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James Hibberd

'Masters' Tanks, ABC Vindicated

August 6, 2007 11:18 AM

Is a network disappointed or relieved when a show they don’t like performs poorly?

The new anthology ABC series “Masters of Science Fiction” was reportedly reduced from six episodes to four, then scheduled to premiere in the airless timeslot of
Saturdays at 10 p.m. in the dead of summer. When ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson was asked about the moves, he described the series as “uneven” and “a little bit problematic.”

This set the stage for critics to do something they heartily enjoy: Rebel against a network by praising one of its orphaned shows. That the “Masters” source material is written by sci-fi legends like Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein, while ABC has stockpiled its summer with reality repeats, only made the critic contingent extra feisty.

The New York Daily News called the show ABC’s “best new series in more than a year … ambitious, artistic, refreshingly intelligent.” Some other reviews were similarly enthusiastic, comparing “Masters” to the original “Twilight Zone.”

The Los Angeles Times, however, heartily agreed with McPherson’s assessment, though “uneven” is an interesting criticism of an anthology series. Rod Serling supposedly once self-described his work on “Zone” as “one-third crap, one-third watchable and one-third pretty damn good” – about as uneven as it gets.

On Saturday, “Masters” debuted to a 0.8 rating among adults 18 to 49, down 43 percent from last week’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos” repeat.

Two ways to look at this: ABC buried a quality show and ensured its doom. Or ABC recognized “Masters” had very niche appeal, was unlikely to interest its viewers, and scheduled the program appropriately.

For the rest of the weekend: Fox won Saturday (with its reality crime block) and Sunday (with a marathon of “Family Guy” repeats). CBS’s “Big Brother” had its best Sunday performance this season (2.7).

UPDATE: An ABC insider contested some of the details swirling in media reports regarding the network's purchase of "Masters of Science Fiction." The show was always intended to air Saturday night (though not necessarily in summer) as part of the network's strategy to develop lower-cost Saturday night programming, the source says. The episode order was not cut back—six episodes were produced—but ABC opted to only license four. "We're airing it exactly how we intended to," the insider says. The source adds that the remaining episodes are still scheduled, though cancellation of the final three is possible given Saturday's performance.


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Comments (7)

Gary Kromer:

Of your two proposed ways of looking at this ABC fiasco, I see the former. I am an avid SF fan and wasn't even aware MOSF was on. Even if the series MIGHT be uneven, ABC should have at least tried to find and promote to the niche (me) before they abandoned it. Oh well. Guess I'll switch over to satellite/cable nets again tonight.

Tim V:

Here's a thought... if they really want to bury this show yet still have a chance of an audience, why don't they try putting it on late-night in the 11:30 time slot. I'd definitely choose this over Saturday Night Live! As it is, I'll keep missing it because I'm usually not watching television at 10pm on Saturday and this will prove that no one wants this kind of programming.

Tim V:

FYI, ABC doesn't program late night Saturday, it is all local programming. Therefore, ABC couldn't put it there if they wanted. Program your VCR/DVD recorder/DVR so that you can watch it at 11:30. Marvelous inventions, those recording things.


I'm a SciFi fan and I knew about it.

I'd love to see all six episodes, especially in HD. I enjoyed the first one. We'll see how the other ones fare.

And with an uneven series that has stories by Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein--true masters of the genre--in the can, they open with a story by a relative unknown, John Kessell, adapted by Sam Egan, known for mediocre TV science fiction only? Not to mention a merely okay TV-actor cast, when they have some really big guns coming in later episodes (Malcolm McDowell, John Hurt, Brian Dennehy, and others).

So, let's see, hide it in the middle of the summer, in the worst possible time slot, and completely fail to promote it (I'd never have known it was on if not for an SFTV email list I participate in), *and* lead with your worst episode... That's not vindication, that's murder-suicide.

It sure didn't help the ratings that, in the Seattle market, the first 30 minutes of the series aired a portion of the audio: only the musical track and background track were audible, but no dialogue track. That is, until the commercial spots aired, which were normal. At half-past, an extra long commercial break gave the affiliate time to correct it (and fire someone, no doubt) and the dialogue was fine thereafter. And we still enjoyed the ep and got the gist. There's a tiny part of me that wonders, now that I read your article, that perhaps this was according to plan.

Dave L:

I still say it's a great way to save money during the summer keep it low budget no big stars to pay way to go when fall is in the air and ABC shows everyone again what its like to be on top they will know,as for others like the nobody cares network (nbc) with all there remakes of everything old they will be in the basement with out a doubt!! CBS only has Kid Nation lots of old things also we just havt wait. Thank, Dave

Tim V:

Mr. Video:

Thanks for the info on ABC's late night scheduling, I don't watch ABC so I wasn't aware. I only found out about the MSF series from a review on THE RADIO.
So, I guess what you are saying is we should just wait for all six episodes to be released on DVD? Excellent point. I'll hold off on firing up the DVR...

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