Why Is FRINGE Failing on Friday Nights?

When it was first announced that FRINGE would be moving from Thursday nights to Friday nights, everyone was relieved. It was believed that if there was a night specially designed and protective of sci-fi shows, it was Fridays. After all that was the night that Fox’s THE X-FILES flourished for many years (before moving to Sundays) and it used to be the sci-fi “go to” night for Syfy channel as well, back in the hey-days of STARGATE: SG-1, STARGATE: ATLANTIS, EUREKA and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

But, in the past few years, an interesting trend developed. Fridays were no longer deemed “sci-fi” Fridays. It was not the sanctuary and safe haven for sci-fi shows. (All puns intended since Syfy still airs both SANCTUARY and HAVEN on Friday nights.) So with the abandonment of Syfy, which took its hardcore sci-fi shows to Monday and Tuesday nights (in order to secure more lucrative advertising and which ultimately killed off such sci-fi staples like STARGATE: UNIVERSE and CAPRICA), very few other broadcast networks wanted to venture into the forbidden territory of Friday nights – known for the past couple of decades as the Death Slot. It has been few and far between that TV shows could succeed on Friday nights. CBS’ GHOST WHISPERER managed to eek out a few years, and BLUE BLOODS also seems to be flourishing on Fridays – but both those series had big-name stars drawing the crowds. Plus, neither show is arguably considered sci-fi.

So with the relinquishment of Syfy as it abandoned its theme of “sci-fi Fridays,” other networks decided that Friday nights were a good night to park TV shows that needed a timeslot and significantly less competition in order to survive. Fox seized the day when it saw how badly its prized sci-fi show was faring Thursday nights and moved FRINGE to Fridays. It was a smart gamble and for the most part it paid off. It got FRINGE out of the position of having to compete against the likes of GREY’S ANATOMY, CSI, or successful newcomer PERSON OF INTEREST.

But even with FRINGE airing its most creatively strong season last year, Fridays were not exactly kind. FRINGE went from an average of 6 million live-viewers on Thursdays to an average of 3 million on Fridays. It essentially lost one-half of its live-viewing audience. Fox and the producers of FRINGE are quick to point out that it is the highest DVR’d show on TV with a 64% increase in viewership once DVR-viewers are added into the mix. But, as any savvy TV viewer/fan knows, DVR-viewing pays only a fraction of the advertising-dollars needed compared to the advertising-dollars obtained from a live-viewing audience. Whether Fox will stick with FRINGE beyond this current season when it is pulling in such little (if any) advertising revenue is questionable. Especially when FRINGE is pulling in lower ratings than its lead-in KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, which pulls in an average 4 million viewers and, because it is a reality TV show, costs significantly less to produce.

The curse of modern television is that reality TV shows frequently pull in higher numbers of viewers and can be made cheaply, which makes it an ideal television product when looking to maximize profitability for network shareholders. It’s simple math: reality TV brings in more profits. That’s why so many networks are keeping a healthy balance of reality TV shows on their schedule – it guarantees them money that scripted TV shows cannot deliver.

Returning to FRINGE and its challenge with viewer-retention, what specifically is the problem with FRINGE fans and other TV viewers? Why are they abandoning what is known to be one of the finest sci-fi shows on television?

Part of the answer lies within the question itself: it’s Friday. For a variety of reasons, fans and television viewers are not watching television on Fridays. From everything like “it’s date night” to “it’s family night” are preventing viewers from turning on the television. People are going to dinner, going to the movies, meeting up with friends, catching up with their kids – or some are just numb from the long work week and do not want to have to focus on anything. So that is part of it.

However, before quickly pointing out the fact that shows like GRIMM and BLUE BLOODS are able to capture a healthy number of viewers even on a Friday night, let me cite another reason viewers are not tuning in to watch FRINGE: it’s too complicated. Viewers that are intrigued by scientific phenomena and the mystery behind it are tuning in. But casual viewers are thinking the same thing: it’s too dark and too complicated. They are looking for something more lightweight and fun on Friday nights. FRINGE is innately the wrong type of show for a Friday night. It requires too much thought and concentration and the average viewer is simply not looking for a show that requires them to strain-the-brain. They want a “popcorn” show – which is why procedurals have succeeded in recent years and it was the secret to THE X-FILES success.

Whereas FRINGE embraced its heavy mythology and has become a magnificent show because of it, it also has made it harder for viewers to figure out what was going on from week-to-week without a cheatsheet of who all the characters are and how they figure into the increasingly complex intertwined storylines. Unveiling and reveling in the alt-verse has been spine-tinglingly awesome for the diehard fans – but it is confusing to the casual viewer. The procedural element is also exceedingly scientifically-complex and difficult to wrap one’s brain around. All these things are like discovering gold for a hard-core sci-fi fan; but the average viewer is not looking for a lesson from the latest issue of the Scientific American.

Most television viewers are looking for the human-element – a reason to care about the characters and an easy to follow story that allows the characters to resolve a mystery. FRINGE has introduced some of the most fascinating characters on television – Walter, Peter and Olivia, as well as their counter-parts Walternate, Fauxlivia, and their respective investigative teams made up of Astrid, Charlie, Lincoln Lee, Agent Broyles, and Nina Sharp. FRINGE has also lovingly crafted the intertwined destinies of each character and made us care a great deal about them. But only if you were paying attention. Someone just turning on the TV or tuning in for a handful of episodes would not see the careful construction and loving detail to each character and all the reasons that faithful fans have fallen in love with them.

FRINGE is a great example of a show that took its time to slowly unveil its secrets and ensnare us in a story so complex that it took two universes and two timelines to tell it. But that kind of time is not something television viewers are willing to invest anymore. They are not looking to “commit” to a TV show. The idea of being married to a television series and having to know every little detail about it is abhorrent to most viewers – especially when they can turn the channel and watch something as easy to jump into as GRIMM.

When FRINGE first debuted, it was considered a lighter-version of THE X-FILES. Interestingly, today, it is probably deemed a darker-version of it. Alas, the farther FRINGE moved from its easy to follow stand-alone episodes and took us “down the rabbit hole” into a world of extraordinary adventures and mysteries, the more casual viewers began looking elsewhere for something to watch.

Thus, FRINGE is falling victim to its own critical-success. The better it has gotten, the more problems it has had with viewer-retention. A higher quality story with better characters is only ensuring that viewers are fleeing from it because it is too good. Like reading Tolstoy or Dickens, television viewers are loath to commit the time and concentration to follow anything that in-depth and complex.

So, in the end, FRINGE is being killed off by the wicked combination of Friday night “death slot” problems and viewer laziness. It’s criminal that it is happening, but even BATTLESTAR GALATICA – one of the most decorated sci-fi shows in modern television history – could not solve the conundrum of viewer-retention.

FRINGE is dying because viewers are just not willing to commit to a complex sci-fi show anymore. Sad, but true.

New episodes of FRINGE air Fridays at 9PM on FOX (CityTV in Canada) and stars Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, Jasika Nicole and John Noble. Catch up with past episodes you may have missed for free online at clicktowatch.tv

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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  • http://twitter.com/hercircumstance hercircumstance

    It doesn’t help that other networks put on shows that competed with the same audience as Fringe on Friday nights. The pie was going to be small to begin with and now it is being split 3-4 ways. Meh. Fringe is the best out of the bunch, but every sliver counts and there just isn’t enough eyeballs to go around on Fridays. 

  • http://www.thetvaddict.com/ The TV Addict

    Interesting article. The way I see it FRINGE has three serious things working against it. 

    1. It’s an incredibly inaccessible show in terms of allowing new viewers jumping on the bandwagon.
    2. The 18-49 demo that the show needs to attract to stay alive are less likely to be home on Friday nights.
    3. Thanks to DVR/PVRs, viewers often take Friday night, and the weekend for that matter to catch up on a shows that they missed throughout the week.

  • Anonymous

    “When it was first announced that FRINGE would be moving from Thursday nights to Friday nights, everyone was relieved.”

    What?  As I recall, everyone was FREAKING TERRIFIED.

    The showrunners already know what the show’s “problem” is – it’s for viewers who “like licorice” (i.e., a minority).  Everyone involved with the show has bent over backwards to make it more accessible without compromising its quality. 

    I honestly can only fault one thing about how the show has been handled: Fox loved it too much, thought it was too strong.  When they put it on Thursdays (the most competitive night on television), the steady erosion of ratings began, even as the show got more complex and wonderful (and lost the casual eyeballs). 

    Nobody did anything wrong. You can do virtually everything right and still not get your reward.  Fear not.  Whatever happens, this show’s audience will only grow in years to come, via DVD and repeats.  It has been a tremendous achievement for everyone involved.  (And may it continue on Fox as long as possible…)

  • Observations

    The best story arc was the Olivia one 3.01-3.09 mostly, it combined science , and the tension of Olivia being a prisoner of the enemy, on this side there was Fauxlivia being the enemy, later that season that was pushed to the backsground and it was back to what I think is the problem of Fringe:
    The Walter and Peter Bishop show, the only relationship they write for is that one, and the only characters with a backstory are Walter and Peter. They get all the big emotional scenes etc. and every other character has to feed that.
    Even the regular viewer will know little of Olivia, as she is defined by 5-6 facts mentioned in short scenes with 10 episodes interval.
    It is thanks to Anna Torv’s amazing acting that you get the sense of what her life must have been, Olivia never gets a chance to show that through conversations. A quiz:
    Who is Olivia’s father?
    How did her mother die? (two weeks ago for the first time we got the info that in this timeline she lived with Nina, before fosterhome?
    The stepfather?
    And if Olivia is only a few facts, I am not going to mention the rest, what do you know about Nina, Astrid???
    I was hoping for new relationships this season, but from 4.05 it is back to the Bishops and the science that you mention.
    This season 4.02 and the parts in 4.01 with Olivia/Fauxlivia, the bridge, Over Here and There working together were the best for me,

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  • Jayjaynng

    It’s a shame that John Noble has not been nominated for an Emmy.  He’s such a master actor!  The nuances necessary to play three different versions of the same character are mind-boggling, and his subtle psychedelic ‘in-jokes’ are hilarious.

  • Vivi Molis

    So basically it boils down to the Friday deathslot and lazy viewers?  Well, I for one embrace this show, complicated or not it is fascinating storytelling at its best.  I can’t stand that there are more reality shows now then tv shows.  I can’t get enough of Fringe and these characters. If this will be their last season, I think they should make a Fringe Movie. 

  • Anonymous

    Our household can’t live without Fringe. We aren’t idiots; we love the complicated and well thought out plotlines and the only reality shows we occasionally watch are cooking shows. However, we don’t have kids – we go out on weekends and see live music n’ stuff. We DVR Fringe and we watch it religiously. LOVE it!