Programmers' strategy of overloading auds with sci-fi fare is downright spooky

For all the attention showered on “Desperate Housewives,” an influx of there’s-something-creepy-out-there dramas rolling out in September suggests that last season’s most influential series might be ABC’s other freshman standout, “Lost.”

Call it “Invasion of the Rating Snatchers” — or at least that’s how programmers are hoping this collective exercise will play out.

Every network, it seems, has a new sci-fi/horror hour, from CBS’ best-of-the-lot aliens attack show “Threshold” to ABC’s murkier “Invasion” to NBC’s “The Abyss”-like underwater yarn “Surface” (formerly known as “Fathom,” proving that you can rename a series and still not quite get it right).

Then there are the more horror-based “Supernatural,” about two ghost-hunting brothers, from the WB, and ABC’s revival of “The Night Stalker,” digging up a much-beloved 30-year-old premise.

During the July TV critics tour, “Invasion” exec producer Shaun Cassidy — who mined similar terrain with projects such as the short-lived “American Gothic” for CBS — didn’t mince words in assigning credit for what emboldened programmers to dive headlong into these treacherous waters.

” ‘Lost’ has changed the climate for shows that don’t answer all your questions by the end of every episode,” he said.

To be sure, there are other factors. Advances in special f/x have made passable sci-fi visuals slightly more feasible on an episodic budget. Moreover, as “Surface” exec producer Josh Pate pointed out during NBC’s leg of the critics marathon, a shift in TV’s business model thanks to DVD sales has helped make serialized concepts, fantastic or not, more financially viable.

Even so, this about-face is especially noteworthy, coming as it does at a juncture when such fare was seemingly routed from primetime, with the long-running “Star Trek” franchise beaming into temporary oblivion after the cancellation of UPN’s latest spinoff, “Enterprise.”

Yet while the major nets largely steered clear of fantasy themes in their race to franchise cop dramas, a funny thing was happening on cable. NBC Universal’s Sci Fi Channel successfully revived “Battlestar Galactica” in winter 2003. NBC U’s USA scored with “The 4400″ in summer 2004. Those hit miniseries prompted episodic returns of both projects this year.

Then along came “Lost,” with its underlying “Twilight Zone” motif and assorted mysteries, from an impenetrable hatch to a polar bear on a deserted jungle island. Despite considerable skepticism about whether the premise could be sustained, the series became an instant hit and near-addiction for its core audience — doing so without any kind of a lead-in. “Housewives” had the benefit of following “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” on Sundays.

Sci-fi viewers have always been insanely loyal, as any poor soul who has strayed on to a Save “Carnivale” Web site (yes, there is such a thing) can attest. The problem is that in recent times, their numbers haven’t been particularly large, leading to the premature demise of cult favorites such as Sci Fi’s “Farscape” and yes, “Carnivale,” which was ratings-starved even by HBO’s less exacting standards.

The significance of “Lost,” then, was in demonstrating that one of these programs can still emerge as a mass-appeal hit, as opposed to the more modest adulation showered on various cable shows or, say, the WB’s “Smallville.”

The avid nature of sci-fi fans, meanwhile, provides some comfort for producers, who even with modest success have a chance of recouping their investment through DVDs and merchandise. Besides, the box office popularity of movies like “War of the Worlds” and this summer’s comicbook franchises highlights an appetite among young adults that television — like features, more prone to imitate than innovate — would be foolish to ignore.

How well this strategy will pay off remains to be seen, but sessions at the recent Comic-Con gathering in San Diego saw sizable crowds for “Lost” as well as at previews of Wednesday night companion “Invasion,” including a long queue for one-time teen heartthrob Cassidy’s autograph.

Even with this fall’s genre resurgence, the memories of failed serials past linger. Perhaps that’s why Cassidy invoked the specter of “Twin Peaks” — which flamed brightly in 1990 only to quickly fizzle in its second season — to pledge that his latest effort wouldn’t succumb to similar narrative shortcomings.

“The questions will be answered,” he told critics, who seemed less skeptical about the “Invasion” pilot than they surely would have been a year earlier. “We know who killed Laura Palmer, I promise.”

With any luck, a few of these series will survive long enough to provide viewers with satisfying answers, unlike a show like “Now and Again,” which ended its first season on a cliffhanger that ultimately left its hero in limbo.

Sci-fi aficionados tend to take such slights personally, and that history does raise some cautionary flags for those who risk bonding with these ongoing mysteries. Being teased and tantalized until a show reaches syndication can be fun, after all. But even a geek resents being strung along forever.

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