Sci-Fi Network vs. the "Scapers"


Pioneer Press

March 23, 2003: The amateur commercial sprang from a home computer to the Internet and television screens in about two dozen U.S. cities, including the Twin Cities.

"I am Farscape," several ordinary-looking people intone. Save "Farscape," the spot implores.

Farwhat?

Exactly, the spot's creators say. The ad, digitally conceived as part of a grassroots effort to rescue an obscure science-fiction series from oblivion, was aimed at piquing the interest of the TV-viewing masses.

If enough CNN Headline News watchers became intrigued enough to tap www.savefarscape.com into their browsers, the logic goes, "Farscape" might get just enough of a ratings boost to be plucked from cancellation.

Dream on, says the cable Sci-Fi Channel, which appears adamant in its recent decision to kill the critically acclaimed but ratings-deficient show.

Get real, says a TV-industry observer, who doesn't think any of the recent rescue efforts by rabid "Farscape" fans will make a whit of difference.

But "Scapers" say they won't be denied a fifth season of their beloved show, which chronicles the adventures of a U.S. astronaut who becomes stranded in a distant part of the universe. The fans have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure they aren't ignored.

Shortly after news of the cancellation in early September, they flooded the Sci-Fi Channel with calls. Weeks later, they followed up with flowers for the stressed-out switchboard operators.

They created a slick Save Farscape site that dispenses news, to-do lists, event listings, elaborate artwork and, surely to the chagrin of Sci-Fi Channel executives, phone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses.

When the popular "FoxTrot" comic strip focused on the "Farscape" cancellation, author Bill Amend says "that (Oct. 8) strip generated more e-mails from readers than anything else I've done. I had no idea that many people owned computers, even. I shudder to think what the mail boxes at the Sci-Fi Channel must be like these days."

The Internet has been critical in mobilizing "Farscape" fans, the Save Farscape organizers say. A spare initial Web page that would mushroom into the current megasite got thousands of hits within days of the cancellation announcement, creator Nina Lumpp of Cucamonga, Calif., recalls.

Since then, fan ads have appeared in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety newspapers. A USA Today ad, radio spots, movie-theater ads and a second TV spot are said to be in the works.

In Bloomington, a member of the Save Farscape inner circle is promoting the cause with charity auctions in movie theaters across the country during the Dec. 18 premiere of "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

"We're fans trying to influence national ratings," marvels Michelle Erickson, a computer programmer at a Minneapolis medical-software firm.

In Richmond, Va., a lawyer paid for the airing of the "I am Farscape" TV spot in the Twin Cities and four other cities.

"We're putting our money where" our mouths are, says Katherine Ramsey, an estate-planning attorney who adopts the nickname "dominar of action" also used by a Farscape character.

"We're not satisfied with writing letters or sticking our lips out and being petulant," Ramsey says. "We are a force to be reckoned with, and it's mistake to discount that."

In other words, "Farscape" fans say, the Sci-Fi Network doesn't know who the "frell" (the alien equivalant of a certain not-suitable-for-prime-time expletive) it's dealing with.

In Cupertino, Calif., an Apple Computer employee has kept his TV spot in the public eye after its one-time airing by posting it at http://homepage.mac.com/beowulf/iamfarscape/Menu54.html.

In something of a coup, that site merited a mention on the mega-popular Slashdot tech-geek site and, as a result, got a flood of Web traffic and national visibility.

David Simerly, an Apple software-configuration manager, says he modeled his spot on Apple's "Switch" TV spots that show ordinary people who have switched from Windows to Macintosh.

He interviewed 30 "Farscape" fans in San Francisco at an Oct. 5 "Fifth of Farscape" rally, one of many across the country. (Twenty-two of the interviews are posted on his site.)

He then used his Apple iMac and video-editing software to distill the interviews into a 30-second spot. Eight people name their professions federal disaster consultant, mechanical design engineer, psychotherapist and then add "I am Farscape."

The not-so-subtle message, which permeates the Save Farscape campaign: "Farscape" viewers are smart, educated, relatively affluent viewers with, they claim, influence beyond what modest ratings would suggest.

While Simerly is handy with Macs, he had no idea how to place ads with cable networks around the country. Enter Denis Eyman, a logistics coordinator for a Santa Cruz, Calif., food-import firm, who researched the obscure art of getting such spots aired.

"I move huge containers of vegetables across the country," Eyman says. "This was easy by comparison."

The spot ultimately aired once in each of 24 cities in late November and early December.

In Minnesota, the ad was carried not only by AT&T Broadband and Time Warner Cable in the Twin Cities but by Charter Communications, which serves such outstate cities as St. Cloud, Owatonna, Alexandria and Willmar, Eyman says.

So what is it about "Farscape" that has fans so worked up?

While they don't give one answer, they agree the series shines due to its smart writing, eye-popping special effects and well-rounded characters.

"Farscape" chronicles the adventures of astronaut John Crichton, marooned in a strange part of space, who joins an band of aliens aboard a sentient space ship. They are on the run from militaristic "Peacekeepers" while learning about friendship and love, heartbreak and betrayal.

One big draw: the believable relationship between Crichton and his lover, former Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun.

The fans say they feel betrayed, too. They note that the Sci-Fi Network had said it would air a fifth season, only to later exercise an escape clause in its contract with other series backers.

"We're not cattle," Ramsey says. "We can't be treated like trash. We're telling Sci-Fi that there's a cost in burning the good will of its core viewers."

The Sci-Fi Channel wouldn't comment for this article, but says in a statement at www.scifi.com/farscape/faq that "Farscape" had not garnered sufficiently solid ratings to justify its rising production costs.

The network isn't likely to be swayed by fan protests, no matter how ambitious or ingenious, says John Rash, TV expert and director of broadcast negotiations at the Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun advertising agency.

"It is not the ferocity of fandom but rather the breadth of audience that is most important to networks, which are in the business of renting their audience to advertisers for 15 or 30 seconds," Rash says.

Ratings, says Rash, are everything.

The Save Farscape organizers therefore have a last-ditch strategy: To generate enough interest in the series, now in a midseason hiatus, to boost its ratings during the airing of the last new season-four episodes beginning early next year.

The Jim Henson Company, the Muppets-spawned firm that developed "Farscape" with Hallmark Entertainment, offers more bits of hope.

The firm says in a statement that it is mulling a "Farscape" film along with animated programming. It also says it is studying syndication options.

The firm, which created a variety of animatronic "Farscape" characters, including two in the main cast, is "greatly appreciative of the enormous outpouring of support from fans interested in saving the series, as it is a true testament to both the admiration felt for the program and the loyalty of the show's fan base," the statement says.

The Scapers have their detractors.

"I've seen (their) commercial and, if anything, it will convince Sci-Fi that 'Farscape' fans are a bunch of untalented fanboys and girls (who) don't know how to make a commercial," a Slashdot visitor writes. "It's bad."

A newspaper columnist recently referred to them as members of the "Nut Job Community."

All publicity is good publicity, Save Farscape spokeswoman Julie Rayhanabad responds. "I'm willing to let those people make those remarks in order to get the word out," says the Huntington, Calif., clinical-psychology doctoral student.

Rayhanabad's "Farscape"-related e-mails end with a Winston Churchill quote:

"Never give in never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

Reach Julio Ojeda-Zapata at jojeda@pioneerpress.com