Sci Fi unafraid to go big

Network plans to spend $132 mil over next 3 years on programming budget

Among cablers who have taken up the slack in event miniseries, the Sci Fi Channel is a standout.

Cabler averaged 4 million viewers over 10 hours with Steven Spielberg’s $40 million “Taken” last December and has also captured attention with two “Dune” miniseries.

Sci Fi’s future plans are ambitious. The network is doubling its 2002 programming budget, spending $132 million over the next three years. In addition to December’s four-hour reworking of ’70s series “Battlestar Galactica,” Sci Fi also has in the works:

  • Another Spielberg project for 2005;

  • “The Twelve,” an Armageddon-oriented mini-series that same year, developed by Martin Scorsese;

  • An eight-hour project about the Bermuda Triangle from Bryan Singer and Dean Devlin;

  • Adaptations of books by Ursula LeGuin, Kim Stanley Robinson (produced by Gale Anne Hurd), Joe Haldeman and Roger Zelzany;

  • A remake of “The Thing,” written by Gary Goldman (“Minority Report” and “Total Recall”).

This strategy is a good risk although it’s “a serious gamble,” says Mark Stern, Sci Fi’s senior VP of original programming.

Science fiction lends itself to “epic sagas that transport you to another world, and that’s not easily told in 90 minutes,” Stern says. “It takes that long just to understand this whole world then you want to delve into the details.”

Beyond artistic reasons, big projects make sense from a business perspective, Stern explains, opening doors to the Scorseses and Spielbergs, who generally can’t tell such sprawling stories in a feature film.

With “Taken” nominated for miniseries Emmy, Sci Fi now has even greater appeal for top talent, Stern says.

Additionally, these events work ratings wonders.

“Sci Fi is in a unique situation because, except for sports, there are few other arenas that have such devoted fans. They’re almost fanatical,” adds Bill Carroll, Katz Television Group’s VP/director of programming.

And these events attract the media, thus generating sampling among non-fanatics.

“They can broaden their audience without alienating their core viewers,” Carroll says.

Stern says he and his colleagues are constantly monitoring themselves to make sure they have the right balance of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi.

And while the network is aiming to produce an event per quarter, Stern acknowledges that “there’s a real danger in getting hooked on them. You can’t build a network on these rating spikes.”

So Stern says these events are just part of a plan that includes a commitment to building up series programming as well.

“The audience will come for these miniseries but they’re not going to stay unless we make sure we have regular weekly programming too.”

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