Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sci Fi Channel and the Death of Science Fiction TV

Bye bye Sci Fi.

If you haven't heard, Sci Fi Channel has announced that they're changing their name to SyFy Channel in an attempt to broaden their audience. What we have to remember however, is this is about dollars, not geeks.

“We spent a lot of time in the ’90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called Sci Fi,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.

Looking passed the fact that "sci-fi" and "science fiction" are synonyms in the vernacular (as much as Harlan Ellison hates it), this statement still doesn't quite jive with reality. Sci Fi Channel started in 1992 under an advisory board including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, author Isaac Asimov and if my memory of the comic book ads is correct, actor Leonard Nimoy. A joint venture of Paramount Pictures, USA Networks, and Universal Pictures, the whole point of the channel was to rerun old science fiction shows and movies of which the studios had many. It was to be a celebration of science fiction although, I personally didn't know if there was enough applicable programming to support an entire channel. These days, you can catch an episode or series online or on DVD, but in those days, if you missed a show, it was possible that you'd never see it again. So at the time, the chance to see Twilight Zone, original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was pretty darn cool. Unfortunately, we didn't get the channel at the time and I was relegated to reading about it in Wizard Magazine. Brooks' claim that they were trying to distance themselves doesn't seem to ring true until the 21st Century. Until that time they did run a lot of horror, but I still caught Star Trek, Space Above and Beyond and Babylon 5 through the turn of the century. Prime time on Friday nights (oft called SciFridays) was their most advertised lineup and has contained much of their original programming like Farscape, Stargate SG-1/Atlantis, Battlestar Galactica, Andromeda and The Secret Adventures Of Jules Verne plus, Dr Who (BBC). Sounds pretty science fictiony to me. Even some of their largest ventures were two massive Dune mini-series. Still, direct-to-video quality horror movies, paranormal programs like John Edwards and Ghost Hunters and reality shows were creeping in around 2000. And meanwhile, science fiction was disappearing from American networks.

It seems that network execs were increasingly interested in getting rid of expensive science fiction shows and wanted to replace them with cheaper contemporary police procedurals and reality shows. Perhaps what happened was the existence of a science fiction channel finally gave them an out. Why produce sci-fi when folks can just tune to the science fiction channel? Whether that's the case or not, Threshold and Invasion in 2005 were among the last of their kind until Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (FOX) in 2008. Lost is not sci-fi and Smallville and Heroes are attempts to exploit the popularity of super heroes while boiling off enough to attempt a broader appeal. What I don't understand is if Sci Fi is the de facto place to find science fiction, why is NBC changing it into typical 'whatever' channel? After being purchased by NBC, Sci Fi quickly became its dumping ground. Lost, Threshold, Heroes; all reruns from the larger network. For Sci Fi, I think fans agree that ECW Professional Wrestling was the first solid sign that the channel was ending and that American science fiction television is dying.

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“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” Brooks said.

What we have to remember though is it's all about the money. What Sci Fi is trying to combat is the perception they think advertisers hold-- their audience is limited to some kind of male geek fringe. If they can change that perception and appear to be broadening their audience, then more advertisers will be willing to spend their dollars at SyFy. However, if the advertisers have ever been to a modern pop culture convention like Dragon*Con or SDCC, they know who their core audience is. They would know that many of them are actually social and attractive females who enjoy dressing up as their favorite Battlestar and Stargate characters. They'd also know that panels of creators and stars attract tens of thousands and fill large halls. These "geeks" enjoy this stuff that much and spend a lot to get it.

So, this is why you got a weird feeling when NBC bought Sci Fi. Deep down, you knew that what you sensed was happening was about to accelerate. Science fiction and fantasy are the most expensive shows to produce because the further a concept gets from contemporary times, the more money has to be spent on development, sets, costumes and special effects. And unfortunately, right now profit rules. Whether it's a film or television show, profit potential has to be exceedingly high and then keep growing. TV series are put under amazing pressure to show profits in short order or they're canceled. Some of the most popular shows ever like Cheers, took a few seasons to find their audience. These days, it seems shows are lucky to get a full season. This is part of a far greater problem of how the system has mutated. Marketers have made the only important line in a show or movie the bottom line. This cannot be allowed to persist or we will be doomed to watch the same stories and actors over and over as evidenced by the non-stop release of remakes, sequels and TV show adaptations. That, my friends, is one of the signs of a failing society. The importance of art to society is incredible as well as incredibly devalued by the current cultural climate. If Sci Fi is willing to spit on its core audience to gain market share, what does that say? At this point, I have no idea why Stargate: Universe is going into production. Not only is the franchise getting tired (similar to Star Trek post Next Generation), but it will be pretty lonely. Battlestar is ending, Stargate: Atlantis has been canceled as has Sarah Connor Chronicles. Are Sanctuary and Joss Whedon's Dollhouse (FOX) the last bastions of hope?

What can't be denied is science fiction is an essential component to our continued progression as humans. Be it in understanding humanity, in racial, sexual and religious tolerance or in relating to technology, science fiction's effect is indelible and must be continued. All I can say to geeks and non-geeks alike is let your opinion be known. If you love science fiction and want to it continue, let the marketers and advertisers know it. And if you think art is worth more than money, let them know that, too!

I was inspired to write this by a great post on

Ben Alpi is a geek who enjoys watching science fiction and playing video games, but is *ahem* fully functional and has never lived in a basement.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like there is an opportunity for someone to fill this market with a new Science Fiction only channel.

Compete with Sy Fy directly.

Martin Todd said...

Loved reading tthis thanks