ABC and Showtimes try to beat the odds by turning sci-fi movies into TV shows

Here’s a truth that’s right out there: Successful movies rarely translate into successful TV series (see Dirty Dancing, Working Girl, Starman, Clueless, Dangerous Minds…need we go on?). Here’s another one: TV sci-fi — excluding otherworldly fare like The X-Files and 3rd Rock From the Sun — has seen better days. Earth 2, seaQuest, and Space: Above and Beyond were all costly losers. Even that eternal gold mine, the Star Trek franchise, seems to be tarnishing; the ratings of both Voyager and Deep Space Nine have slipped noticeably in the last year. So what could possess a network to throw millions at not just another sci-fi drama, but one based on a movie?

Try being in third place. Mere hours after a pitch meeting with Universal Television, ABC agreed to shell out $14 million for 13 episodes of Timecop, this fall’s not-yet-cast adaptation of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1994 action-adventure flick about a time-warping policeman. The network, which hasn’t seen a hit drama since N.Y.P.D. Blue debuted in 1993, is desperate to make some noise. But is a movie that was only a minor box office hit (Timecop scored $44 million) really the right battle cry — especially minus Van Damme? Given the increasing tendency to yank under-performing shows only weeks after their debuts, Steve Sternberg, an analyst for BJK&E Media, has some doubts: ”ABC needs to get strong ratings out of the gate, which is difficult to do with sci-fi, because these niche audiences take awhile to build.” When they do, though, advertisers jump. ”The demos that heavily watch those shows are 18- to 34-year-old men,” notes Whitey Chapin, VP of broadcast research at TN Media. ”Outside of sports, they’re hard to reach. Timecop is worth the gamble because it’s different. Everyone else wants the next X-Files.”

Timecop does have other factors in its favor, including a sci-fi-action-loving international market, a $1.5 million-per-episode budget (”There will certainly be some eye candy,” promises Universal TV president Tom Thayer), and hot producers (notably Die Hard‘s Lawrence Gordon). ”If you’re going to fall on your sword in terms of development,” says Thayer, ”it’s the right sword to fall on.”

Point well taken. In addition to ABC’s venture, NBC is unleashing a near-$20 million disaster movie, Asteroid, in February. Fox is developing The Visitor, an alien series from Independence Day‘s creators. Showtime, meanwhile, is pinning its hopes on the repackaging of MGM’s Stargate (1994). Boasting a 44-episode commitment, a $1.4 million-per-episode budget, and MacGyver‘s Richard Dean Anderson in the Kurt Russell role, Stargate SG-1 may be the most ambitious project yet for the premium cable network, which, like ABC, lags noticeably behind its chief competitor (HBO). ”Our audience loves sci-fi,” says Showtime development VP Pancho Mansfield, whose net airs two other MGM series, The Outer Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy. MGM TV president John Symes believes that Stargate SG-1‘s July premiere will ”give Showtime even more credibility.” Adds Chapin: ”They’re going for image as much as ratings.” But while a single hit can give a channel an identity, Showtime will get only a year to accomplish its goal: MGM can start selling Stargate in first-run syndication in fall 1998.

Stargate SG-1
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