We're still a few days away from the official announcements of the networks' fall schedules, but one thing is clear from the news that we've already heard: Genre television is essentially dead on mainstream networks, at least for the time being.
True, we won't know all the details of what shows will make it on to the final schedules until the end of next week, but the news this week that high-profile projects Locke & Key and Wonder Woman have both been passed on by their networks should underline the fact that whatever faith schedulers had in supernatural, superheroic or science fiction dramas in the wake of shows like Lost and the heady, successful early days of Heroes is long gone. As far as I can tell, Fox's Terra Nova seems to be the only new high-profile fantasy series aimed for primetime this fall, and that may simply be because so much money has already been spent on it - and two different launch dates missed, for that matter - that it's too expensive not to run with it.
(There's also ABC's Once Upon A Time, which looks like a take on DC/Vertigo's Fables, updating fairy tale characters to the modern world, but I'm unsure how important fantasy is to that, as much as soap operatics and character types. From what I've heard, it's very focused on the latter, with any fantasy elements in the background.)
In a way, you can't blame the networks for shying away from the genre. Lost and Heroes aside, you have to go back to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files to find any true hits from fantasy programming on network television, and the many, many attempts that we've seen to replicate those successes - V, FlashForward, The Event, to name just three - have demonstrated a tendency to launch well and then lose audiences very, very quickly and on a weekly basis. Even the longer-running fan-favorites like Fringe are almost continually on the bubble in terms of ratings, and in fear of disappearing forever. Considering the cost involved in these shows, doesn't it make more sense to invest in safer, more dependable shows?
And yet, it's not as if audiences aren't looking out for this kind of material... They're just looking for it elsewhere. The Walking Dead was a massive success for AMC, and there seems to be no end of superhero or science fiction action at the cinemas this summer - Fantasy seems to be back in a big way this year, in fact, after a relative breather last summer - so... are network television planners getting it wrong in not continuing to push the genre?
I'm unconvinced, to be honest. We know that, when such shows become hits, they tend to become phenomenon that capture audience imaginations in a way that few shows manage to... but we also know that those successes are hard to come by (It's got nothing to do with quality, either; think of things like Firefly or Pushing Daisies that never find a large enough audience despite being wonderfully made and utterly enjoyable), and such success doesn't necessarily sustain past those initial flushes (See: Heroes after season 1, or Buffy, which got cancelled on its original network after its fifth season). Network television, with its need for mass audience in as large a slice as possible to survive, just may not be the right vehicle for good fantasy television, and this year's lack of genre programming may reflect a growing awareness of that sad fact on the part of those who make the important decisions.
What'll be interesting to see is what happens with ABC, which has two live-action Marvel shows in development. I'm sure both Hulk and AKA Jessica Jones will make it to pilot, but will they make it to the air given what the 2012-2013 TV landscape is going to look like? And if they don't, where will that leave Marvel TV as a division of Marvel as a company? Right now, I'm sure there are some very nervous Marvel execs praying for Terra Nova to hit huge, despite the odds, this fall...