SYFY Series: Saving the Network, Notes From a Sci-Fi Fan

Though SyFy’s scripted programming is improving, this is a difficult time for the network. The sci-fi market is saturated and competitors have developed their own takes on the genre. Even the most saccharine and white wash networks, CBS, is in the sci-fi game now. Bryan Fuller is set to showrun CBS’ Star Trek which is set to premier in 2017.

In many ways the sci-fi landscape has surpassed SyFy. Competitors are producing a variety and depth of the genre; they are not all sci-fi light. The sci-fi genre hasn’t been appropriated or consumed by any one entity. It is simply being used by creatives who are developing stories for a variety of audiences. SyFy’s clear competitors are The CW (broadcast network) and AMC (basic cable network). Both have done what SyFy has not been able to do. They have taken risks and successfully brought new and imaginative stories to life. SyFy’s current and upcoming stories are often based on books or movies.

syfy competition and programming

If the SyFy is to survive or soar, it must elevate the genre. This is not just combining genres in a mix and match manner; it is intelligent storytelling. SyFy must tell interesting and unique stories in innovative ways with cost effective production. Beyond a singular hit or walking in the footprints of other networks or streamers, SyFy has to move beyond branding and demographic schemes to a focus on its programming. It has to once again become synonymous with sci-fi. Of course the million dollar question is how does it achieve this if its competitors are now all in the sci-fi business? First, the network has to redefine sci-fi to expand our notions of the genre. Second, it has to improve the quality of its shows; Olympus was an embarrassment for the network. Third, it has to innovate to create a model that will engage the 21st century audience.

Sci-fi can’t be limited to space or time travel and life on other planets. It is clear that Sci-fi has to be inclusive of space operas, fantasy, horror, and adventure. Sci-fi on tv for adults must be imaginative. Whether the story takes the form of a western, thriller, historical fiction, satire or comedy, it must have a a mythological, scientific or technological plot  at its core.  This is not simply sci-fi/fantasy as Howe has described. This generic label fails to capture the network’s voice, and it does not indicate how the network’s programming is unique.  USA, AMC and others have succeeded in creating quality content with a unique voice and then crafting taglines that reflect it. SyFy has not had a tagline since about 2013 and the programming is not particularly distinct; it lacks a clearly identifiable voice or brand. Consider the tagline: Unique Stories, Unique Formats. This tag alone can save SyFy if it is used to define the programming.

Cable Network Branding

When the network delivers quality shows illustrating the breath of sci-fi, it will have elevated the genre and then may be closer to laying claim to the genre and not just the trademarked word, SyFy. In 2015 then President of SyFy Dave Howe said his efforts were, “…an attempt to do on television basic cable something which traditionally is only being done on premium cable–on an HBO or Showtime.” While he did not meet his goal during his tenure, he and Bill McGoldrick, former EVP of SyFy Content, have improved the quality of the network’s programming. To further improve the quality and voice of SyFy shows, the network has to:

  1. reduce the number of shows in development to focus on a few quality endeavors. Why develop fifteen mediocre shows when you can create two quality shows that can have critical and ratings success.
  2. take more risks conceptually or thematically!
  3. stop using Canadian production companies exclusively. This has not proven to be a successful approach. Instead re-engage your audience and develop a pipeline of creators. Create a Sci-Fi Shorts Contest for sci-fi and film enthusiasts. The winning sci-fi shorts could be aired on the network’s new Talk Show.
  4. develop a uniquely SyFy show to bridge the past and future of the genre. We all love Twilight Zones, put it is dated and not appreciated by millenials. There are so many noted and unknown science fiction writers whose works could be optioned or used for inspiration in the creation of a half-hour show of intriguing stories; this could be a 21st century interpretation of Twilight Zones.
  5. And of course I am among many who would love to see more Sci-fi movies. I vote for Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Great ideas, right? But alone these ideas will not save the network. SyFy’s new model has to maximize its strengths and avoid its weaknesses. Like most networks, SyFy is in constant search for the juggernaut ratings hit, the one-hour scripted franchise drama. This is elusive. The network’s greatest ratings in 2015 was Childhood’s End; the three part miniseries garnered 1.32 million views. Couple this with the network’s inability to develop series with longer than two to three seasons and the core of the network’s model is formed.

Instead of continuing on the development hamster wheel, the network could maximize its efforts by creating and delivering unique stories in unique formats. SyFy’s shows should have predetermined durations ranging from mini-series to three year series; with entire shows comprised of four to thirty-nine episodes the network would have a unique brand of quality, elevated sci-fi with endless creative possibilities to engage audiences. This may also increase the caliber of actors the network can engage. Of course multi-platform links to online games and maybe even fan voting to extend shows would be great.

This new model also needs a reconsidered delivery. Like  other smaller networks, SyFy uses counter programming, offering a different genre or premiering new content as other networks are winding down their seasons. Successful tv programming or counter-programming feels natural, falling into viewers habits/routines or delivering shows so good that it creates viewer habits/routines. SyFy’s does neither. In 2015 the network’s scripted programming had very little rhythm. Shows premiered in January (12 Monkeys), April (Bitten, Lost Girl, Olympus), June (Dark Matter, Kill Joys) September (Z Nation) and December (The Expanse) with eight to  fifteen episodes.

These shows may have found an audience if there was a more considered programming approach. The network can continue its counter-programming, but the scheduling should be less haphazard and a more logical roll-out is needed. SyFy has neither the cache or cable subscriptions to support such an erratic schedule.

  1. There should always be a show TV-14 show in the 7PM and/or 8PM slot to compete with The CW and Freeform.
  2. If SyFy continues to develop so much content in the TV-14 and TV-MA categories, the network may consider splitting into two distinct entities like FX did recently.
  3. Scripted Original Content should dominate prime-time programming; Old SyFy movies or syndicated shows should only be shown on one chosen weekday.
  4. Use the network’s catalog to show more scripted show marathons.
  5. Because the original shows will have clear durations, they should be released On Demand or with Streaming Partners in their entirety or in blocks. And they could be aired in less conventional time slots. SyFy usually airs scripted programming in prime-time, why not air it in two or three hour blocks instead, showing several episodes or simply re-airing the same episode?

Successful television development and programming is akin to neurosurgery, but SyFy can do better! This model has much promise, but its unlikely that NBC Universal will consider any of it with its latest organizational changes for centralization. I would not be surprised if SyFy USA and Chiller eventually merged. USA and SyFy have already begun cross-airing Colony and The Expanse. Let’s hope SyFy grows before we lose it altogether. A fan can hope…

SyFy Model

At its inception and for many years later, SyFy owned the genre, but did little to effectively brand or expand it for far too many years. When Howe initiated the network’s re-branding in 2009, he focused on paratextual content (slogans, logos, commercials) and left the discursive meaning (network voice, program development) to McGoldrick. Though the network had some ratings spikes in 2009, it is at an all time low in 2015 at #23 on the Year End Cable Networks list. The network has indeed floundered and lost its uniqueness along with the sci-fi mantle. It no longer shows anime, the logo change was a debacle, and since Battlestar Galactica it has not developed any shows of significant critical or fan success. While wrestling, reality shows and increased ad revenue dollars brought an influx of cash, the network’s programming has been homogenized for middle America’s consumption like much of NBC’s fare.

It is clear that SyFy has not truly grown under NBC’s Universal ownership, Dave Howe’s presidency or Bill McGoldrick’s content leadership. The dynamic duo of Howe and McGoldrick desperately wanted a hit so they forced a square peg into a round hole. They pushed SyFy into the traditional image of what a successful network looked like without successfully looking at ways it could be uniquely what it was and succeed. This is most evident in their chase for a one-hour scripted franchise via Defiance and The Expanse. The network continues with strategies which work for networks who have  more conventional audiences and content. Let’s hope SyFy begins to take risks and deliver unique stories in unique formats.

For More on This Series, visit SyFy Series
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