is the ceiling for genre series no matter what type a network they are on. For a cable net, that is a great number but for a major broadcaster, it is way too small. Of course, there are those lightning-in-a-bottle cases like Lost and the first season of Heroes that transcend the core sci-fi fan base and enter mainstream, but long-running hit genre drama series on the Big Four like The X-Files seem to be a thing of the past. It doesn’t help that most of those series are serialized, a genre that has been struggling mightily on broadcast TV.
Along with genre projects, the often serialized period and costume dramas are also in fashion at the broadcast networks this development season. ABC is developing an Pan Am-themed drama set in the 1960s with Jack Orman and Tommy Schlamme and a Romeo & Juliet adaptation set in Renaissance Italy written by Andrea Berloff; CBS is working on a reboot of The Wild Wild West from former CSI co-showrunner Naren Shankar and Battlestar Galactica developer Ron Moore; while NBC is shepherding a drama set at a 1960s Playboy club penned by Chad Hodge. Just like genre series, period and costume dramas have become staple on cable with AMC’s Mad Men and the upcoming Hell on Wheels, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Showtime’s The Tudors and the upcoming The Borgias, and Starz’s Spartacus and the upcoming Camelot. But all recent attempts to launch such series on the broadcast networks have fizzled: ABC’s Empire and Life on Mars and CBS’ Swingtown barely lasted a season. And the CW’s 1980s Gossip Girl spinoff didn’t go beyond pilot stage. So when it comes to historic projects, history is not on the broadcast networks’ side. But just like with genre dramas, the Big 4 are looking to write new history by taking a page from cable networks’ book.