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 factor.

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."

 

 


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