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The SCIFI Channel Talks SYFY

And the future for the network.

By Stephen Lackey     March 27, 2009


The SCIFI Channel’s big announcement of its rebranding has been an extremely controversial decision in the eyes of fans of the network. The timing felt wrong  as the announcement came as the network’s most successful science fiction series, Battlestar Galactica, comes to an end. Was the finale of BSG the last hoorah for science fiction fans that actually appreciate having a network dedicated to the genre they love? Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, the network is changing and will be expanding its programming but at the same time there are several big science fiction shows launching on the network so there will still be plenty for fans to sink their teeth in to. The question is; what does the future truly hold for the network? I was invited to sit in on conference call and ask the tough questions of SCIFI Channel president Dave Howe:
In previous interactions with Dave Howe, I’ve found him to be an open and honest person and right away he says that this interview session should be “no holds barred”. The first obvious thing everyone on the call wanted to know was why the name and how did it come about. Howe also commented just a bit on how the new name is so closely related to another popular website, SYFY Portal. “…we’ve been doing - we’ve been actively working on this brand evolution for the last two years. And we’ve explored a lot of name options. And I think at the point at which there are any short list of names the first thing we do obviously is look at the URLs and look at whether any of the names are trademark protectable. And I think once we looked at alternative names and we also looked at whether there was a way of taking ownership of our existing name through, you know, an addition of extra letters or changing the order of the letters I think once we settled on Syfy it became apparent to us that, you know, the Syfy Portal existed. And, you know, we haven’t, you know, we haven’t not commented on that directly. And that’s a point of fact that Syfy Portal is now (off our analog).”
“I think the honest answer to that actually is that we didn’t come up with a name that we liked any better than what we’ve gone with which was Syfy. Naming is an incredibly tough exercise. And, you know, I’ve been at SciFi for eight years, I’ve been in the TV business, you know, a marketing head for about 20 years. And trust me, the hardest and toughest thing to ever get to is a name that everybody likes; it’s incredibly subjective. It’s never going to solve all of life’s problems for you. There will always be things that it does communicate, things that it doesn’t communicate. But at the end of the day, you know, as you rightly said, people watch content, people watch shows. And, you know, they’re not going to be drawn to something or alienated from something necessarily just because of the name. So, you know, we didn’t come up with a name - a short listed name that we liked. And just to your point about Syfy Portal, the other thing actually which I forgot - the other point which I forgot to make is we were able to secure before we even entered into a conversation with Syfy Portal. So although, you know, that name was taken in relation to Syfy Portal, was available and we secured that and very early on this process.”
In the early days of the SCIFI Channel, Isaac Asimov, a science fiction maven gave his approval to the name of the network. Howe discusses whether Asimov would approve this change in the name: “…
“I think what we want to do is move to a position where we can earn, you know the broad sci-fi fantasy landscape and include in there fantasy and paranormal and supernatural and super hero and, you know, some of those speculative action and adventure. I think that’s absolutely the object of this exercise so it’s about how do we embrace the broader sci-fi fantasy landscape as opposed to how do we escape from our past? That isn’t the object of this exercise.”
“…if you look at - if you look at the range and diversity of our programming on air, you know, we still have Star Trek on air, we have still have Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Atlantis, soon to become Stargate Universe.”
“But alongside that there’s Eureka, you know, we’re launching Warehouse 13, somebody earlier mentioned Chase, Estate of Panic, you know, Who Wants to be a Superhero. You know, we have a very broad range of content and the challenge that we have is if you talk to consumers who don’t watch our channel the expectation and the anticipation around when they do surf up the dials to SciFi is that all they’ll find there is Star Trek.”
“And clearly that isn’t something from a branding perspective and from a future perspective that enables us to do what we want to do which is becoming inclusive and bring more people in who we know will enjoy a broader range of shows and hopefully we can kind of cross sell and cross promote and cross convert to other shows once they come to us.”
“But the challenge for us is if they don’t think that space opera is for them then they’re not going to come.”
Next ,Howe quite defensively discusses all of the negativity online regarding the name change. He makes the obvious comment that people just hate change but he uses a valid reference:
“Yes, we are tracking it. And, you know, we’re reading all of the message boards and Twitter and we’ve got people basically monitoring it all. And, you know, I get like a summary of what people are saying. And I’m not, you know, I’m not surprised at all by the comments that we’re hearing. I mean I think the, you know, the points I would make is that none of us particularly like change; none of us like the idea of a new name.”
“I mean a lot of new names out there were not particularly well received when they were announced. I mean, Nintendo Wii was not exactly great and Tivo and all the rest of those names. I think the reason that we wanted to do this conference call today is because the thing that - the thing that I want to say directly and I think I want to really reinforce and really emphasize and the thing that disturbs me most about some of the comments, but if I’m honest didn’t really surprise me, is that this is not about abandoning our past, this is not about alienating our existing core viewers because frankly, you know, we are still the sci-fi fantasy channel and we’ll continue to be so.”
“And this is absolutely about embracing our heritage and embracing our future and figuring out how we can bring even more people into the camp. And, you know, the, you know, the thing that I think disturbs us most was people, you know, as we expected saying well this is just another, you know, opportunity to put more (ECW) on our air or this is another opportunity to do even more reality.”
“That isn’t true. And, you know, recent announcements, you know, we picked up Caprica, we’re bringing in Caprica and it’ll launch in the New Year. We picked up Stargate Universe, you know, the next exciting chapter of, you know, the longest running space opera I think in, you know, TV history.”
“You know, this isn’t about, you know, retrenching, this is about absolutely embracing the totality of not just our core audience but actually a new audience in the future.”
“And actually the other point I would make is when we - which was actually very entertaining is when - of course when we announced that we were reimagining Battlestar Galactica that was not expected (greeted) with delight by the fans. And, you know, we get that.”
“I think what it does do and actually in all that testing we were sort of surprised and actually it confirmed what we wanted to do here just this new name makes more sense of our existing range of programming. It makes more sense if you put this brand on a Ghost Hunters or a Destination Truth or Eureka because it doesn’t - because it doesn’t scream so loudly the science fiction genre it makes more sense for me, you know, a program range perspective.”
“So we were very excited to hear that. So, you know, we do think it sort of gives us, you know, the best of both worlds. It gives us - it keeps our heritage and it enables us to broaden and become more inclusive and create a sense that this is a unique brand name that you can expect a broader range of, you know, what we’re calling imagination-based entertainment which is going to be everything from, you know, Caprica and Stargate Universe to Warehouse 13 to Eureka, you know, to the kind of broad fun human relatable aspect of the genre that, you know, we really want to embrace.”
The process, having taken over two years seems to have been fairly arduous. Howe shares some of the thought and process that went behind picking SyFy as the new brand:
“… we did think maybe we’ll do this at Comic-Con actually with a fun panel. We might share the short list of names. I mean I think the conversation that we’re having today and the, you know, the feeding frenzy in the chat rooms and online etcetera would probably be considerably greater if we changed the name completely if I’m honest.”
“But naming is incredibly difficult. And, you know, if you think of, you know, if you look at brands that launch now on the whole new brands have to have a name which is completely made up so it will be a word that you’ve never seen before.”
“You know, you see this particularly, you know, with drugs, you look at a name like, you know, Celebrex or Viagra or Cialis, any of these drugs you have to invent a word that doesn’t exist and you have to do that because clearly it’s incredibly critical for you to secure the URL.”
“So any real word is going to be completely ruled out from the trademark perspective not just in the US but probably anywhere in the world and from a URL perspective. So straight away you’re confined by having to invent a word.”
“So that’s the first challenge and then once you’ve invented a bunch of words, you know, what you have to look at is the pros and cons of that word. So, you know, the word may communicate something which you think is good but then it may communicate something which is kind of less good or is misleading or takes you in a direction that you don’t want to go in or ultimately takes you back to where you were.”
“And in lots of respects some of the short listed names that we came up with actually didn’t really move us any further forward than where we are now with Syfy.”
“And, you know, there’s something which - there’s something about the letter form in particular that we believe and we’ve had this confirmed in our testing makes the logo very accessible and relatable, the symmetry of it, the letter forms of the two Ys together with the S and F which are very rounded.”
“We actually see that yes there is a word; yes you could argue it’s a misspelled SciFi but actually it’s a new word. It’s a new word and actually it’s a logo in itself. Part of the exercise that we went through is we wanted obviously to let go of the Saturn logo but actually to do that we needed to have a letter form which in and of itself from a design perspective was unique and brandable and trademark ownable.”
“I think the - it’s a word that no one’s seen before. I think, you know, smart people who know sci-fi get it; people who don’t just look at it and think actually it’s kind of interesting, it’s cool and contemporary. You know, a lot of people in the testing kind of said well if I was going to text sci-fi that’s how I’d spell it.”
“So it delivers quite a lot of things that, you know, we like and we think will be, you know, quite powerful in the future. Just actually to give you an example of a name that actually we did test and I can tell you what this name is because this was a name that is not trademarkable and there’s no way we would have got the URL or even been able to trademark it I think in any territory and that’s a name - the other name that we put into testing was Beyond.”
“So I think we tested three things: We tested - initially and this has been going on for maybe a year we tested SFC, which is the obvious contraction from SciFi Channel which has been knocking around for probably 10 years. And that’s what a lot of other networks have done, TNN, TNT, CNN; all of those are contractions - TLC - all of those are contractions of longer names. We tested that.”
“We tested where we are now. We tested Syfy and we tested Beyond. And what was interesting about Beyond is to the point I was making earlier, it solved some of the problems; it doesn’t solve all of them. So Beyond did create a sense of well it’s about the future, it’s about something which is, you know, far and away beyond me and over my head. And maybe not something that I could relate to that, you know, connected with my life as it is now.”
“So you can, you know, just in that example alone you can see some of the complexities and some of the challenges of any naming exercise which is why, you know, having a made up name which Syfy is, is more open and enables you to kind of give it the perceptions and the kind of values that you want it to have as opposed to a real word that comes with its own, you know, set of expectations based on the meaning of that word.”
As far as future expansion of the network the obvious direction, due to the success of sites like Hulu, is to begin crafting more product for the internet. Dave discusses a bit of their web strategy:
“…when the economics are there we really do want to embrace Webisodes. I mean we’ve done two rounds of Battlestar, I think we did some early Eureka - three rounds of Battlestar - somebody is holding up three fingers at me.”
“This is absolutely something we want to do more of. And I think as we figure out how to monetize our digital sites and figure out how to produce scripted shows in particular because as you can imagine, you know, they’re extremely expensive to produce this kind of stuff. That’s something that we absolutely want to do more of.”
The network is even looking into doing some completely original web show: “…we have under (Craig Engler) we have a bunch of TV series in development so (Craig) works very closely with (Mark Stern) who runs our on air development team over in LA. And yes every - literally every single pitch that comes in we work on. Sometimes we take TV pitches and actually have kind of moved them over to the digital development team because we think actually they might be a better place to start to kind of germinate the idea online and then cross over to (either) back to TV.”
“But I think, you know, the - what we want to get to in the future and that’s part of this rebrand is how do we become more platform-agnostic because to us, you know, the TV screen is clearly important but, you know, in this day and age a screen is a screen is a screen. And I think certainly with convergence and, you know, with the fact that you can watch TV series on Xbox and Playstation and all the rest of it the notion of a TV show is somewhat anachronistic.”
“I think, you know, we need to get to a point where we create things - stories and characters and intellectual property that can start on any platform and migrate to another.”
Last year, the network announced that they were working with a gaming company to launch a television series simultaneously with an MMORPG. The game would influence the show and vice versa so subscribers to the game might actually have some influence on the TV series. This sounded like it could be the ultimate in interactive TV or something that could completely implode. Either way, I was excited for the show, then everything went quiet. Dave actually offers some updates on this project. He says they are looking at a launch window of late 2010 or 2011.
“We’ve hired a writer. We’re getting dangerously close to announcing a title. And they’re at the script development stage in terms of the TV pilot.”
“So I think within two, three months we’ll announce some pretty exciting stuff about, you know, the setting and some of the characters. But obviously the game - and you will know this, you know, MMOG games are incredibly deep and incredibly expansive.”
“So, you know, they need to start work on it, you know, two, three years out in order to create that sort of incredibly rich world. And that’s kind of what they’ve been working on. So alongside that, you know, we have to kind of figure out how to create some of the core elements of that game and turn them into a TV series. So it’s a - no one’s really attempted this before so it’s really quite exciting watching it unfold.”
So, there you have it, straightforward and open as always Dave Howe is working hard to try and sell this new brand to everyone, hardcore fans and mainstream viewers alike. This conversation reveals that he network does still plan to do offbeat and science fiction related programming. As long as we get something like Eureka rather than another Law and Order or CSI, it’s hard to complain. Maybe this rebranding means some horror shows and fantasy shows will appear on the network. If so, that’s a good thing. I honestly always wondered why Legend of the Seeker didn’t end up on SCIFI. Now, with this rebranding maybe it could. The scariest part of all of this is the increase in reality shows. Those kinds of series are cheap to make and generally do well with the mainstream audience, the new viewers that the network is hoping to get. In the end if you have three or four shows on the network that you like such as Stargate, Eureka, Sanctuary, and possibly one of the new series and those shows get paid for by some reality programming is that such a bad thing? Only time will tell. It all starts July 7th when the new branding takes over the network.


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hanso 3/27/2009 6:20:58 AM


Just make Caprica good and everything will be alright.


Gargoyle 3/27/2009 6:57:45 AM

sighfigh, psiphi, or maybe PsighPhigh

LittleNell1824 3/27/2009 7:01:30 AM

"...this is not about abandoning our past, this is not about alienating our existing core viewers because frankly, you know, we are still the sci-fi fantasy channel and we’ll continue to be so...'

..."And, you know, the, you know, the thing that I think disturbs us most was people, you know, as we expected saying well this is just another, you know, opportunity to put more (ECW) on our air or this is another opportunity to do even more reality..."

Well, you know, it's not about hating change, it's about worrying that the name change is really about marginalizing the sci-fantasy aspect of the channel. I mean MTV still has music videos, right? So we have not right to object.. He sounded really corporate to me, like the apologist VP who comes out and says "..I don't know why you can't get excited about the new merger. All I hear is concerns about layoffs and pension cut-offs. This is just about "hating change" which is what we have to put up with from lower level slobs like you all. Now shut up and let me enjoy my massive bonus because in three weeks when half of you lose your jobs, I might have a restless night or two."

I mean, come on... I'm glad he's monitoring responses, but having concerns doesn't mean we hate change or are anti-progress. And Stephen, I really don't think the name was keeping Sci-Fi from picking up The Seeker. If the name isn't keeping them from putting on the ECW, then it's not keeping them selecting shows in the fantasy genre.

And, I say this as a fan of the channel. They do some really quality shows, and if the some of the crap helps them fund the good scripted shows, then keep it coming.

Myrdinn 3/27/2009 7:09:59 AM

I was a fan of Sci-Fi. And, normally, I have powers of communication equal to all thoughts that I can muster, from philosophy to the theory of fusion reactor technology.

However, this interview has resulted in my discourse to be limited by a field of rage red vision. I do not hate change, I embrace it. However, I'm afraid I cannot embrace "Syfy" anymore than I embrace ECW. Indeed, I believe I shall boycott the channel; including not purchasing whatever special edition Galactica that comes out on DVD and Blueray... I don't think I will be able to stand seeing "Syfy" on the cover.

I believe LittleNell has hit the issue directly on the head of the nail as to the exact reasons why this field of red occludes my vision.

jedi4sshield 3/27/2009 7:13:51 AM

I saw a few trailers of Caprica. Looks boring as hell. No Cyclons no battles, drama drama drama, looks like any other soap opera except its in the BSG Universe. Sigh. Why bother?

hanso 3/27/2009 7:27:15 AM

Come on give Syfy channel a chance.  Maybe they will strike gold like VH1 did with I Love New York.  I defy anyone to not watch that and laugh at the hilarity that ensues.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a SYFY version of Midget Mac!  That guy was awesome, he would speak english but since no one could understand what he was saying, VH1 had to subtitle him. LOL.

Imagine that but on SYFY.  I know I'd tune in.

Mataa 3/27/2009 9:01:31 AM

 You know, the President of a broadcasting should, you know, have better speaking skills. You know, I could only imagine how, you know, he would be speaking at his, you know, board meetings to discuss such epic changes like, you know, the brand. You know?

NO! I don't know already, that's why you are being asked the questions! 

I had to stop reading after he said "you know" the 5th or 6th time in the first paragraph.  If that's the type of person running things, such high intellect properties like Cops and Cheaters can't be far behind.

Wiseguy 3/27/2009 9:37:36 AM

I couldn't care less what name they went with and I don't see the big deal. The only important thing is the programming, get that right and eff all else.

fft5305 3/27/2009 9:53:02 AM

I am not thoroughly opposed to change, but this reeks of change simply for the sake of change. Granted, I got bored and skimmed through half of the interview, because he didn't seem to be addressing the actual issue, but it didn't seem like there was an actual reason for changing the name of the channel.  Why not leave it as SciFi?  I don't think that name limits anything in terms of being a channel of exclusively space shows or anything.  Many channels have a primary focus, yet expand beyond that with other programming, but keep their name that is connected to the primary. I don't see why they couldn't have done that.  MTV is a poor example, but think of the early days of expanded programming on MTV.  They could have changed their name to Youth TV or something, but they didn't. Nowadays, they hardly play music, if at all, but they are still MTV. Lifetime is "Television for Women," at least in theory. But they play many movies and TV show reruns that appeal to a much wider audience. It's not like it's Oprah and Hallmark romance movies 24/7. You get my point. I just think SyFy is a dumb name. If they had to change for the sake of changing, Beyond actually wouldn't have been bad. Actually, I would accept SyFy if it meant Dresden Files was back on the air. Alas...

swisshammer 3/27/2009 11:53:06 AM

“And, you know, there’s something which - there’s something about the letter form in particular that we believe and we’ve had this confirmed in our testing makes the logo very accessible and relatable, the symmetry of it, the letter forms of the two Ys together with the S and F which are very rounded.”


This is why I hate corporate America.

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