After a three-month, 13-episode mission to explore the universe’s past, present and future, Carl Sagan’s Ship of the Imagination — now piloted by Neil deGrasse Tyson– returned to its terrestrial dock last night, when the rebooted “Cosmos”, a 21st century incarnation of Sagan’s ’80s series, aired its season finale on Fox. The end of the show’s voyage was greeted with far less fanfare than its March launch, which the network blew out into a major cross-platform event by simulcasting the premiere across its various cable channels (in the hopes of attracting as many eyeballs as possible upfront), then hoping they stick around for a weekly science lecture supplemented by movie-quality CGI.
The muted farewell was understandable, given that the show’s middling season-long ratings didn’t justify a splashy send-off like the one that CBS afforded “How I Met Your Mother.” It also never attained the kind of cultural cache that permits, say, FX to hype the sophomore year finale of a niche show like “The Americans.” But it does beg the question: what exactly were the network’s metrics of success (or failure) for “Cosmos”? And furthermore, did the show tick off enough boxes for Fox or any other broadcast network to try their hand at a pricey edutainment spectacle like this again?
In the beginning, Fox’s passion for “Cosmos” was mostly rooted in the fact that it was a passion project for one of their star pupils, animation dominator and secret science nerd Seth MacFarlane. Sagan’s creative partner and widow Ann Druyan has actively credited the “Family Guy” creator with using his pull with the network and its outgoing president Kevin Reilly to get the revival up and running.
That pull may have since diminished thanks to 1) Reilly’s exit; 2) MacFarlane’s empire being downsized from three shows to one with the departures of “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad!”; and 3) the bulldozing of Fox’s cartoon-heavy Sunday night block.
But network enthusiasm grew as the production came together, most likely because Reilly saw an opportunity for Fox to have its own “Planet Earth” moment. That BBC-produced 2006 nature series was a worldwide blockbuster that also racked up big numbers during its stateside airings on Discovery. More importantly, it has remained an evergreen programmer, one that has had a strong afterlife in re-airings as well as ancillary markets like DVD. (It’s no accident that a handsome DVD box set of “Cosmos” will be hitting shelves tomorrow.)
Unfortunately for Reilly and the network he’s left behind, commercially — and, to a lesser extent, creatively — “Cosmos” never became “Planet Earth.” The latter series was pure nature spectacle with broad-based audience appeal, thanks to its exceptional HD photography and crowd-pleasing focus on our planet’s majestic landscapes, and the cute or ferocious (or both) critters inhabiting them. (The image quality was one of the reasons the DVD sold so well, particularly the Blu-ray edition.)
Meanwhile, “Cosmos” set out to tackle headier concepts, traveling beyond Earth in search of ways to illustrate those ideas for the wide, demographic-spanning audience Fox hoped to attract. It wasn’t enough for Tyson to simply talk to the viewers as Sagan did (even though he, like his predecessor, is a terrific talker; a rock star who happens to be an astrophysicist) — he had to be backed up by some kick-ass sound and light shows that would hold the attention of easily distractible adults and kids alike. Hence, the show’s reliance on elaborate digital effects for the space-set sequences, animation for the historical recreations and numerous other visual tricks as necessary.
Thanks to the show’s expert crew, every episode of “Cosmos” looked like the million-plus bucks it cost to make. But the showmanship and the science did feel at odds with each other; for every visual gimmick that worked — like the “evolution of the eye” sequence from the second episode, which made terrific use of split-screen photography — there was another piece of grafted-on digital wizardry that distracted from, rather than enhanced, a particular lesson. And because the mandate was to appeal to a broad audience, the writers sometimes struggled to find a middle ground between simplifying concepts and plunging into full-on science geek mode.
Anecdotally speaking, “Cosmos” became regular family viewing in my household. My 6-year-old son throughly enjoyed the eye candy while also grasping most (though not all) of its lessons, while I—like other adults I’ve spoken to—found it more inconsistent in its attempts to, for lack of a better phrase, make learning fun. The animated recreations proved to be my bete noire all season long; I understand that the creative forces behind the show wanted to avoid the goofy live-action history plays of elementary school filmstrips, but the graphic novel-esque drawings had their own cheese factor.
(On the other hand, I’ve been grateful to see that “Cosmos” has never wavered in its full-throated endorsement of such proven scientific facts as evolution and climate change, even as supposedly authoritative news channels — like Fox’s own 24-hour news counterpart — still address them in that wishy-washy “the debate is still ongoing” way. Do I wish the show was a little more trusting of its audience? Yes… but boy am I glad that it always trusts science.)
Some of the questionable creative choices that stemmed from the show’s mainstream ambitions proved particularly disappointing when that big mainstream audience failed to materialize. After scoring 8.5 million viewers with its cross-platform premiere, “Cosmos”‘s subsequent Fox-only viewership typically hovered in the 3-4 million range (though when all platforms — including Monday night airings on the National Geographic channel and streaming services — were taken into account, it was closer to 11 million).
There were some spikes along the way; a climate-change centric episode that aired on June 1, for example, tied “The Bachelorette” for first place in the coveted 18-49 demo with a 1.3 rating. (Last night’s finale did sink back down to 1.1 in that demo and just barely 3 million in overall viewers.) While the series can’t be trumpeted as a resounding success from a numbers-only standpoint, modest but significant achievements like that mean the show also can’t be dismissed as a belly flop.
It also, however, doesn’t guarantee that we’ll ever see another batch of “Cosmos” episodes — or something like it — on Fox or any of its network competitors. What this grand experiment has revealed is that a non-fiction science series, even one backed by a pop culture titan like Seth MacFarlane, is ultimately a niche proposition, one that can perform well with a specific audience, but not make extensive inroads beyond that.
And, if anything, Fox’s current line-up is too top-heavy with niche shows, from low-rated, but passionately adored (in select quarters) comedies like “New Girl” and “The Mindy Project” to fading only-die-hard fans left programs like “Glee” and “American Idol.” (“Sleepy Hollow” was the closest thing they had last season to a new crossover hit.) A failure to solve the problem of the incredibly shrinking viewership is one of the many reasons Reilly had to resign, and it’s doubtful that whoever replaces him will see the upside in lavishing money on a second season of “Cosmos” for only solid returns. That’s not speculation… that’s just television science.