'Terra Nova' is canceled, but seeks a new home

Allison Miller plays the characterSkye in 'Terra Nova.'
Allison Miller plays the characterSkye in 'Terra Nova.'

One of the television season's most ambitious new series, the science-fiction drama Terra Nova, got word this week that it would have no future on Fox, but the studio that produces it has begun intensive efforts to find another network willing to run the show.

The series, about a family sent back to prehistoric times, has one of the top management pedigrees on television. The list of executive producers includes Steven Spielberg and Peter Chernin, the former chairman of the Fox Entertainment Group, who previously oversaw the Fox network schedule. It stars Allison Miller, who was raised in Lexington and has been seen in the short-lived 2009 NBC series Kings and the movie 17 Again.

Twentieth Century Fox Television, the studio that produces the series, would like to find another network to carry it because it is extremely popular in sales to international television outlets. Finding a new home may prove a challenge, however, because Terra Nova has one of the most expensive price tags in television, about $4 million an episode, about double the normal cost.

That expense would probably rule out cable networks like Syfy, which might have been obvious alternatives, leaving only a broadcast network as a possible new home.

The cancellation, confirmed by Fox late on Monday, is another negative mark on the mixed television record of Spielberg, one of the most successful producer-directors in movie history. Several of his television projects have been notable successes — ER on NBC, Band of Brothers and The Pacific on HBO, and the drama Falling Skies on TNT — but he has had some high-profile misses too, going back to Amazing Stories in the late 1980s and SeaQuest in the early 1990s.

One current drama he is involved with, The River on ABC, has had a subpar performance and seems unlikely to survive, while another high-profile project, Smash on NBC, has faltered in recent weeks but appears to be on the upswing.

Ratings for Terra Nova started strong last fall but have declined since. By the time the show's episodes ended in December, it was averaging about 7 million viewers and just over a barely passable 2 rating in the advertiser-preferred category of viewers 18-49.

The show's popularity did increase significantly, however, when delayed viewing on digital recorders was included — to about 10 million viewers and a 3.6 rating among the 18-49 age group. Typically, those would be good enough numbers for a drama to be renewed in most circumstances. But Terra Nova cost so much that it probably needed to be an outright hit to justify a second season.

From the start the show faced challenging production demands. It was shot on location in Australia, and the two-hour pilot, which drew much of its excitement from the inclusion of several scenes of special-effects dinosaurs, cost a staggering $16 million. (By comparison, the pilot for Lost, an extravagant series to which Terra Nova was instantly compared, cost about $12 million.)

Because of the daunting cost, and probably because of the involvement of producers like Spielberg and Chernin, Fox committed not just to shoot a pilot, which is the normal television process, but also to order a full first season up front. But because the production was so demanding and expensive, the initial season contained only 13 episodes.

With a pressing need to gear up the production as early as possible, Fox had to decide the show's future now, rather than wait until May, as is usual.

Fox offered no explanation for dropping the show.

In January Kevin Reilly, the top Fox program executive, said: "It was pretty obvious the bar was set enormously high. Everyone kept saying, 'Doesn't it have to do huge ratings?' The fact is if this is all we produce, we made money on it, the studio made money on it, the audience enjoyed it, the show looked fantastic."

Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Lost, which faced many of the same challenges that Terra Nova faced in fashioning an ambitious on-location adventure series, said in an email message: "The degree of difficulty for a show like that is immense — in addition to the creative challenges of time travel (a path that leads only to insanity for the writers and microscopic focus by the fans), the sheer magnitude of actually shooting an episode with feature-level production value every two weeks is borderline impossible.

"Terra Nova gets huge points just for attempting to execute a highly perilous dive and I hope that ambition is part of its legacy as opposed to the cautionary tale that many pundits will likely make it out to be."