'Terra Nova' is latest bump in Steven Spielberg's rocky TV history
Fox's cancellation of Steven Spielberg's pricey time-traveling dinosaur series "Terra Nova" is certainly disappointing to fans but can't be too surprising in view of the world-famous director's track record on the small screen.
Despite a résumé studded with instantly recognizable film hits that have collected both critical acclaim and box-office treasure, Spielberg's forays into television have often been problematic, especially when it comes to science fiction.
Putting aside his career start directing episodic television and movies of the week, Spielberg's first major crack at prime-time TV came with the 1985 anthology series "Amazing Stories." Though Spielberg was at the height of his producing powers at the time ("Back to the Future" and "The Goonies" were released in theaters the same year) and his name attracted top-drawer filmmaking talent (Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood both directed episodes in the first season), the show struggled mightily in the ratings. NBC bought two seasons' worth of episodes at $750,000 apiece without ever seeing the pilot and canceled the show as soon as they were aired.
Spielberg had more success with his animated endeavors, including "Tiny Toon Adventures" in 1990 and "Animaniacs" in 1993. But he went back to the sci-fi well in 1993, serving as executive producer of the underwater series "SeaQuest DSV."
The series, which also aired on NBC, was set in the near future and starred Spielberg's "Jaws" hero, Roy Scheider, as the captain of a hi-tech submersible ship named SeaQuest DSV. Fights between the show's producers and the network coincided with a steep decline in ratings. Though the series premiered as the second-most-watched show on its night (to an audience of 16.8 million), it soon dwindled in popularity, sliding to 78th place near the end of its first season.
A change in emphasis from realistic adventure to out-and-out science fiction, featuring aliens and monsters, marked the show's second season and prompted Scheider to tell the Orlando Sentinel in 1994, "It's total, total childish trash. I'm ashamed of it."
Spielberg left as executive producer after the second season and a change of stars (Michael Ironside replaced Scheider) and title ("SeaQuest 2032") followed. However, it wasn't enough and the show was canceled midway through the third season.
Spielberg's biggest television hit was "ER," the NBC medical drama that premiered in 1994. However, Spielberg only served as a producer of the series for its first season. It went on to air for 15 seasons total.
The same year, another science-fiction series from Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, "Earth 2," made its debut on NBC. Though Spielberg wasn't credited as a producer on this series, its premise was remarkably similar to "Terra Nova," following a group of settlers fleeing an uninhabitable Earth in search of a new, pristine planet in which they can restart civilization. Its backstory was not as rocky as "SeaQuest's," but it also wasn't as popular. It was canceled by NBC after the first season.
Another Spielberg-produced series, the cop drama "High Incident," aired for only two seasons in 1996.
The filmmaker has had better luck in recent years with televised miniseries. "Taken," about alien abductions, aired for 10 nights in 2002 to strong ratings for its cable channel, the Sci-Fi Channel (later renamed SyFy). Sci-Fi became the No. 1 cable network for those two weeks.
His pair of World War II miniseries for HBO, "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific," have both resulted in high ratings and critical acclaim.
And another cable sci-fi series Spielberg produced, "Falling Skies," has been renewed for a second season for TNT. Its premiere episode was the highest-rated cable launch of 2011, with 5.9-million viewers.
In 2011, two Spielberg-produced series have demonstrated once again the filmmaker's fickle relationship with televised science fiction. "Smash," the NBC backstage musical drama set on Broadway, has had promising ratings, but it's still too early to tell its ultimate fate. Meanwhile, "The River" an ABC science-fiction horror series set in the Amazon, has fallen steadily in the ratings each week — last week an episode drew just 4.04 million.
Unfortunately, "Terra Nova," which suffered from exorbitantly high costs and mediocre ratings, will have to go down as another of Spielberg's disappointments. There may be some hope yet — the series is being shopped to other channels and it could give the show a second life on another network.
— Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: "Terra Nova." Credit: Fox.