”Roswell,” the WB’s cult hit about teenage aliens, is back for a second season after being saved by a novel fan campaign last May (they flooded network offices with the aliens’ preferred condiment: Tabasco sauce.) But even with a choice time slot, Mondays at 9 p.m., the show’s prognosis isn’t out of this world. The Oct. 2 premiere drew 4.1 million viewers, but lost 36 percent of the audience from the WB’s 8 p.m. lead in, ”7th Heaven,” while last week’s second episode was watched by 3.9 million people and lost 39 percent. If things don’t improve for the series — which averaged 3.5 million viewers last season — industry observers say it’s a goner. ”The WB will be watching it closely over the next few months to determine its future,” says John Spiropoulos, associate director of audience research for Initiative Media. ”To survive, it needs a much bigger audience than it’s getting.”
To lure new viewers, ”Roswell”’s producers plan to radically shake up the formula that earned it a vocal — if limited — cadre of fans last season. This includes shifting the focus away from the star crossed romance between alien boy Max (Jason Behr) and earth girl Liz (Shiri Appleby) that provided the show’s emotional core. ”We learned that simply having a human in love with an alien was not a potent enough story to build the entire show around,” says executive producer Jonathan Frakes, who may be better known for playing Commander Riker on ”Star Trek: The Next Generation.” ”So the focus this season is more on the aliens.”
In short, ”Roswell” characters will do less sighing, and more sci-fi-ing. It’s all part of an effort to differentiate the series from the WB’s glut of navel gazing teen angst dramas. ”We plan to darken it up a bit,” says Frakes. ”It’s no longer going to be a ‘talk around the locker’ high school show. The stakes are now life or death.” Frakes says that upcoming episodes will feature more mayhem from the show’s deadly, epidermis shedding aliens, called ”Skins,” and time tested sci-fi conventions like having the characters see themselves in the future and in the past. One example is a forthcoming installment titled ”1947” — the year of the real life UFO scare in Roswell, N.M. — in which they go back in time.
But will these changes anger old fans of the series, which is based on the popular young adult novels by Melinda Metz? ”If you shift the direction of a show, you’re always going to lose some of the audience,” says Tom Watson, Initiative’s research director for the Pacific region. But it’s a risk the struggling ”Roswell” is going to have to take, especially if the producers want to build upon their core female viewership. ”Sci-fi appeals more to men,” says Watson. ”But if the show does it well, they should be able to keep a lot of their female audience and get men to watch, too.” And if that doesn’t entice male viewers, how’s about having the aliens start a WWF style wrestling league?