Fringe Returns Tonight, Possibly for the Last Time

Due to baseball pre-emptions and winter hiatus, tonight's new episode of Fringe will be the first to air since November 18 of last year. "Back To Where You've Never Been" was originally supposed to be the show's mid-season finale, so we can most likely expect a doozy of a story. There are fifteen episodes left in Fringe's twenty-two episode fourth season, and no one is entirely sure whether it will be the last.

In the Fox session of the TCA press tour this past Sunday, when asked about the fate of Fringe, Fox president Kevin Reilly was brutally honest. The ratings -- which hit an all-time series low of 2.88 million viewers and a 1.1 in the key demo of adults 18-49 the November 18th episode "Wallflower" -- cannot support the expense of the show. "At that rating, on that night, it's almost impossible to make money on it . . . We're not in the business of losing money. We really have to sit down with that entity. We have to figure out if there's a number that makes sense." Fox and Reilly have done their best to support the show since it moved to Friday nights earlier this year, attempting to squash the nasty legacy of the Friday night death slot. It's true that Fringe was getting squashed in the chaos of the Thursday night line-up, and the move to Friday was a sincere effort to put Fringe in a place and time where viewers could find it. But the hard truth is that the show has been bleeding viewers ever since the move, and there weren't that many to start with.

Reilly emphasized that this news wasn't a cancellation and begged fans not to start the letter writing campaign just yet. "I can't take it," he said.

According to an interview with showrunners J.H. Wyman and Jeff Pinkner conducted by The Huffington Post, the show's ratings rise significantly when DVR and internet numbers are considered. "The [demo] number goes up to 1.9 on DVR, which is really good for Friday night," said Pinkner. (An editor's note in that same article stated that "On Jan. 11, a report was released that only one-third of audiences are watching TV in real-time in the U.S. The majority are watching either via Internet or DVR." This is of course huge news for low-rated cult shows like Fringe, Community, and Cougar Town that have large online presences, but this is perhaps a discussion for another article.) Pinkner went on to state that the best thing fans could do right now is watch the show live, and get all their friends and family to watch it live as well:

"We recognize that many people sort of program their own week and watch all television on DVR, so we're certainly not in the business of begging our fans to save the show by watching live. But that's always the thing the fans can do. The good news is, even in Kevin's statement, creatively they're thrilled with the show. We're not in a situation where the network or the studio are asking us to go in one direction and we're kicking and screaming and refusing and this is about creative differences. It's not at all. We've had . . . the same degree of support at the network and the studio since we began . . . We're so entirely grateful. At the end of the day, it's a business decision. I think that what our fans can do is not freak out, feel secure in the knowledge that we're very, very happy with the story we're telling. We're not freaking out and if things change, we'll let them know."

So is there a possible version of the future where we might see a fifth season of Fringe? As far as I'm concerned, there are three possible scenarios which might give the show one last hurrah:

  1. Some other entity picks up a share of the costs. DirecTV did it with Friday Night Lights. Facing the imminent cancelation of the beloved series, NBC struck a deal with the satellite network that saw the next three seasons of the show air first on DirecTV's The 101 Network before being rebroadcast on NBC. And just recently, Netflix has partnered with 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television to stream a truncated fourth season of Arrested Development exclusively through their online streaming service. This is possibly the most financially viable option, but it remains to be seen if similar companies are willing or have any interest in saving the show.
  2. As happened with Chuck in its third season, heightened product placement (it was Subway for Chuck) and the combination of either a shortened season order, significant budget cuts, or both, could swing Fringe a fifth season. I could easily see the shortened season becoming a reality, but I don't see Fringe compromising on its per episode budget. The gorgeous visuals and high production values (along with great guest actors) are such a large part of the show that to do a fifth season without them would be almost unthinkable. Honestly, I'd rather see a super short season or mini-series than see the show compromise itself like that.
  3. And finally, it's not just Fringe that's on the line at Fox (although Fringe's situation is certainly the most dire). The network has yet to make a decision about the renewal of divisive newbie Terra Nova or a ninth season of former heavyweight and Hugh Laurie vehicle House. If House takes a final bow and Terra Nova is not picked up for it's second season -- and neither of those shows make Fox as happy creatively as Fringe does -- there's a slight change the network (like NBC did with Chuck) might rather bring back the known quantity than risk the failure of another expensive series. Fox also has an uncertain mid-season line-up at this point. If Alcatraz and Touch fail spectacularly, Fringe might actually have a shot. If they don't, who knows what's going to happen. Fox did after all give Joss Whedon's ratings disaster Dollhouse an inexplicable second season in 2009 (although that renewal might have been out of sheer leftover guilt from the cancellation of Firefly).

Pinkner and Wyman say they have the show outlined all the way through a possible seventh and even eighth season (extremely unlikely), but in the event of cancellation, they're prepared to end season four on a fan-satisfying note. I've gotta say, though, now that I know there's a plan for eight seasons, the only way I'll ever be truly satisfied is if I see all eight. So: Those of you with Nielsen boxes?  I know you're out there because my mom used to have one. And I'll never forgive her for not turning hers on to save Veronica Mars in 2007. Watch Fringe. Watch Fringe live. Do it tonight. I'm counting on you.

Fringe airs Fridays 9/8 Central on Fox.