'Terra Nova' Is Extinct, but Big TV Gambles Shouldn't Be
Looks like dinosaurs went extinct for a reason.
News Corp.'s Fox has confirmed what many TV watchers had already expected would be the case: Time -travel drama "Terra Nova," in which a family from a future overwhelmed by pollution journeys to an outpost in the past to help humanity continue to live on the earth, has gone the way of the diplodocus.
The show got decent ratings -- averaging about 10 million viewers, more than "Private Practice" but fewer than "2 Broke Girls" -- and stands as one of the few conscious efforts to weave sci-fi and family-friendly TV viewing into one big pterodactyl-egg omelet. At the same time, "Terra Nova," which had a roster of producers that included Steven Spielberg and former News Corp. honcho Peter Chernin, was as unwieldy as the first sentence of this paragraph. Too many cooks and too many ingredients left "Terra Nova" veering from week to week, with stops at lessons on the environment, spectacular dinosaur scenes, grander sci-fi conspiracies a la "Lost" and a little screen time for every member of the show's lead family. Phew!
Even Fox executives seemed a little puzzled by the show, though the network had been teasing and hyping it for more than a year before it premiered, including a promo during Fox's Super Bowl telecast in early 2011. "The show was hunting for itself creatively through the season," said Kevin Reilly, Fox's president-entertainment, at a recent meeting with the Television Critics Association. "I love the cast. I love some of the episodes. I love some of the ideas that were there, and, again, I thought it looked fantastic. Creatively, it was hunting."
It was also expensive. "Terra Nova" was shot in Australia, which added significantly to its production costs.
When a network has an expensive dinosaur show earning midtier ratings and middling critical praise, needs to replace its long-running "House" with something equally solid, has spent a year working on a global launch for "Touch" (another drama with sci-fi elements) and has already committed to another season for the underdelivering "X Factor" -- the path forward seems pretty clear.
But there's good reason to shed a tear for "Terra." It's rare for a broadcast network to take a leap on a costly, over-the-top effort, particularly in these days of splintering audiences. What's more, it's nice to see one of the Big Four put some weight behind something that isn't a raunchy sitcom, song-and-dance contest, doctor drama or cop show. Now that Fox has taken risks two seasons in a row -- remember "Lone Star," the coulda-been oil drama that Fox touted in the fall of 2010? -- it may grow more gun-shy.
That would be a shame. Let's hope the dinosaurs of "Terra Nova" help Fox evolve its programming rather than letting it ossify in the tar pits.
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.