How to kill a Firefly…

Posted: January 11, 2012 in TV/Movie News
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I recently had the pleasure of watching the entire series of an amazing, albeit short lived gem of a TV Show. Lasting only 13 episodes on FOX between September and December of 2002 (and one feature length movie in 2005 that played more like 2/3 episodes strung together), Firefly featured a team of space smugglers set in a future where humans have finally conquered the stars and settled on thousands more planets/moons all over the galaxy. Part American Civil War, part Star Wars, the setting is a little over 500 years in the future. A governmental super-group, named the Alliance, has brought all of these worlds together under one banner, installing themselves as the authoritarian leader controlling them all, enforcing their own laws, and playing a part similar to the North in the American Civil War. To do this, they waged war for several years against the planets and brown-coat armies that wanted to keep their independence and freedom. Long and bloody, the war came out in the Alliance’s favour, but left many still sour with the outcome. One such individual is Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion). Following the war, Reynolds buys a Firefly-class cargo spaceship, fixes it up, assembles a motley-type crew, and sets off to make a life for themselves in illegally smuggling goods, while fighting injustice whenever it finds them.


The cast of Firefly, taking a breather in between dangerous bar fights and high speed space chases...

The show, though it received wide praise from across the viewing public, averaged only 4.7 million viewers per episode,making it difficult for FOX to justify continuing the show’s first season, and was canceled after only 13 episodes. The loyal fan base the show generated was outraged, and cried afoul of the decision. Even today, 8 years since the show has ended, fans are still hungry for more Firefly stories, creating facebook fan pages, fan-sites, and trying out the expanded Firefly universe found in comics and role playing games. A great seasoned cast (each actor with his/her own impressive resum√©), an accomplished creator (Joss Whedon had past successes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and future successes in EVERYTHING), and an amazing intro theme song that could not be beat. If you’ve never heard the theme song, please click here and check it out. I wouldn’t hold it against you if you read this entire article while listening to only this song.

So how does a show with so much support and obvious potential end up cut from the line-up before it gets a chance to fully tell its story? The short answer (also the ass-hole answer) is the ratings just weren’t high enough. But Firefly’s fate was so much more than that. Today I’m going to talk about why Firefly suffered a premature death, and how 10 years later, it might not have.


Competing Prime-Time Dramas:

There were not many new shows in 2002 that really took hold with audiences, but those that did, did it with extreme prejudice. CSI Miami began that year, playing off the original success of the first CSI series, and is even still on television today with its 11th season. That being said, Firefly never had to compete with CSI Miami, as they were show on two different nights. One television show did debut in 2002, however, and in the same night and slot as Firefly. That quirky detective comedy/drama, Monk, with Tony Shalhoub playing the lead, had the jump on Firefly and other Friday Night tv-drama contenders by being introduced in July on the USA Network. The show, with ratings only marginally better than Firefly, lasted 8 seasons. Let’s not forget all of the other series that had already cemented their place in the listings by the time 2002 came around. Smallville, Judging Amy, Ed, Crossing Jordan, 7th Heaven, Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, 24, Boston Public… All of them were on TV at the time, though none of them shared a night with Firefly. Never the less, audiences got their fix throughout the week, leaving little care for poor Firefly.

Emergence of Reality-TV Popularity:

2002 was a strange year for television. I say that, because this is the year that really took hold of the Reality-TV craze that swept the world. For decades, game-show tv had taken moderate success on every major station, but none had made the jump yet to make the game show more popular than their scripted counterparts. Then, in the 1999/2000 season, along came Survivor and Big Brother, showing full seasons of players competing for a cash prize, but with the viewers getting to see their every move both in and out of the game. By 2002, the other major stations started seeing the trend, and started making their own. 2002 marked the debut of both American Idol, and the Bachelor, both of which still have new seasons on television today. None of these shows shared a night with Firefly, but the damage had truly been done. Many television series that stated at this time, though they would have succeeded had they come before this boom, had the misfortune of being tossed to the side now. Audiences were not as interested in fiction, because now they could do the next best thing to living, watching someone else live! Viewers were hungry for more Reality-TV, and the ratings from the years surrounding 2002 showed it:

  • Highest ratings for TV in 2000: Survivor – 29.8 Million – (2 seasons of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire were in 3rd/5th place)
  • 2001: Friends – 24.46 Million – (2 seasons of Survivor were in 4th/5th place)
  • 2002: CSI – 26.25 Million – (Joe Millionaire was in 2nd place, and 2 seasons of American idol were in 3rd/5th place)
  • 2003: American Idol – 25.73 Million – (Another season of American Idol was in 3rd place, Survivor was in 4th place)

With Firefly’s mere 4.8 million viewers, how could it compare to these numbers? It couldn’t. It wouldn’t.

Friday Night “Death Slot”:

Some people today may not completely remember the severity of a “death slot”. In the tv scheduling world, this is the night where it is nearly impossible to attract a significant viewing audience to any program. Traditionally, Friday Night is that night. Most audiences out and about on a Friday night, out with friends/family and such, and it used to be that tv shows just went to Friday night to die. In 2002, it was still very much a long shot of a night for any show to move to, let alone to be placed there from the start. I cannot give a reason as to why the show was placed in the Friday Night line up. Maybe Fox wanted to try a maneuver to boost Friday ratings, maybe they had a hole in Friday and wanted to fill it with anything they could find, maybe they just didn’t care about Firefly. The least they could have done was add an already accomplished show to Friday night along with Firefly so that loyal viewers of that program might try out Firefly too since they are already on the couch with nothing to do. Boston Public could have done it, since their ratings were already waning at the time anyway. 24 could have done it, as their ratings were strong enough to maybe survive the move. In any case, Firefly’s fate seemed to have been sealed from the get-go with its placement in the schedule.

Series Came 10 Years Before Its Time:

2002 might be a little difficult to remember for some. Back then, the internet was still gathering real steam. Facebook wasn’t on the market quite yet, people were using MSN Messenger and ICQ to communicate, and Napster was just finishing up its shutdown stages. The world of 2002 did not rely nearly as much on the internet as we do today, and neither did television fans. Had Firefly debuted today, instead of 2002, could the internet have saved it? Probably not, but it could have helped. Imagine the thousands of Firefly fans out there being able to vent their outrage in such a public place, where the world is actually paying attention. The internet has taught us over and over again that it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Let’s look at the other reasons I believe Firefly did not succeed, and compare it to a scenario where the series had started in 2012 instead:

Other competing television programming: We are faced with dozens of new television dramas every season these days, just as we were 10 years ago. But what has changed? How about the popularity of Science Fiction and Fantasy television? In 2002 there were a few popular Sci-Fi tv series, but more of them did not stick around long if they made it past the first season at all. Case in point: Dark Angel and Birds of Prey. Both had potential, both had small cult followings, neither made it very far into their story. But with the success of shows like Lost, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, and Smallville, the tides have changed greatly. Today, we have new blood in Terra Nova, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Fringe. There’s also been a resurgence in popularity amongst Star Wars and Star Trek, with new movies and special editions being made even as we speak. It’s no longer the just geeks and nerds that dwell in their parents basements alone at the computer who watch these shows. It’s the jocks, the tradesmen, the plumbers, the lawyers, the doctors, the cheerleaders — OK, MAYBE NOT THE CHEERLEADERS, BUT “HEROES” CAN STILL LET US DREAM, CAN’T IT?? —


Save the Cheerleader, Save the World... But not without a writer strike.

Reality-TV Popularity: Yes, Reality-TV is still popular. Yes, some Reality-TV is still among the highest ratings in television. In fact, there are way more today than 10 years ago. I can count 15 reality-based programs off the top of my head without looking it up. So what has changed? “Why” it’s popular. Reality-TV used to attract audiences because it was a new way to “spy” on others while they play out their dramatic lives, and try to win some money in the process. We found entertainment in watching them trying to win the big prize. Now, audiences tune in to the likes of The Bachelor, American Idol, and Toddlers with Tiaras to see just how pathetic the human race really is. It’s become a contest for who can be the most dramatic, the most crazy, and the most narcissistic. And you know what else has changed along with it? Audiences’ hunger for only that type of programming. Reality-TV is no longer scooping up all of the viewers of the scripted shows, but rather, they are feeding off of each other. People tune into Dancing with the Stars, and then watch some Dexter, so they can get a taste of sanity away from the other (which is the least sane of the two is up for debate).

Friday-Night “Death Slot”: This is something that has definitely changed over the past 10 years. With the success of television programs like Smallville and Supernatural, Friday is no longer the night where shows go to die. TV series can not only survive on Friday, but can thrive. Maybe it’s because people have become lazy and longer go out as much on Friday night. Maybe our love for television has grown so much, that it has replaced our basic need for human interaction. Regardless of the reasoning, people are watching Friday night programming more and more in 2012. If the show is good enough to make it on any other night, it should no longer have a Friday barrier to jump over.

Tom Welling

He might have not able to fy or leap tall buildings until the very end, but he jumped the Friday Night hurdle pretty good!

There are always other factors at play, but these are what I see to be the main pros and cons for the series. Despite its short life, the series continues to develop a cult-following, even today. If you haven’t yet seen them, I highly recommend you find the Season DVD and give it a chance. For those that have seen it already, what did you think? Do you agree with my review? Disagree? Leave your comments below and let’s hear your opinions!

  1. […] How to kill a Firefly… ( […]

  2. neverAcquiesce says:

    There’s also the MLB playoffs to blame, as Firefly was regularly preempted.

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