Special Effects Blasting Holes in Show Schedules

The increasing reliance on over-the top special effects is starting to wreak havoc on network scheduling. Case in point: the Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series Terra Nova.

Part western, part family adventure, Fox’s Terra Nova, for which the two-hour pilot reportedly cost $14 million, is set in both a bleak future and a prehistoric past—and has serious contemporary issues thanks to overly ambitious effects.

Fox initially planned to launch the series at mid-season, but production hurdles persuaded the network to push back the premiere and give the series a Glee-like preview in the spring. But the series, which also boasts former Fox Entertainment Group chairman and CEO Peter Chernin as an executive producer, now won’t premiere until the fall.

“We knew the effects would be one of the more ambitious aspects of the show, and we want to get them right,” said Brannon Braga, another executive producer on the series. “So we had to make the hard decision. Could we have made air in May? Probably. But we wanted to give ourselves enough time to do everything well.”

Among the effects at issue are those revolving around what the future and the past look like, and, most importantly, what the past’s dinosaurs look like. “It’s always the animals,” Braga said. “We’re doing groundbreaking motion-capture effects that have only been done with people….And it just takes longer to troubleshoot.”

Creating believable dinosaurs is nothing new to Spielberg, who directed the first two films in the Jurassic Park franchise. Braga said Spielberg was “comfortable” with the decision to cancel the spring preview because “he wants the visual effects to go even a step beyond what he has done.”

Terra Nova is one of several effects-driven TV shows scheduled to premiere over the next months. HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones, launching April 17, is full of effects as well, as is TNT’s alien invasion drama, Falling Skies, which debuts June 19. Spielberg also is an executive producer on that show.

Several TV executives told Adweek that getting even the slightest of special effects right can eat up time in the postproduction process. “Audiences have gotten so used to such amazing effects in feature films that it can be scary to do these things on TV,” said one programmer, who declined to be identified. “You don’t want them walking away from a show saying the effects looked cheesy or second-rate.”

Although the cancellation of Terra Nova’s spring preview has fueled speculation that the project remains troubled, Braga said he is focused on the fall. “When the show finally airs, all of this will be forgotten,” he noted, adding that the opinions of viewers rather than journalists matter most. “If people don’t like the show,” he said, “then it will be in trouble.”   

Spielberg’s Slate

In the promotion of TV shows, it never hurts to use Steven Spielberg’s name. And TV viewers are sure to hear that name a lot over the next few months. After scaling back production for the past several seasons, Dreamworks Television, a unit of feature film studio Dreamworks SKG, is ramping up both in cable and broadcast. While Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank serve as co-heads of Dreamworks TV, it’s Spielberg who remains the driving force behind the studio’s creative direction. A list of Dreamworks TV’s current programs and development projects follows.

Current Programming
United States of Tara (Showtime): Created by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, series stars Toni Collette as a suburban housewife with multiple personalities. Season 3 premieres March 28.

The Borgias (Showtime): In the vein of The Tudors, a period piece starring Jeremy Irons, which follows one of history’s most notorious families. Series premieres April 3.

Falling Skies (TNT), 2011: Set six months after an alien invasion, survivors—led by ER’s Noah Wyle—struggle to take back Earth. Series premieres June 19.

Terra Nova (Fox), 2011: Set in the year 2149 when the earth is dying, a family travels back to prehistoric times to start over. Two-hour pilot, to have been previewed this spring, is pushed to the fall.

In Development
Smash (NBC)
One of next season’s highest-profile projects is about the mounting of a Marilyn Monroe musical on Broadway. Debra Messing stars as the show’s reluctant lyricist. Cast also features Anjelica Huston and American Idol’s Katharine McPhee. Executive producers include Hairspray’s Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

Locke & Key (Fox)
From writer Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), along with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Hawaii Five-O), project is a suspense thriller about a family that moves into a haunted house. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Joe Hill.

The River (ABC)
Paranormal Activity writer-director Oren Peli is behind this horror project, which follows a family in search of their dad who went missing in the Amazon.