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.