Since NBC Universal obtained SyFy in 2004, through acquisitions and mergers, SyFy has been lost in space, aimlessly roaming the television galaxy for a juggernaut hit. The five big broadcasters, cable networks (basic and premium) and streamers have essentially wrestled the genre away. The best sci-fi shows this decade were not on SyFy: Fringe (Fox), Lost (ABC), Heroes (NBC), Falling skies (TNT), Orphan Black (BBC), The 100 (CW) and Humans (AMC). So, in three defiant movies, SyFy dismantled its brand and intentionally disregarded its core audience in an attempt reclaim the sci-fi throne.
SyFy’s repositioning and rebranding was led by Dave Howe. He began, no doubt what SyFy would call his hero journey, in London at BBC as Creative Director of branding for fifteen years. He crossed the pond and threshold to SyFy as General Manager in 2004 moving to President in 2008 and Chiller in 2009. His approach was not unique for a marketing executive. He set out to increase the industry’s perception of the network by raising its profile. He determined that to accomplish this he would have to bury the Sci-fi Channel and then resurrect and expand it. He made some tough decisions, read mistakes, in an effort to expand the network’s audience.
The network’s demographic was historically young, white male sci-fi lovers referred to as geeks.
They were loyal viewers of the network’s anime and outer-space programming though it was limited and had a rather B movie flare, with the exception of Battlestar Gallactica. Howe began the network’s rebranding or ordeal with the demise of its anime programming in 2007 and by 2011 it was removed from the network. If this did not signal the network’s decision to shed its persona, the next steps would.
In an effort to brand itself via trademark and by extension the genre, Howe initiated the network’s logo change from Sci Fi with a planet and ring to SyFy with the Imagine Greater tag in 2009. So even though the network still was not airing the best sci-fi shows on tv, through marketing Howe found a way to claim Sci-Fi. Eventually, the tag was dropped leaving just the trademarked SyFy.
The logo change also signaled the network’s pivot from a focus solely on sci-fi programming. The wrestling and reality genres quickly surpassed that of sci-fi at the network and spawned some of SyFy’s worst shows: Beast Ghost Hunters Academy (2009), Legends (2010), Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen (2011), Dream Machines (2012), Fangasm (2013), and Metal Hurlant Chronicles (2014). During this period, it was clear that the network was not investing in development; they simply purchased shows from Space or Showcase to pair with their inexpensive wrestling and reality programming. This may have served the network economically, but it did little to grow a loyal audience. It is doubtful this was of concern to Howe, who was obviously playing the long game. He did not see this as a roadblock as it achieved his goal; he broadened the network’s audience and profile.
Syfy has morphed from a generic platform for outer-space programming into an advertising-friendly home for mystery, action-adventure, fantasy, supernatural and sci-fi. Plus, its audience is not just nerdy white men but also women, African-Americans, and Hispanics—demographics that had rarely been targeted for genre viewing. Ari Karpel, Fast Company
According to SNL Kagan, a media research company, Sci Fi had 95.2 million subscriber households last year, compared with 93 million in 2007 and 88.2 million in 2006. SNL Kagan estimated ad revenue for Sci Fi at $423.9 million last year, compared with $392.7 million in 2007 and $394.6 million in 2006.
Reflecting the effects of the recession, the SNL Kagan estimate for ad revenue for Sci Fi and Syfy in 2009 is $408.3 million. Although “it’s too early to tell” how the year will turn out, Mr. Mandala said, “we’re having meaningful conversations” with potential advertisers for the 2009-10 season. (SNL Kagan predicts a rebound for ad revenue in 2010, to $426.9 million.) Stuart Elliot, NYT
Howe used Face Off, Alphas, and Being Human to broaden the Syfy brand in the Latino, which he erroneously refers to as Hispanic, and female market. To say that this shift was aimed at diversity is disingenuous. The shift was simply an opportunity to exploit a growing demographic. SyFy determined that there was a link between Latinos and the paranormal phenomenon so it invested heavily in paranormal reality programming. Using campaigns, off-air elements and gender balanced production teams it attempted to lay stake to the market.
We were very strategic about how we positioned it [rebranding], how we communicated, how we made sure our audience didn’t think that this was just another excuse to abandon the genre. We were very specific about why we were doing it and about why we were about creating a brand that was extendable into new platforms. Then we had a whole roster of sci-fi/fantasy shows that reassured people that actually we were going to be a bigger and better sci-fi/fantasy network as opposed to one that was going sci-fi light… We have a very good understanding about who our audience is, why they’re watching, how they think, how they behave, how they consume media, and we’re very lucky as a brand. We have this highly imaginative consumer that we just named ‘Igniters,’ in our campaign; it’s this consumer that’s very creative and imaginative and inventive. They’re artistic, they’re seeking out the next best thing, trying it, road-testing it, then basically telling as many people as they possibly can what to buy, what to wear, what to hear, and that’s who they are.” Dave Howe, March 2012
After amassing an influx of cash and viewers from wrestling and reality programming (2010-15), he re-invested in development bringing on ally, Bill McGoldrick as the EVP of Original Content in late 2013/early 2014.
With the transition of wrestling to sister network USA in 2016, the duo is beginning to release content they hope will re-establish their ownership of the genre. In fact, Howe now refers to the genre as sci-fi fantasy and his plan is to reclaim the throne and reposition the network as one of premium cable quality. Whether Howe defined this mission in 2008 when he assumed presidency of the network or when McGoldrick came on board, it is the challenge the network should have taken on long ago. However, the hope is that he does not expect results by simply throwing money at the network’s content quality problem.
So the opportunity for us is to invest in the smartest, most provocative, the highest production value content that really positions Syfy as the expert in this space. So what you can see in our slate is some of the biggest names in the genre, some of the biggest pieces of IP in the genre, and an attempt to do on television basic cable something which traditionally is only being done on premium cable–on an HBO or Showtime. These events – Childhood’s End and The Expanse – these are the most expensive series in our history and they really do position us much more in the premium scripted space than they do in basic cable. – Dave Howe, October 2015
Howe assumed leadership of the network in 2008, changed the logo in 2009, added wrestling and reality programming in 2010, dropped anime by 2011, and brought on McGoldrick in late 2013/early 2014 to overhaul the network’s scripted programming. For a snapshot of his tenure, comparing programming in 2010-11 and 2015-16 is informative. In 2010-11 Howe focused on inexpensive reality programming. Only two of the ten reality/other shows he premiered are still on air. In 2015-16 there were far fewer reality shows premiering on the network, but they include a game show and a talk show. Interestingly there is one reality show that preceded Howe which is still on air, Ghost Hunters (2004-present). But it is in the area of scripted programming that the network has changed the most. In 2010-11 there were only four new scripted shows; this has tripled by 2015-16 under McGoldrick’s leadership.
Though the network has shifted its focus from reality/other to scripted programming, the network’s grasp on the genre has continued to decline. The dynamic duo has not achieved their goal of genre domination. Neither the re-branding nor the content evolution has brought viewers to the network. Though its audience and content has been diversified, this has not, positively impacted the network’s ratings.
SyFy is no longer the primary or only destination for sci-fi programming and has not been for quite a while. Though their female viewership has been increasing since 2007 and the network had some highs for six months in 2009 after its rebranding, its total viewership is at an alltime low. In 2015 SyFy’s ratings dropped twelve percent, landing it at twenty-three on the Year End Cable Ratings; it was twelve in 2011. The network can’t compete with its sister network, USA which has achieved top cable network ranking for multiple years with a number of Top 20 Primetime Original Series including Royal Pains, White Collar, Burns, and Suits. When is the last time SyFy had a Top 20 Primetime Original Series?
The network disregarded, disrespected and abandoned its core audience in search of an influx of cash, a premium cable audience and presumably the sci-fi throne. However, in the process the dynamic duo, Howe and McGoldrick, irreparably damaged the network’s relationship with viewers and its already declining reputation, as the place for sci-fi. Though Howe’s rebranding had ratings, ad revenue and subscriber spikes in 2009, in the end it is was not truly successful. It was simply a marketing jedi mind trick. The network has not elevated or expanded the genre; sci-fi/fantasy is a rather generic definition of the network’s content.
Howe’s biggest error was his focus on ownership of the genre instead of uniquely defining it with quality programming. SyFy is not synonymous with sci-fi. For millenials Sharknado is their SyFy reference point. That is not a win for a network reaching for premium cable accolades! Nothing says you have lost the genre louder than the failing of your massively expensive and heavily promoted shows: Defiance and The Last Expanse. SyFy’s level of disappointment will increase January 2017 when Star Trek premiers on CBS All Access, the Network’s digital subscription video on demand and live streaming service.
Presumably, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment is content with Howe’s rebranding and network ratings for SyFy. Last week he was named President of Strategy and Commercial Growth for NBC Universal. His job will be focused on the monetization of content much like his cross-platform attempt with Defiance (video game release that featured interwoven storylines). Maybe the ultimate goal was not the throne but alignment to sister station, USA. If so, Howe surely succeeded, and in his new role he may just have the elixir SyFy and NBC Universal needs to claim the throne in the declining live or traditional tv viewing. So the question remains: will Howe find a way to reach the ‘igniters’ and monetize the network’s content?
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