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TV rebranding a tricky proposition

Sci Fi's change to Syfy draws online critics

Type the words “Syfy” and “lame” into Google together, and nearly 5,000 results immediately pop up.

Clearly, NBC Universal faces a challenge in switching the name of its successful Sci Fi Channel to Syfy.

One science-fiction website gagged that Sci-Fi had “turned its name into a typo.” Others riffed on the fact that the new name reminded them of the not-so-pleasant word “syphilis.”

The term “Syfy” wasn’t even coined by NBC U: It was quietly purchased earlier this year by the conglom, leading the science-fiction fanboy website Syfy Portal, which had come up with the spelling several years ago, to rename itself Airlock Alpha.

Syfy Portal founder Michael Hinman told one website that when he sold the name to an undisclosed buyer, he never expected it to wind up as Sci Fi Channel’s new identity.

The negative reaction to the introduction of Syfy provides a timely reminder that renaming networks is never easy.

Just ask the folks behind the CW network’s name — the uninspired result of putting together the “C” from CBS and “W” from Warner Bros. Three years later, viewers pretty much accept the name — but it’s still seen as a missed opportunity.

In cable, the switch by Sci Fi — ahem, Syfy — marks the latest effort by a niche network to go broad, dumping a unique identity in the process.

Just as Sci Fi has jettisoned its geeky roots in order to attract more women and nongenre fans, Court TV not too long ago excised its original legal-minded focus and went the reality TV route as Tru TV.

Other rebrands include the Outdoor Life Network, which expanded its sports focus and renamed itself Vs. (Versus). The Nashville Network first refocused itself as the National Network (“Nashville” and “National” sounded enough alike) and then went male-centric as Spike TV (much to the chagrin of Spike Lee).

Then there are the nets that started going by their initials once they expanded their charter: Game Show Network wanted to be known for more than just quizzers and rebranded as GSN; the Learning Channel went from docs to lifestyle shows and morphed into TLC.

At least some of those name changes made sense. Syfy, on the other hand, opens up new possibilities for confusion. If the network is trying to expand beyond science-fiction programming, why go with a new name that’s still pronounced “Sci Fi,” but with a goofy spelling?

Outrage over the Syfy name, as well as Tropicana’s recent repackaging debacle (in which the orange juice giant was forced to bring back its old containers when new, redesigned ones provoked outrage), is also a reminder that in the age of the Internet, consumer reaction to puzzling corporate moves will be fast — and brutal.

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