With the recent success of Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man in the theaters, one might expect to see a 2002-2003 primetime lineup filled with examples of epic fantasy or superhero exploits, but such is not the case in television, where trends appear to linger long after the public has tired of them. Case in point--that nauseating blanket of banality known as 'reality' TV -- which lingers on thanks in part to low production costs and a belief that people will watch this veristic swill as long as it is mean-spirited enough. But there are glimmers of hope--the WB network, which scored a signal success last year with the debut of Smallville, is back with Birds of Prey (see 'Birds of Prey Bows on WB'), a comic-book based series set in a dark Gotham City and furnished with a strong cast that even includes Batman's butler (Alfred Gough). Birds of Prey, Firefly, the science fiction series from Buffy creator Joss Whedon and a new version of the Twilight Zone are going to have to make up for the loss of a number of genre-based pop culture favorites that fell victim to TV's relentless ratings wars.
While the X-Files was clearly limping to a well-deserved rest after nine seasons, Dark Angel was just starting to flex some marketing muscle, with trading cards from Topps and action figures from Art Asylum, when the series was cancelled after only its second season. As for the Tick, an often-brilliant superhero parody -- Fox first fed it to the wolves by scheduling it on Thursday night, and then didn't even bother to air the final episode. Roswell, another quirky genre series, which had managed to hang around for a couple of seasons on two networks, also breathed its last in 2002 along with newcomers Wolf Lake and Special Unit 2.
As disturbing as the cancellations of 2002 were for pop culture retailers, indications are that two other key series won't be around after 2003. Because of constant football-related postponements, the Fox network found itself with a number of episodes of Futurama in the can but unaired. Rather than ordering new episodes, Fox decided to air the shows it already had for the 2003 season, and decided not to order any further episodes, which effectively killed the most interesting and visually stimulating animated series on prime time (see 'No Future For Futurama').
While there is almost no chance that the creative team behind Futurama will be reassembled in the coming years, the fate of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is much more ambiguous. Buffy represents one of the top TV properties in terms of licensed goods produced and sold in pop culture stores, so the fate of this series is of paramount (excuse the pun) importance. Lead actress Sarah Michelle Geller's contract is up at the end of next season, and many observers feel that she will leave the show. In a recent interview Geller said that she thought the series could continue without her -- perhaps, but it is hard to imagine how it could continue to prosper without her presence. Buffy remains an important part of the UPN lineup, and there is always the chance that Ms. Geller could be convinced to come back for future seasons, but as of right now, the status of Buffy remains up in the air.
Buffy creator Joss Whedon does have a new series heading for primetime. Firefly (see 'Buffy Creator Sells Sci-Fi Series To Fox'), which takes over the spot occupied by Dark Angel on Friday night, could eventually prove to be an important property for licensing, but first it has to prove itself. In general TV-licensed goods tend to have longer shelf lives than movie-licensed items, but the mortality rate among new television series is extremely high, and promising shows like Dark Angel that make it through their first couple of seasons can also be cancelled before reaching their licensing potential.
Once in awhile a property that has already spawned a plethora of licensed goods makes its way to primetime. Such is the case with Dinotopia, which is the only series with pop culture licensing potential on any of the big three original networks (see 'Dinotopia: The Forgotten Fantasy Property'). Since there are already more than 30 Dinotopia books of various types in print, pop culture retailers, if they have or are seeking to attract younger customers, should consider exploiting Dinotopia right away since there are no guarantees as to how long the elaborate (and expensive) series will last.
Other than Dinotopia, all the interesting new genre series are on the new networks. UPN is following Buffy with a new series called 'Haunted' which has strong supernatural overtones, while on Wednesday the network will follow Enterprise with a revival of the Twilight Zone anthology science fiction series. Forest Whitaker will take over the Rod Serling host-role on the Twilight Zone, which may prove to be an excellent companion for Enterprise, which is sort of a retro version of Star Trek anyway.
Returning ShowsAngel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Simpsons, Futurama, King of the Hill, Smallville, and Enterprise will all return for next season, though as previously noted, Futurama's days are clearly numbered, and Buffy's long term status remains in doubt. Right now it appears that next season's primetime offerings constitute a decidedly mixed bag when it comes to licensing opportunities for pop culture stores. Fortunately the continuing growth of anime (on cable and outside of primetime) and the strong performance of a growing number of comic book-based films should offer some solace to retailers looking for media trends on which to prosper.