Sunday, July 12, 2009

What's in a name...

My brain feels like a newborn solar system. I have so much flying around on different orbits and trajectories: planets, moons, sightings of an occasional gamma ray blast from afar, a solar flare and a few asteroids keeping things interesting (and dangerous) all circling the center point that is my sun. And as often happens, at least in sci fi, a comet just hit an asteroid and caused it to change course. I was going to explore my two competing interpretations of ABC (Glengarry Glen Ross reference for those of you non-Mamet peeps) stemming from a chaotic week of brain churning panels at NATPE, an unexpected (and ill-fated) audition and an important week of writing- but hold that discussion. I'm watching a battle. No, not the battle to save the earth from the Asteroid (!) but a battle between David and Goliath, the man and the machine, the indie innovator and big media. To Syfy or not to Syfy...that is the question.

A lot of discourse has flooded my twitter timelines over the past few months about the name change from Sci Fi Channel to Syfy, a transition that occurred this past Tuesday. Did it really bother me at all or give me pause during the day to reflect on it (except the ill-fated timing of the roll over being on the same day as Michael Jackson's funeral)? Nope- I am a Sci Fi Channel fan but I'm really busy trying to create my own sci fi content, so if the icon on the bottom of my screen is a bit different, I'm not going to pay much attention to it. But discussions have continued to pop up revealing that many people feel very strongly about the name change. Why? Well from some posts it looks like it is basically being taken as a 'diss' by the authentic science fiction fans. That changing the name of the channel to a word that sounds the same but looks different is straddling both sides of the fence; the channel wants to retain it's hard core sci fi fans but not be off putting to potential viewers who might shy away from such associations. Maybe it is a diss but the reasons behind, it in my humble opinion, are valid, at least from a commerce point of view. NBC/Universal, the behemoth that owns the channel, wants to be able to control the copyright to the name. When someone Googles a 'Sci Fi show', unlike a TNT show or a TBS show, the genre, not just the channel results are posted. NBC/Universal also wants to be able to own the name for purposes of branding and merchandizing. Though the idea of someone buying a Syfy t-shirt who is not a sci fi fan is befuddling, what I think this issue gives rise to, on the eve of our most hallowed of events (Comic Con), is the disenchantment and disenfranchisement of the science fiction fan. We don't have a home of our own- no planet to speak of that is just ours.

The Science Fiction Channel (later changed to it's abbreviation) was birthed as an offshoot of the USA Network when it was owned by both Paramount and Universal. Both studios had libraries of science fiction content that found a natural home on the new channel and apparently Issac Asimov was even on the board. Original scripted content on cable channels didn't exist. And check out the wikipedia entry. Do you see how many times the ownership of the channel or its parent company changed? I'm suprised that the channel lived to see today. It did continue to be a natural home for network or premium cable genre shows in their second run. Then original content started popping up and Sci Fi had first run programming though low cost productions- like 'The Invisible Man' and 'The Outer Limits'- which were produced outside 'the circle' of Los Angeles. But primarily, Sci Fi Channel was a syndication landing strip for sci fi/ fantasy/ horror series and movies that had been deficit financed by other networks so needed to recoup their costs and ultimately hope to make a profit. For us fans of sci fi, it just meant that we knew to click on the channel if we were looking for something sci fi to watch on Saturday at 3pm or 1am on a Sunday as it is now.

But then the channel was forced to grow as the TV model changed. The syndication model was no longer effective in bringing viewers, thus advertising dollars, to a stand alone cable channel. The DVD release of TV series, one not regulated in its rollout 'window' like feature films, made watching 2nd run programming practically obsolete as the content was now available, on demand, in the palm of your hand (in the form of a DVD). Channels had to create original, unique programming to catch the attention of audiences so that the channel would become a destination. A great example of that in recent years is AMC. Would you ever think to click to that channel and see what was on if it had not been for 'Mad Men'? My image of that channel was akin to that of Turner Movie Classics, old movies, in black and white, probably introduced by some old TV star. But now, because of Matthew Weiner's brilliant show, I am hyper aware of the channel and will take notice of its schedule. So, original programming became the mandate. Over a matter of the past ten years this has become the norm, over the past five years, the fare has become top notch, edgy comedy and dramas started butting heads with the likes of the 'West Wing' at the Emmys. Do you remember when you were shocked as opposed to complacent about your cable programming being as good or better than network fare? USA Today reports today that network numbers are down double digits this summer because of strong cable fare. This doesn't surprise me as shows like 'Burn Notice', 'Royal Pains', 'True Blood' and 'Nurse Jackie' are at the top of my TiVo list.

Cable has competed effectively with the networks in scripted comedy and drama fare. But how do you compete when your product is sci fi? You don't, you can't, it's too expensive to produce unless you have the support of massive ad campaign or two. And come to think of it, you aren't even competing against sci fi original fare on network TV, as it rarely survives, you are competing against movies, often hundred million dollar ones. Most great science fiction will forever stay within the pages of a book or comic as the resources are just not there to support the transference of it into a live action filmed product. So we settle for hybrids. Tried and true story and characters arcs that are set in a semi sci-fi setting, dusted with fairy dust. That way this product can someone appeal to the masses even if they have no idea who Neil Gaiman is or what the Singularity refers to.

So what does this mean for the newly rebranded Syfy channel. Apparently the image one conjures when hearing the word Sci Fi is that of a geeky, overweight fan boy who resides in his parents basement playing WoW, with no steady income. Really still? Didn't anyone read my evolution of geek post? But apparently that stereotype is still alive and well. And Syfy didn't want to be solely identified with that specific audience, even as its numbers were growing, for fear (I'm assuming) of alienating potential brand sponsors. Plus, much of their viewership growth can be attributed to the popularity of their non sci fi programming, such as 'Ghost Hunters', 'Wrestling' and 'Scare Tactics'. They also have a growing mainstream audience base (including females) that responds to it's quirkier scifi comedy fare, that of 'Eureka' (I'm a fan), it's new sister show Warehouse 13 (I'm a potential fan if they expand upon the history/ mythology of the artifacts on the website and reduce the quirk factor) and its scifi fantasy lite movies. I know they are trying to umbrella this array of content under an 'Imagine Greater' motto but it's making the mistake of trying to convince the real sci fi fans that the channel is still for them. It's not, it's kinda, maybe, partially for them, sometimes.

So, what about the real sci fi fare, the mind tingling fiction that pulls us into worlds more fantastical than our own? BSG legitimized Sci Fi for a long time. It was their network competition heavy weight show (that better frakking win an Emmy this year). But now it's over and I can only imagine how nervous the network is about the 'Caprica' and 'Stargate: Universe' launch. Mass consumption, at the levels needed by corporate America, of serialized science fiction (save for the anomaly semi sci fi 'Lost') has proven to be difficult. Why didn't Syfy pick up 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles'. I assume because it was simply too expensive. Look at where most of their original shows are shot? Canada. Because the production costs are cheaper and the talent is as well. Even star names make significantly less under the SAG cable contract, ask the cast of 'Mad Men' and 'Damages'; I doubt Lena Hedley would be keen to relocate to Vancouver and take a big pay cut to keep the TSCC franchise alive. The mini-series 'Tin Man' was brought up in a discussion tonight as a highlight of SciFi's original content achievement. I have to say I never watched it, mostly because I'm actually not a fan of Zooey Deschanel, but also because when I read the script in preparation for the character I had an audition for, my take on the part, as with my read on most of the script, was intense but over the top. I actually got reprimanded by the casting director for my performance. Ironically the clip I saw of Kathleen Robertson playing the role was spot on to my audition- so go figure. And in just reviewing the show online, I believe that Sci Fi's creative team didn't know what story they really wanted to tell, thus, in a small way, 'Tin Man' parallels the evolution of Sci Fi into Syfy: it's a decent idea on paper- creating an edgy, new interpretation of a classic tale ('there's no place like home'), while appealing to broad non sci fi fan base. The result just didn't fully connect with either. Thus Syfy's name did catch up with its programming- it reflects an identity crisis.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. Syfy has a strong online presence and web platform. The ancillary Syfy websites like Scifi Wire (sci fi news) and Dvice (tech) add authenticity to the sci fi portion of the brand and's new MMO game is ground breaking for a channel. The SVP, GM of Syfy's digital arm has a history rich in science fiction in the digital space. Craig Engler, someone I do follow on Twitter, founded Science Fiction Weekly, the first sci fi internet magazine (that was ultimately purchased by and worked extensively with NBC/Universal on Sci Fi's cross platform digital programming, including the BSG webisode series 'Face of the Enemy' (which *sigh* beat 'After Judgment' for the Streamy). Craig is doing a noble job of connecting with viewers through Twitter during the channel re-branding period, being accessible, answering questions and spreading news, even if it is along the party line. From his previous experience and recent achievements I think he has the goods to help shape the future of Syfy via the online community. But because the programming on Syfy is not going to change unless 'Caprica's' numbers beat 'Ghost Hunters' and Wrestling- consistently -no matter how vocal authentic sci fi fans are to bring 'Firefly' to the channel, it's an uphill battle.

What's the solution? I have an idea. Let's relaunch When you click on the site now it autodirects you to (this is expected of course). Why not re-establish it as a separate site that is rich with JUST sci fi content, thus providing a strong online community platform and destination site for sci fi fans. You can watch old episodes of 'Firefly' AND watch original sci fi content, that which is already being produced for the web. I just happen to know of a lot of really great made for web content in the sci fi genre. How great to have a destination where you can watch 'After Judgment', 'The Crew', 'Galacticast', 'Afterworld', and even the premiere of 'Artemis Eternal' on one portal solely geared towards the sci fi fan. For once, we can mobilize and show our strength as a viable, brand consuming community to the sponsors while supporting independent, sci fi content.

The Sci Fi Channel was never really ours to begin with people- we've been holding on to the name as much as we held on to BSG. We didn't want it to end, but it is time. Much like the 13 colonies survivors, we don't have a home, at least on TV...but we do have the Internet, a vast domain that we all have strong, creative influence over. We just have to mobilize... and maybe can lend a hand.

So say we all?

Be back soon.

All Things T


David Nett said...

Great post, Taryn. This is a well articulated, thorough examination of the brand change.

Observing it from a copyright point of view was a new (and more convincing) explanation for me than most of the other stuff I heard from the network (I, like you, refuse to believe that SciFi geeks are really outcasts anymore, given our collective educational and socio-economic demographics). To me, it just seems bizarre that, in a time where I think deep-dives into niche markets are beginning to yield real results, SciFi would choose to try to broaden (and by necessity, flatten) its offerings. But as much as that makes no sense to me, the copyright thing does make sense.

Anyway, thanks for the enlightenment.

Creator, GOLD
the Web Series that does Double Damage

Gennefer Snowfield said...


Fantastic exploration, and I'm thrilled our late night rebrand discussion inspired such a thoughtful post.

The network rhetoric aside, I believe SyFy made the change for 2 primary reasons:

1) The ability to trademark their own genre under the rubric of 'sci-fi'

2) Counteract the alleged sci-fi 'stigma' to make the category more palatable for the masses

I have nothing against building a solid brand, or owning your niche, but they are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They're unwilling to relinquish the sci-fi label, but still seek mainstream dominance. And the fact that 'SyFy' just happens to rhyme with sci-fi, they're banking on the overlap -- and the confusion.

The problem with trying to be everything to all people is that you end up pleasing no one. Diehard fans become disgruntled by the obvious slap in the face of essentially disowning them for the 'cool kids,' and the fickle masses inevitably get bored and move on to the next flavor-of-the-month buzz.

A better strategic move would have been involving the community in showing the world how awesome sci-fi is rather than forsake them to attract a mainstream crowd that will never convert to the level of engagement that a true sci-fan will -- nor will they embrace the brand in totality just because they've added some non-genre programming.

At best, they'll attract a transient viewership that flits in and out, fueled by market hype and pithy promos instead of cultivating those whose dials were firmly set to the channel.

In my opinion, the change was ego-driven vs. user-centric, a common pitfall among brands seeking ubiquity and market omnipotence, failing to see that serving your core audience well and curating strong niche segments yield the greatest return.

But it's a lesson they may be about to learn the hard way. Especially when their numbers pale in comparison to the boatloads of cash they sunk into design, promo, and extra zeros on the paychecks of studio execs patting themselves on the back.

Principal and Branded Entertainment Specialist
Space Truffles Entertainment

Jason P Hunt said...

Exactly. The fact that Syfy wants to have its cake and eat it, too, seems to reflect a natural desire to be liked. Which is, in and of itself, a reflection of the vain "like me" culture we live in today. The fact that we spend so much time changing who we are to meet the expectations of others is exactly what Syfy faces now - and this will be an all or nothing end result. Either the network will survive with loud accolades, or they will fall flat on the floor and never get up.

As to your point that there should be a site, we're making the attempt to build such a beast over at, and would appreciate a look, if you're so inclined.

Jason P. Hunt

Casey McKinnon said...

I agree 100% with your idea to make into a science fiction community featuring all sci-fi content out there. Very cool.

I had a pitch meeting with SciFi last year and completely understand why they changed their name. In the meeting, the VP kept asking what is the science fiction element of the pitch that makes it qualify for SciFi. Everything we pitched HAD to have a sci-fi element or they couldn't play it... so stuff like After Judgment, which doesn't focus on the science fiction part of the story, may not have qualified in the past, even though it's the kind of thing that they would want to play on their channel.

I preferred when they were thinking about calling the channel Beyond... SyFy sounds a little too web 2.0 for my tastes, but it's a done deal.

The good thing is that perhaps now when we have pitch meetings we don't have to constantly worry about having a sci-fi explanation for everything. We should qualify just being a "genre".

We shall see,
Creator [insert web series here]
[insert tagline here]
[insert link here] :P