Sci-Fi explores new worlds
Channel's attempt to widen its audience pays off
B. Wilkerson, CBS.MarketWatch.com
However, while this kind of narrowly focused passion might seem ideal for a cable network like Sci-Fi Channel, it isn't enough in today's 300-channel marketplace, says Sci-Fi President Bonnie Hammer.
The 11-year-old Sci-Fi Channel, sold last year to Vivendi Universal by Barry Diller's USA Interactive, has worked hard for some time to expand its audience, adding an increasing number of original series, miniseries and movies to its familiar lineup of "Star Trek," "Dark Shadows" and "The Twilight Zone" reruns.
In the past several months, miniseries like Steven Spielberg's "Taken" have significantly boosted the network's profile among people who don't fit the traditional definition of sci-fi fan, thereby raising its profile among advertisers.
But the ratings growth has come at the cost of some goodwill. Take a trip to some of the Internet's well-traveled message boards, like the Usenet's alt.tv.scifi.channel, and it won't be long before you encounter a thread about the network's latest betrayal of its fan base.
Sci-Fi has conducted extensive research in recent years to figure out what the "modern" lover of the genre might be, Hammer said.
'Sci-philes,' 'escapists' and 'young Marvels'
"It's a very different audience from the audience that grew up on sci-fi," Hammer said. "The old sci-fi [fans] lived sci-fi literature. They loved technology; they loved to ruminate about the future. Today's generation really doesn't care about that. New technology is another day in the office."
Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group, says Sci-Fi is doing the only thing that makes sense. "I think in the current environment, with all of the competition that's out there, you really have to find ways to advance and maintain the core audience, but you also have to find ways to attract other people who might not either know you exist, or who are not normal viewers of what you do," he said.
Hammer says Sci-Fi Channel's research has identified three distinct subgroups that make up the genre's latter-day fan base.
One is the die-hard, traditional viewer who might love the original "Star Trek" and its spinoffs, "Space: 1999," "Logan's Run," etc. Hammer calls this group "sci-philes."
Another set of viewers, which Hammer calls "escapists," is predominantly female. These are fans "who love good soap operas, who love great character development, great storytelling, but with a twist," she said. The escapists are helping to boost the box office proceeds of "The Matrix Reloaded" right now, and also enjoyed "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" film series.
The third group is a young male audience that likes stories about superheroes. Hammer refers to them as the "young Marvels." "Spider-Man" and the two "X-Men" movies have large appeal for this crowd.
'Taken' vindicates direction
In December 2000, Sci-Fi Channel premiered "Frank Herbert's Dune," a 6-hour miniseries based on the 1965 novel about the political machinations of several factions vying for control of a sand-filled planet. "Dune," airing over three nights, garnered an average rating of 4.4 in cable households, according to Nielsen Media Research. That was a record for the channel at the time, and was among the top 10 original miniseries on all of cable in the previous five years.
Bolstered by "Dune's" success, Hammer led the Sci-Fi Channel toward more longform programming development, and that culminated this past December with the ambitious 10-night, 20-hour miniseries "Taken," produced by Steven Spielberg.
Sci-Fi took a big risk with "Taken," the saga of three families affected by alien abductions over the course of four generations, by featuring wall-to-wall coverage of the show for 10 primetime nights. After its initial 9-11 p.m. showing, the same episode would be repeated at 11, and then one more time at 7 p.m. the following night.
"Taken" could boast of no major stars in its cast. Heather Donahue, best known for her role in "The Blair Witch Project," and Matt Frewer, who is still primarily recognized as the computerized, shades-wearing "Max Headroom" in that '80s TV series, were perhaps the most familiar faces.
Because it was going out so far on a limb with "Taken," Sci-Fi felt it had to "maximize that moment," Hammer said.
"We ... knew that we wanted to change our branding, our look, our logo, our on-air IDs, our off-channel voice, [and] we did that inside of 'Taken.' So we got a fair amount of noise, not only on 'Taken,' but on our new marketing," she said. The new look was aimed squarely at the new audiences the channel's research had identified.
If viewers tired of the miniseries, it never showed. "Taken" got an average 4.1 rating, equivalent to 3.26 million viewers each night, making Sci-Fi the top cable network during its two-week run.
"Taken" pulled in a lot of young female escapists, Hammer said, who have since propelled the channel to unprecedented growth.
In the first quarter of this year, Sci-Fi's total viewers rose 36 percent compared to the same quarter in 2002. Part of the advance was fueled by two more miniseries: "Frank Herbert's Children of Dune," featuring Susan Sarandon, and "Riverworld." It was the network's fourth straight quarter of growth in primetime.
In the past year, Sci-Fi has picked up several major new advertisers, including names like AT&T, BMW, Gateway, Verizon, Hewlett-Packard, Panasonic and Cingular.
This year, during meetings with potential advertisers for the 2003-04 season, Hammer has noticed a different reaction than in years past. "They are so interested in Sci-Fi now, where a year or two years ago, it was, 'Oh well -- there's Sci-Fi. Where's USA [Network]?' Now all of a sudden, Sci-Fi's the story. We're the plum."
"I think we have grown the channel to a point that people are aware of what we do, and what we do is quality, that we're not just the old rerun channel, that we're not put together by Band-aids, that in fact we have a strategy behind what we do," Hammer said.
While a number of shows have come and gone from the schedule during Sci-Fi's transition, no cancellation sparked more of an outcry than that of its longest-running original series, "Farscape."
The Jim Henson Company, best known for the Muppets, produced "Farscape," which premiered in 1999. Ben Browder starred as an astronaut who, in the pilot episode, finds himself in the middle of a battle between escaped alien prisoners and the law enforcers who are trying to capture them. The astronaut's sometimes uneasy alliances with the fugitives and the various maneuverings of the pursuers play themselves out in highly complex, serialized plots. The show's high production values, thoughtful scripts and memorable characters earned it an ardent, passionate following.
But last fall, during the show's fourth season, Sci-Fi decided that the show's ratings -- consistently at the 1.1 or 1.2 level -- weren't high enough to justify the cost of bringing it back for a fifth season.
The network negotiated until "the 11th hour," Hammer said, with the Henson Company and "Farscape" executive producer David Kemper to make a deal that would have brought the show back for 13 more episodes. But the talks broke down.
Fans of the show were livid, and they deluged Hammer and Sci-Fi with letters, e-mails and other messages asking for a renewal.
A highly sophisticated Web site chronicles the progress of the "Save Farscape" campaign.
Ultimately, the show strayed too far from the kind of accessible fare that could appeal to the escapists or the young Marvels, Hammer explained.
"Our entire team loved, loved, loved the series. It helped launch us into the original fiction world," she said. "But it became too 'in.' Even the fans started turning away because it became too hard to understand. It was brilliantly written, for the most part, it was amazingly well produced, but it became such an in-joke, if you will, that people couldn't follow it any more."
When Sci-Fi has been able to achieve an ideal balance, it has been with shows like "Stargate SG-1." "Stargate," based on the 1994 film starring Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson, premiered on the Showtime premium cable network in 1997. In 2001 Sci-Fi picked it up for its sixth season, producing 22 new episodes that premiered in June of last year.
The program stars former "MacGyver" star Richard Dean Anderson as the leader of a U.S. Air Force team that travels throughout the galaxy through the use of ancient portals called stargates. It has strong appeal to both traditional fans of the genre and escapists. "What works for 'Stargate' is that it's good character development," Hammer said. "I think people come because it's Richard Dean Anderson, but they stay because they're emotional stories. ... And it's not so serialized that viewers can't still watch it, even if they don't watch it every week." The show's seventh season begins June 13.
The network is hoping for another hit with an update of "Battlestar Galactica," a rethinking of the 1978-80 ABC series that starred Lorne Greene, Anne Lockhart and Dirk Benedict. Sci-Fi's version stars James Edward Olmos in the Greene role of Commander Adama, and is slated to air in December. "When we tested the segmentation study, every single group ... all said that they were interested in it," Hammer said. "They'd love to see it reinvented, reimagined.
"I think we are going to knock this one out of the ballpark."
'We are curious about what's going to happen'
Hammer says Vivendi's possible sale of its U.S. entertainment assets -- including Sci-Fi and sister channel USA Network -- hasn't had an effect on Sci-Fi's budgetary considerations or any other aspect of its operations. "Our budgets for this year and next year have already been locked, have already developed. We already have our whole schedule kind of locked in for '04."
Sci-Fi staffers aren't exactly oblivious to what's going on. "I can tell you we are curious about what's going to happen," Hammer said. But she readily puts the most positive interpretation on the situation.
"I've been here a long time. I was with USA [Networks] when Kay Koplovitz was running the place; I've weathered multiple changes in regimes. So for me, change is almost the norm now. And you learn. With each change, oddly enough, it's been good for us. We've gotten to another plateau, people have put more money into the channel, have helped to grow us ...
"In some ways, I look forward to it, because it's just going to keep everybody thinking and wondering and challenged, to the point where it's a new group that we have to prove ourselves to."David B. Wilkerson is a reporter for CBS.MarketWatch.com in San Francisco.
Where do the diehards go?
B. Wilkerson, CBS.MarketWatch.com
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS.MW) -- Perhaps 10 years ago, the great promise of the hundreds-of-channels cable and satellite universe was that there would be a niche for everyone.
It has turned out, however, that cable networks like the Sci-Fi Channel, AMC, MTV, ESPN Classic and others are fighting to diversify their core audiences amid increased competition. And that has meant that some of the original fans of those channels, who came to them for very specific reasons, inevitably feel disenfranchised. The question becomes: Where do those disenchanted fans go? Do they have any options?
"We're in a transitional time. Because digital cable and video on demand are, to a certain extent, in their infancy," said Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group in New York. "At the point where digital and on-demand are more commonplace, I think that's when you're going to see very specific kinds of programming.
"But right now, in an advertiser-supported environment, where there is a certain amount of revenue coming from the subscriber base, but also the real potential profitability comes from the advertising, it's how many people you bring into the tent," he said.
Of course, narrowly defined channels do remain. Soap opera fans have SoapNet; cartoon lovers have Cartoon Network; there's the Golf Channel, Game Show Network, the Food Network and others.
The StarzEncore premium service (owned by John Malone's Liberty Media has channels devoted to westerns, mysteries, love stories, action films and other genres, but it has the luxury of not having to concern itself with advertising.
None of the specialized ad-supported channels is immune from the need to expand to some degree. If they can't, they will fade away. If they're successful, they will usually have to present programs that are further away from the core definition of the genre than those aired initially.
Or, the channel will set aside shows very popular with one demographic -- especially those that skew older -- in favor of shows that appeal to viewers perceived as more advertiser-friendly.
For example, TV Land, Viacom's offshoot of its Nick-at-Nite franchise, formerly aired a number of drama reruns in primetime, to provide a contrast with Nick-at-Nite, which was running sitcoms. "Mannix," "Kojak," "Gunsmoke" and other hour-long dramas were seen between 8 and 11 p.m.
Now, TV Land shows mostly sitcoms in primetime, and separates itself from Nick-at-Nite by focusing on sitcoms of the '50s, '60s and '70s, while Nick-at-Nite airs more recent comedies. (Viacom is a significant shareholder in MarketWatch.com, the publisher of this report.)
In the wake of that change, fans of older crime dramas don't have too many options until they can order episodes as part of a video-on-demand package. It will probably be a subscription service, because that model allows viewers to pay one monthly fee for unlimited ordering of the shows they want to see, as opposed to the more expensive and cumbersome pay-per-view paradigm.
Still, that kind of ubiquitous video on demand is still several years away; most cable subscribers still don't even have digital cable, which is the first prerequisite to any advanced service.
So in the meantime, the best bets for these viewers are probably personal video recorders and DVD sales or rentals.
With a PVR, viewers can scan the entire cable lineup and record just the shows they want to see, from whatever channel, quite easily, with no videocassettes or time-consuming clock-based programming to worry about.
In the DVD arena, an increasing number of television series are making it to the format, sometimes in deluxe sets covering an entire season. For fans of science fiction, "The Outer Limits -- The Original Series: Season One," the first two seasons of "Farscape," "The Twilight Zone," "Babylon 5" and much more are available.
Older TV crime dramas are harder to find: "Naked City," "Baretta: Season One," and "Charlie's Angels: The Complete First Season" are among your choices here.
The bottom line, however, with DVDs, VOD, or ad-supported cable, is that people who like this stuff have to put their money where their mouths are. No studio or cable network is going to spend money to make niche programming available over the long haul if there aren't enough people to support the product.
This might sound like a contradiction, but studios are realistic enough to see that the sales targets they should set for a "Baretta" DVD collection should be significantly lower than the sales goals for a "Friends" package. But if lovers of niche shows don't even fulfill the studio's diminished expectations, they will be more inclined to stick with safer options.
David B. Wilkerson is a reporter for
CBS.MarketWatch.com in San Francisco.