Cable net gets real in bid to boost young auds

“The Sci Fi Channel wasn’t on anybody’s radar a few years ago. But just look at us now.”

With those words, Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi and the USA Network, opened the festivities of the annual Sci Fi upfront at New York’s Morgan Library last week. She couldn’t wait to turn the dais over to Sci Fi president David Howe (who reports to Hammer), and he proceeded to run through a lineup of shows aimed at keeping the network’s average aud of 1.2-million primetime viewers tuned in for another season.

There was certainly plenty of good news at the upfront. Sci Fi’s total-viewer primetime ratings rose by 6% in calendar 2007, and the network is a regular top-20 — and often top-15 — finisher among cable networks. Its cash flow last year was $210 million, a margin 4.5% higher than the industry average, according to SNL Kagan. And Sci Fi derived more of those profits from advertising than most of its rivals.

But in a conversation the day after the upfront, Howe remembered when things were not so bullish at Sci Fi. “Three or four years ago, our studies showed that Sci Fi’s audience was starting to age and there were too many males watching it,” particularly men with only moderate incomes, he says.

One of the first things Sci Fi did was to commission more reality shows, which, Howe says, “tend to skew younger than scripted series.” The most successful show to come out of Sci Fi’s reality development is “Ghost Hunters,” which has grown steadily in the number of adults 18-49 who show up since it premiered in October 2004. The original has spawned a “Ghost Hunters International” spinoff, which averaged more than 2-million viewers during a seven-episode primetime run this winter.

In a Wednesday night block, “Ghost Hunters” leads in to another reality hour, the second-year “Destination Truth,” which averages about a million viewers fewer than “Ghost.” But a substantial 61% of those “Truth” viewers fall into the Madison Avenue-friendly 18-49 demo.

Sci Fi’s biggest reality flop, in 2006, was “Psychic at Large,” featuring a peripatetic “spiritual intuitive” named Char Margolis. “The women didn’t mind her,” Howe says, “but she really alienated the guys.” And guys are still the main focus of Sci Fi’s programming.

With its scripted shows, Howe says Sci Fi made a conscious effort to appeal to adults under 50 by “introducing new storylines, creating younger characters and pushing edgier themes.”

The result, so far, is a mixed bag. “Battlestar Galactica,” “Eureka” and “Stargate Atlantis” are harvesting bumper crops of viewers. While “Battlestar” is dead serious, “Eureka” and “Atlantis” season their melodrama with lots of tongue-in-cheek humor. Sci Fi starts another season of “Dr. Who,” which it bought from the BBC, on April 18, after beginning the first season of another series purchase, “The Sarah Jane Adventures,” a spinoff of “Dr. Who,” one week earlier.

Howe’s most disappointing scripted failure is “The Dresden Files,” which devolved into an uneasy amalgam of ghosts, black magic and the supernatural, all stuffed into a film-noir/private-eye framework.

Sci Fi canceled “Dresden” after only 13 weeks. Two other scripted washouts, “Painkiller Jane” and “Flash Gordon,” dragged out for 22 hours apiece. Howe says Sci Fi didn’t treat the iconic character of Flash Gordon with enough care. In a few years, he says, the network may take it up again, with a fresh take and a bigger budget.

December’s “Tin Man” six-hour miniseries takeoff on “The Wizard of Oz” chalked up more viewers than any other show in Sci Fi’s history, a vindication of the lesson learned by Howe the hard way: two expensive miniseries fizzles. The 2004 “Five Days to Midnight” and the 2006 “Locked Room” failed, Howe says, because “they were contemporary originals, not presold commodities, and they were not larger than life.” The members of the team behind “Tin Man” — Nick Willing and Robert Halmi Sr. & Jr. — are working on the script of a Sci Fi miniseries reinvention of “Alice in Wonderland.”

An unlikely deus ex machina, the wrestling guru Vince McMahon, is responsible for the biggest percentage of young viewers to Sci Fi: Every Tuesday night at 10, McMahon’s hourlong “ECW” (“Extreme Championship Wrestling”) has become a marquee draw for teenage boys and men in their 20s.

You may ask what wrestling has to do with science fiction, but Howe is not standing on ceremony: He can promote other Sci Fi shows during “ECW” to these young viewers, some of whom may not be otherwise familiar with the network.

At the upfront, the biggest announcement was that Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, the men responsible for “Battlestar Galactica,” the most influential series in Sci Fi’s 15-year history, have agreed to create a “Battlestar” prequel.

“Battlestar” is phasing out, filming its last season’s worth of 20 episodes in Vancouver. “Caprica,” the prequel, set 50 years before the time of “Battlestar,” goes into production in the spring as a two-hour backdoor pilot scheduled for a fall air date. If the pilot lands a series pickup, Moore says it will probably get on the air in the summer of 2009.

With “Battlestar,” “Moore didn’t want to do another ‘Star Trek’ with ray guns and space ships,” Howe says. “What he gave us instead was ‘The West Wing,’ only in outer space.” Moore acknowledges that people who search “Battlestar” for parallels with contemporary American politics will find them. He says the character interplay in “Caprica” will resemble nothing less than the granddaddy of all primetime soaps, “Dallas.”

Although “Battlestar” has slipped in the Nielsens each year since it kicked off in January 2005, the show still averaged 2-million viewers in its most recent season, and a dazzling 70% of those were adults 18-49.

But there’s no guarantee that “Caprica” will equal the “Battlestar” numbers. “Sci Fi is still thought of as a niche channel targeted to boy geeks,” says Ina Rae Hark, professor of literature at the U. of South Carolina, who’s writing a book on science fiction and television. “Sci Fi Channel is not on most people’s list of eight or nine channels to surf when they turn on their TV. You can’t even get it in most hotels.”

“Just the name Sci Fi Channel conjures up preconceived notions of space opera and alien conflict,” says Barbara Selznick, associate professor of media arts for the U. of Arizona. She adds that the network may be able to break through to bigger audiences only by “broadening its scope, even if that means changing the fundamental nature of the channel.”

Hark says a key problem is that science fiction “is the most expensive genre there is.” The mass audience gets spoiled by the special effects in hit movies including “Star Wars,” “Spider-Man,” “Jurassic Park” and “Transformers.” When people tune in to an original Sci Fi series with a vastly lower budget, she says, they may regard the effects it as “cheesy” and lose interest.

Both casual viewers and sci-fi fans “want lots of flash,” Hark says. “You can’t give them a movie like ‘Mansquito’ and expect even geeks with pocket protectors to jump up and down with joy.”

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