Monday, December 19 may be the last chance you'll ever have to see a kid named Josh Shannon shred on his acoustic guitar, a sci-fi show become a teen soap, or what maybe looks something like a dinosaur in the shadows. Fox's Terra Nova, which just a few short months ago was our most-anticipated show of the 2011 fall season (and is now our biggest disappointment of the 2011 season), will ends its 13-episode first season with its future up in the air.
By now you know plenty about the show's dirty laundry. It's incredibly expensive to produce—the pilot alone is estimated to have cost between $10 million and $20 million, and subsequent episodes carried prices tags much higher than the average dramas. The show's bottom line is most dramatically affected by hefty post-production costs tied to computer-generated prehistoric birds, fish, and baby Ankylosaurs, none of which should generate any technical Emmy buzz. Terra Nova has also become a punching bag for critics (myself included), and has received a split decision from fans who recognize that it's a children's show that's going Trick-or-Treating as an adult show. (Sorry, but that's the truth.)
Yesterday, star Jason O'Mara tweeted out this renewal news: "SCOOP: Decision to pick up #TerraNova for S2 deferred to New Year by @FOXBroadcasting. Everyone involved remains confident and optimistic." As for those of us who aren't involved, we're not confident and optimistic.
What would you do if you were Fox? Keep shelling out money for a second season of a critically beaten show that's only doing so-so in the ratings? (Note: I say "so-so" because it's fallen far below inflated expectations; by normal accounts, it's doing fine in the ratings.) Simply put: No. But the decision gets more complicated for Fox when you look toward the future.
I asked Bill Gorman, co-founder of ratings-hound site TVbytheNumbers, for his take on Terra Nova's chances, and he said: "Considering the weakened state that all of the Fox drama ratings are in this fall, Terra Nova ratings aren't terrible, and I think the way it could come back is if the costs can be brought down (vs. the conventional wisdom that they are quite high). Can that be done? Theoretically, yes. Will it be done? We'll have to wait and see."
Fringe may not be back for a fifth season. House is coming to a close. That leaves Bones and Glee as potentially Fox's only remaining veteran hour-long dramas. Bones spin-off The Finder, J.J. Abrams-produced Alcatraz, and Tim Kring's Touch all debut over the next few months, but none of them are drawing early buzz (I haven't heard a single peep on Touch, for better or for worse). Let's assume that only one of those three newbies earns a second season. That leaves plenty of open space in Fox's schedule. In short, Fox's dramas have some drama.
Fox could shrug its shoulders and bring back Terra Nova due to attrition among its other dramas, but all the network would be left with is a pricey series that hasn't shown any sign of getting better and that will lose a large chunk of the audience that right now is only clinging on out of curiosity. Nine months off the air—if renewed, the show wouldn't return until next September—will demolish any remaining intrigue. Or Fox could bring the show back with a drastically reduced budget, meaning that it'd be a dinosaur show with a lot less dinosaurs. Or hopefully, a man in a rubber dinosaur suit.
The execs at Fox will head to the table and make a decision about Terra Nova early next year because the show has one of those annoying long production schedules due to time-consuming post-production issues. I think they'd best serve the network by canceling the show and rolling the dice on new projects; otherwise they'll be saddled with another 13-episode run that will likely only solves half of one of its problems in a transition season.