A True Enemy of Fate: How Fringe Survived Horrible Ratings And Became A Better Show For It
Yesterday, as I was typing up my list of the Greatest Case of the Week episodes (which, by the way, you can totally read here), I made a startling observation: by the time its run is over, Fringe will have been on television for exactly 100 episodes. It’s also one of the worst rated TV shows on television, and has been for the past three year. And that got my mind buzzing: how, after all this time, did Fringe manage to stay on the air? Why after all the geek buzz did the show never really gain the audience it deserved? And most importantly—did the horrible ratings actually benefit the show rather than hinder it? Well it’s Fringe Week and, in honor of the show reaching its end, I thought it would be appropriate to tackle all three of these questions and maybe—just MAYBE—find the answers contained within them.
When the title of the series finale of Fringe was revealed a month or so ago, I personally believed that J.H Wyman and Co. couldn’t have picked a better name. Not only is “An Enemy of Fate” an awesome title, but it’s also indicative of the show overall. For the past few years, Fringe has truly been an Enemy of Fate. A show that, despite obvious signs of a quick and painful cancellation, managed to stay on the air for many years and dozens of episodes. Fate said that Fringe should have been cancelled years ago—but Fringe said otherwise.
Fringe may have some of the worst ratings for a network television show still on air right now, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Fringe was a pretty big success when it first came on TV back in 2008. It’s lead in, American Idol, was still the best rated show on TV. It’s premiere was seen by almost 9.13 million people (almost five times more than a normal episode is viewed today.) And it’s first season overall was a successful one for Fox, as the show was the most watched new series from the coveted 18-49 demographic. So what happened, you ask?
Well a variety of things. But probably the biggest one was Fox moving it from its dependable timeslot on Tuesday nights to the insanely competitive Thursday night timeslot. It had no Idol lead in. It was competing with massive hits like The Office. And overall, it was just placed on an incredibly crowded night of TV. Even I, a hardcore fan of the show, had to DVR more than a few of the episodes on Thursday night simply because other things got in the way. Fringe was successful on Tuesdays with limited competition and an amazing lead in—but alone and defenseless on the huge night that is Thursdays? That’s another story.
So Fringe started to struggle quite a bit on Thursdays, to the point where midway through Season 3, Fox switched its timeslot to Fridays…a.k.a. the Friday Deathslot. At the time, fans thought that there was no hope the show would be able to survive the schedule change. But Enemy of Fate, remember? It went on for two more seasons after that…despite the fact that it really should not have.
Any other show would have been cancelled, because it wasn’t like the move to Fridays improved the show’s ratings. In fact, they got even worse, to the point where it became one of the lowest rated shows on television. But Fringe survived all the same, running for an additional 30 or so episodes in what should have been its death slot. And as to why it got the chance, I have only two reasons.
The first one is obvious: syndication. It seems like most fan beloved yet rating challenged shows can always have the excuse of syndication to save its ass (oh hello, Community!) But most of the time it’s true; when a series runs over 70 or so episodes (or about three seasons for most shows), it makes more sense for networks/studios to just renew the show for another season rather to just cancel it outright. That way, even though they might make a loss on the series overall, they can still make a little money back on the syndication dollars. Why else do you think Fringe is ending on exactly 100 episodes? That’s precisely the number a show needs to have to be purchased by cable networks for syndication. If it didn’t have a 100 episodes, it simply wouldn’t be up for syndication, meaning millions of dollars would go down the tube for Fox/Warner Bros. So yes, on the one hand, saving the show again and again served an economic purpose for Fox.
But for me at least, that wasn’t the only reason Fox saved Fringe from the cancellation reaper. They saw something in Fringe from the moment they first picked it up for a series run: potential. It’s no secret that the execs at Fox were fans of Fringe, and always championing the show to succeed as much as they could. It wasn’t Fox’s fault that no one watches Fringe—they tried their hardest to sell the product. But very few people were buying it.
But you know what? I think that might have been a good thing. A show getting cancelled is always made out to be the worse thing ever by fans, but think about it: because the ratings were so low, Fringe could do whatever the hell it wanted. As the ratings got lower, so did the level of crazy that we could expect from the show. The creators had nothing to lose, so they took risk that very few shows on TV ever take. They introduced multiple people played by the same actors. They had a season end with the unexplained, literal disappearance of one of the main characters. They introduced parallel dimensions, multiple timelines, future apocalypses—if the show was a mainstream hit, would it ever have made these creative, yet batshit crazy calls? It’s an interesting think that, like the science at it’s center, maybe the show was always meant to be on the fringes of TV. Beloved by many for its strangeness, dramatic depth, and various other oddities, but never meant to belong with actual “mainstream television” (even though the first half of Season 1 would lead you to believe that). Despite that though (or maybe because of it), I still believe Fringe will find its rightful audience someday.
Because I look at Fringe and all I see is a cult classic in the making. Even if the finale manages to disappoint us later this week, I still think Fringe will be one of those shows that will pick up steam only after it finishes its run, ala Arrested Development or Firefly. Fans like us know the show is great, and will be sharing it with non-fans as much as we can. And then when they finish it, they will share it with non-fans, and then those people will share it with non-fans and so on and so on. Right now, Fringe may not be considered one of the best sci-fi shows ever made by the general populace. But give it some time. Because one day…it will be.
Keep it tuned to Geek Binge through the rest of the week for even more editorials and list as we await the series finale of Fringe. In the meantime, if you haven’t, check out the other Fringe Week articles we’ve written in the past few days. You might just find something you like!