Sci-fi genre finds success with human touch

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Broadcasters traditionally have regarded science fiction as a niche genre. But following the success of both ABC's "Lost" and NBC's "Heroes," the networks may be re-thinking sci-fi's mainstream potential.

Among the sci-fi projects in development for fall 2007 are ABC's reincarnation drama "Found" (from "The 4400" creator Scott Peters), the "Quantum Leap"-ish "Jumper, " and mystical-based "The 36th Man. " All three projects are produced by the network's sister studio, Touchstone TV. CBS is developing a drama from "Joan of Arcadia" creator Barbara Hall, about exorcists who investigate supernatural phenomena. NBC is developing a time-travel drama, and is remaking "The Bionic Woman, " with "Battlestar Galactica" exec producer David Eick attached.

Pigeonholing sci-fi as a niche is largely the result of the networks viewing the genre's core base of young males as Trekkies. But those views have shifted due to a wide range of influences, including the popularity of sci-fi-themed movies, videogames and comic books. In addition, these media are targeting young females, which has served to broaden the audience.

Perhaps the most crucial game changer is the evolving nature of small-screen sci-fi itself. For example, last season's failed crop of sci-fi shows--including ABC's "Invasion and Night Stalker, " CBS' "Threshold, " and NBC's "Surface"--may have relied a little too much on sci-fi themes. Execs now say viewers want human drama mixed in with that sci-fi. "The shows that have worked on a more mainstream and commercial audience are the shows that have also had emotional underpinnings, with real and relatable characters," said Morgan Wandell, senior vp of drama development for Touchstone TV.

Many programers agree. Katherine Pope, exec vp at NBC Entertainment, said that before "Heroes" premiered, the network--along with creator Tim Kring--worked hard to find a balance between otherworldly themes and character-driven drama. "It's still very comic-booky," Pope said of "Heroes". "But you believe it, because it's grounded in real characters, with real thoughts and desires and needs."

And where the broadcasters leave off, one cable network plans to continue capitalizing on viewer interest: NBC Universal's Sci Fi Channel. As Sci Fi prepares to launch a new crop of series, including sci-fi procedural "The Dresden Files, " female superhero series "Painkiller Jane, " and a "Flash Gordon" remake, general manager Dave Howe said he welcomes the competition. After all, he added, "It's the growing audiences at the networks who will come to us for our next generation of shows."
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