Syfy Returns to its Roots with ‘The Expanse,’ ‘Childhood’s End’

Sci-fi Returns to Syfy with New
Courtesy of Syfy

Fifty years ago, space was known as the final frontier on the small screen, but in the decades since “Star Trek” boldly went where no man had gone before, science fiction has proliferated, and the boundaries of a TV show’s scope are limited only by a showrunner’s imagination – and a network’s budget.

Since launching in 1992, Syfy has spelled out its objective in its name, positioning itself as the leader in the genre space with critically acclaimed hits like Steven Spielberg’s “Taken” and Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” reboot. But ever since “Battlestar” went off the air, the network has exhibited something of an identity crisis, veering away from the high-concept storytelling that put it on the map in favor of paranormal reality fare, foreign acquisitions and B-movies.

That approach has clearly taken its toll; this fall, Syfy is averaging 900,000 total viewers, down 7% from last year, to rank No. 16 among all cable networks (although that rating doesn’t account for its fall premieres, which bow on Dec. 14 and will likely boost its standing), with rivals rushing to beat them at their own game.

But the network has a plan to reverse that trend, with an ambitious slate of scripted dramas scheduled for the next six months, including “Childhood’s End,” “The Expanse,” “The Magicians” and “Hunters,” all based on bestselling genre novels. The network also has a number of high-profile properties in development from producers including Bradley Cooper (“Hyperion”), Steven Spielberg (Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (“Incorporated”), and David Goyer (“Krypton”). The network has also seen critical and commercial success with time-travel drama “12 Monkeys,” which bowed in January, and capitalized on the ongoing appetite for zombies with horror series “Z Nation,” which was recently renewed for a third season.

“There’s a lot of science fiction on every network when it comes to cable,” says Syfy president Dave Howe. “I think the way for us to smartly stand out is to be the home of the best on the spectrum. We really want to be seen as tackling the absolute heart of the genre, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal or even superhero. It’s a very broad landscape. But we do not want to be in the dumbed-down, sci-fi-lite space. We want high production value, smart-writing, smart acting and [to] really stand for some ambition and boldness.”

When the network changed its name from plain old “Sci Fi Channel” in 2009, Howe acknowledged that, along with the inability to trademark itself, the choice was partly driven by the niche appeal of the term. “While continuing to embrace our legacy and our core audience, we needed to cultivate a distinct point of view with a name that we could own that invites more people in and reflects our broader range of programming,” he said in a statement at the time. Nowadays, sci-fi and fantasy have entered the mainstream, and there’s less stigma attached to formerly “geeky” interests.

“Hunters” executive producer Gale Anne Hurd recalls her meeting with Howe and Syfy’s EVP of original content, Bill McGoldrick, noting their obvious dedication to returning to the network’s primary focus. “Both Dave and Bill basically said we love the programming we have, but we also want to take on more challenging shows and more of what sci-fi offers in terms of series, as well as limited series,” she says. “I think we should all commend them for taking a big swing and really creating even more quality science fiction programming. It’s not all superheroes out there.”

“The Expanse” exec producers Mark Fergus and Naren Shankar admit that the network’s passion for the genre was a major selling point when they were shopping their show.

“We fell in love with the books and we wanted to find the perfect partner – Syfy is really the branded place for this kind of storytelling,” Fergus recalls. “When we went in, they were so welcoming to us and so ready to tackle a space opera again.”

Shankar agrees: “They were really clear, they wanted to go back to a tightly-serialized, complex, deep character drama that has epic scope to it. It really was a kind of storytelling that they hadn’t done since ‘Battlestar Galactica.’”

“The Expanse” is being touted as Syfy’s most expensive series yet, “but I think it has to be,” says Howe, noting that when their new shows debut, “people will realize that not many networks are investing as much as we are in this quality content. This is not just big. This is premium network scale.”

As viewer habits are changing, networks are being forced to adapt along with them. “To succeed now we have to be in the long game, and it isn’t about short-term ratings,” Howe says. “It’s about creating storytelling that people really want to live with over a period of time and really be passionate about.”

Howe thinks Syfy has the advantage in this brave new digital world since, “our audience has always been in cyberspace … Syfy was the first network ever to stream a show, at a point in time when the technology was incredibly hard but the rights were very easy. Now the technology is easy and the rights are very hard,” he laughs.

The network is also turning to virtual reality to help augment viewers’ engagement with “The Expanse,” allowing fans to take a 360 degree tour of the spaceships via Google Cardboard or smartphone.

“We want to be seen as a pioneer and innovator in this area,” Howe says. “All the technology is embryonic and nobody’s really done this before and I think there’s something very exciting about that.”

The key to success in the evolving media landscape, Howe believes, is combining event television like the social-media-friendly “Sharknado” franchise with non-linear forms of distribution. The network debuted the first episode of “The Expanse” online ahead of its Dec. 14 premiere, which was sampled by 1.5 million viewers in its first week.

“People join series later. They wait for that endorsement either by word of mouth or critical acclaim,” Howe notes. “It doesn’t matter how much money you spend marketing-wise, you can still not force enough people to come to a linear network to watch it.”

Howe points out that every network is struggling to keep up with shifting technologies and audience tastes, which is prompting executives to demonstrate more patience with shows they previously would’ve axed after two weeks of lackluster ratings. “These days, you have to give something the benefit of the doubt until you have enough evidence to suggest that people don’t like it, because if you write it off too soon, you could have written off something which is very special, and I think that speaks to your gut and your creative instinct.”

While predicting which shows might become hits is akin to “reading the tea leaves,” according to Howe, “you just want to figure out a smart recipe that sustains all these various business models as we try and transition through this period, and come out the other side with things that make sense in a world where less people are watching live, and where ultimately content is what will drive any business.”

But despite the unpredictability of the medium, Howe says, “The notion of hit TV has not gone away. It’s more important than ever. You just have to wait a little longer for it and work a little harder for it and be a little smarter about how you get there.”

Part one of three-night event series “Childhood’s End” premieres Monday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. on Syfy, followed by the series premiere of “The Expanse” at 10 p.m.

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  1. donaldmichael2014 says:

    Very impressed with Childhood’s End after 2 episodes and can’t wait to see the finale tonight. The story is very thought provoking on several levels.
    Firstly, in the sense that mankind’s struggle for a utopian society is conflicted with our need for individual freedom. While seen as a growing rebellion that is quickly undermined by the Overlords in the first episode, a reference to “New Athens”, a place that has rejected utopia in favor of freedom and all its flaws, is made in the second episode.
    Secondly, in demonstrating the unintended consequences of our desire for a perfect society. The loss of scientific discoveries and innovation is eluded to during the second episode.
    Finally, and most surprisingly, is the emergence of Christianity as an underlying theme in the second episode. As a Christian, it was heartening to see that “Hollywood” would produce a series that, at least so far, would reflect biblical views in a positive light.
    I look forward to the conclusion of Childhood’s End.

  2. Markos701 says:

    I saw the first installment of Childhood’s End last night and was completely underwhelmed. I’ve read science fiction my whole life and Childhood’s End is still #1 on my list. However this movie isn’t Childhood’s End.

    The overall general concept is there but nothing else. It’s as if the directors said, let’s keep the guy who looks like a devil and the spooky kids and ditch the rest of the story. Worse, the story isn’t even consistent with itself. What on earth (no pun intended) was the purpose of introducing the farmers dead wife into the movie??? What was the purpose of Karellen recreating the farmers honeymoon suite as the environment for meeting with the farmer?? Did I miss something?? Does is make any sense for an apparently compassionate Karellen to threaten to destroy the farmers home to convince him to get in the pod thingy and go to the ship to talk about peace? It’s as if some things were put into the movie for no other reason than the director had a special effects budget and/or thought it would be cool.

    I was looking forward to this movie ever since they started advertising it. Now, I’m not even going to bother watching the rest of it. To be honest it’s so far “out there” it’s as if the directors simply didn’t like the book, assuming of course they read it.

    Oh yeah, one final comment. There were SO many commercials it was like watching one big ad with a movie interspersed here and there. I give in one-half star out of five.

  3. Terry Horton says:

    I’ve been waiting 47 years for my beloved “Childhood’s End” to be made into a movie (or mini-series). But I was afraid SyFy would turn it into their usual forgettable shlock

    But after Episode 1, I’m VERY impressed with the outcome. There’s some “updating” and a few other unnecessary changes to characters and details, but the overall story is intact, told with credible acting and direction. If the next two episodes are as well made as the first, SyFy’s “Childhood’s End” will be a classic of the first order. It really is that good!

  4. allen says:

    Mr Howe deserted his viewer base when he took over and I along with thousands of passionate faithful viewers stopped following his channel, now all these years later it will be interesting to see if these viewers return? So far my loyalty has not been resurrected even having viewed most of the Science Fiction shows he has allowed to be shown. maybe a new leader for the channel should be found with Mr. Howe’s adversarial past with genre viewers.

    • Observer says:

      Howe wasn’t the person who moved the channel away from science-fiction. It was his predecessor, Bonnie Hammer. She was known for disliking science-fiction, even though she had been put in charge of the Sci Fi Channel (now Syfy). She led the push to add more reality shows, more paranormal shows and less of a focus on science-fiction. She has been promoted up the NBC Universal/Comcast corporate ladder (the last I heard), so she is no longer focused on removing the sci-fi from Syfy.

  5. Gordon Smith says:

    No likable characters, two minutes of show interrupted by six minutes of commercials. Episode one of The Expanse was a waste of time. Childhood’s End was light years better.

  6. No network that is planning additional Sharknado sequels can ever be taken seriously again, especially when it comes to making quality science fiction. They have consistently cancelled quality series despite the protests of fans, and I have stopped committing to series on Syfy because I know if it’s any good it’ll be cancelled. With wrestling and yet more fake ‘reality’ crap taking up real estate on the schedule, I’m done.

  7. Wayne Klein says:

    SyFy lost me when they adopted the absurd branding for the network. They started off with a great mission airing Dune and Children of a Dune, then moving to Farscape (which they cancelled), Battlestar (cut back on orders for the series as I recall) and then abandoning their mission in favor of airing Lost In Space, Star Trek reruns. It’ll take a lot to win me back as a viewer. They botched it with two adaptions of Riverworld very badly by making bone headed decisons rather than trusting their audience. Once they put on WWE on the air, I was gone completely.

  8. deb says:

    I ceased watching SyFy the instant they cancelled the amazing Dominion and have no intention of returning. Why bother? The instant they get a good show, it’s cancelled. No thanks.

  9. Carlton Kent says:

    Adapting a classic science-fiction novel can be a daunting task. So, I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” and DVR’ing the mini-series. I’ll watch it after I’m done with the book. I would personally recommend doing that.

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