Sci Fi Channel Hopes Aliens Will Nab Viewers
FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
November 30, 2002: THE SCI FI CHANNEL, long seen
as a niche cable network for geeks watching "Star Trek" reruns with Spock ears
on, wants to change that perception next week with "Taken," one of the most
ambitious miniseries ever on television.
The 20-hour "Taken," executive-produced by
Steven Spielberg at a cost of $40 million, looks at how alien abductions and government
conspiracies impact three families over four generations. Sci Fi is making a high-risk
bet that the miniseries, which premieres Dec. 2, can carry the network into the
mainstream. And in a gutsy move, the channel is scheduling the 20-hour miniseries to run
over 10 consecutive weeknights.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Sci Fi, like other
cable networks, needs new strategies for growth. Sci Fi used to count on increasing
distribution to bring in additional viewers, but it is on the verge of reaching 80
million homes in the U.S., which is close to maximum distribution in cable and
satellite. While that makes the channel one of the biggest cable outlets around, it also
presents a new set of expensive challenges that many cable networks are reckoning with.
"You used to be able to grow a network by growing
distribution," says Laura Caraccioli, vice president of Publicis Groupe SA's media
buyer Starcom Entertainment. "Now they have to grow the way the broadcast networks
have had to grow their audience -- through compelling programming."
Until recently, a steady diet of old reruns and an
occasional original movie was enough for most cable networks to keep viewers happy. It
was also enough to keep profits up and help cable operators justify the fees they pay
and the bills they charge to subscribers. But as the cable industry matures and channels
reach full distribution, cable operators are under pressure to keep their rates down,
and ratings growth can slow without infusions of new, compelling fare.
"You don't want to be dependent on other peoples'
content," says Michael Jackson, chairman of the Vivendi Universal SA's Universal
Television Group, which is the parent of Sci Fi Channel. "This is a great
opportunity for cable. `The Osbournes' went from an obscure family to a national
phenomenon in six weeks," he says of the MTV program.
Still, Sci-Fi is taking a sizable chance with
"Taken." At $40 million, the cost of the miniseries represents almost 25% of
Sci Fi's total 2002 programming budget of $208 million, according to media consulting
firm Kagan World Media, which also estimates the channel's 2002 ad revenue to be about
$179 million. The channel, which according to Kagan charges cable operators an average
of 13 cents per subscriber per month to carry the network, expects to take in about $120
million this year in subscriber fees. Here's the rub: Getting cable operators to pay
more for programming isn't easy, so Sci Fi has to increase its ad revenue. Hence, the
reason it has increased spending on original programming during the past few years.
USA, TNT, TBS, A&E and other cable channels have
struggled with the same set of circumstances. While the cable industry in general has
made big gains on its broadcast rivals, the general entertainment cable channels have
found themselves looking over their shoulders at the niche networks like TLC and
Discovery Channel, and are finding that original programming is the best bet to remain
competitive. Even ESPN has realized a diet of all-sports-events isn't enough and is
producing original movies.
The gamble in trying to widen one's programming reach
lies in alienating the core audience -- in this case, science fiction fanatics. "It
is going to be a challenge," Starcom Entertainment's Ms. Caraccioli says.
And "Taken" is by no means a slam-dunk for
Sci Fi. While the consecutive weeknight scheduling strategy worked for such landmark
miniseries such as "Roots" and "The Winds of War," it was a
different world then: competition was limited to three networks and cable wasn't a
Now, "Taken" will do battle with scores of
cable channels and big broadcast networks. Audience levels also tend to drop in December
as Christmas approaches and transforms couch potatoes into mall rats. Many networks,
both in the broadcasting and cable universe, have backed away from big-budget
miniseries, figuring that the television universe is too fragmented to command the
attention of viewers for more than a night.
"This is a big risk and we've been aware of it
every single day since we made this decision," says Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer
of the aggressive scheduling move. While there has been some second-guessing, Ms. Hammer
says the network's audience prefers marathon scheduling.
Sci Fi has told advertisers that the miniseries will
average a 3.0 rating, which is considered high and translates to almost 2.4 million
homes watching. Sci Fi also has video and DVD rights to the series, but DreamWorks SKG,
the studio that Mr. Spielberg is partner in, has the international rights.
In making the decision to schedule "Taken"
over two weeks rather than over a couple of months, Ms. Hammer studied the ratings for
HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" and "From the Earth to the Moon,"
which were run weekly rather than daily. While both started strong, ratings tapered off
as the weeks wore on.
Ms. Hammer says that to spread "Taken" out
over several weeks would lessen the impact of the channel's barrage of marketing behind
the miniseries. Sci Fi has spent millions on billboards, posters, print ads, trailers in
movie theaters and even promotions in more than 7,000 Radio Shack stores. (Although some
who have seen the ads think the name of the miniseries is "Token"; A Sci Fi
spokeswoman says, "Call it whatever you want, just tune in.")
While "Taken" took a big chunk of Sci Fi's
programming budget, the network still has several other series in development it hopes
will have appeal beyond its core audience. Among the new shows are a supernatural
version of "Candid Camera" hosted by former "Beverly Hills 90210"
bad girl Shannen Doherty, and a series based on the cult Kevin Bacon movie
"Tremors." Sci Fi also hopes that "Tripping the Rift," an animated
show about the crew of a smuggling vessel called The Free Enterprise making its way
through the galaxy, will become its version of "South Park," the long-running
hit cartoon on Comedy Central.
But keeping the Sci Fi faithful happy is no easy task.
Some of the channel's audience has taken to the Internet to blast the canceling of
"Farscape," a series about an astronaut stuck on the far side of the universe
with a bunch of renegades. There have also been complaints about Sci Fi Channel running
movies such as "Field of Dreams" and "Cape Fear" that seem to have
little in common with science fiction fare.
Ms. Hammer defends these moves, saying the channel
needs to be a "bit more accessible." While she doesn't want to ignore the
channel's core following, she also knows this audience isn't enough to sustain growth.
"We're experimenting and trying to target different audiences," she says,
adding that the network has to be brought "a little more back to earth."