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Syfy looks into the future

Cable network hopes name change is game-changer

Why?

That’s the still not entirely answered question hanging over the Sci Fi Channel’s July 7 metamorphosis into the trademark-friendly but fan-vexing Syfy.

Network execs have given their reasons:

1. You can’t trademark a phrase that’s already on the spines of millions of books and DVDs.

2. Using said phrase is as good as branding the channel “Nerd World” and keeps the net from broadening its base — a song the net has been singing for years.

But that still doesn’t explain the choice of “Syfy,” which has already birthed a petition site, nosyfy.com (“We say no to the nonsense,” rages the anonymous founder). Or why the NBC Universal-owned cabler felt the need for such a moniker makeover when it already has a strong brand and healthy aud. (It ranks No. 15 among basic cablers in adults 18-49 and No. 8 in adults 25-54.)

“First off, show me a network that doesn’t want to be bigger,” responds Syfy prexy Dave Howe. “We really do think that the name is a barrier to entry for some people. Rather than changing the programming to suit some new brand strategy, we’re changing the brand to fit the programming.”

The campaign itself is the brainchild of the network’s inhouse creative Michael Engleman, whose team coined the much-maligned name in a bid to widen the net’s reach.

“That came from me,” sighs Engleman, who promises he’s heard all the jokes. “We found the name through the design process, actually. We knew we wanted to lose the Saturn logo, we needed something that could be trademarked, and there was a warmth to the letter forms. The Y’s feel like they’re smiling at you.”

The event-coded rebrand could turn out to be a savvy marketing move: In an upfront season that still hasn’t broken (Horizon Media researcher Brad Adgate calls it “possibly the slowest in history”), skittish ad buyers may see the net as a good option. On the one hand, the Syfy brand is shiny and new; on the other, the channel has sworn up and down not to change the programming strategies that made Sci Fi successful.

And despite plenty of ribbing over its new name, Syfy hasn’t backed down from its decision. Execs mounted the biggest publicity push in the channel’s 17-year history, making the rebrand the focus of their upfront presentation and linking it to goodwill-generating initiatives around New York, including free wi-fi at its new Syfy Imagination Park at Rockefeller Center — a sort of playground-for-grownups that features a giant View-Master and other nostalgic props.

Meanwhile, the net bought up ad space online and outdoors, and Howe rang the closing bell at the Nasdaq on the day the rebranding officially kicked in with the launch of original series “Warehouse 13.”

The new show is emblematic of Syfy’s evolutionary programming approach. The central subject matter is pure sci-fi — federal investigators, paranormal activities and government conspiracies — but the tone is lighter (a la the net’s dramedy “Eureka”) and buddy comedy-ish in a “Men in Black” kind of way. For the second episode of “Warehouse,” Syfy even nods to its recent space-opera past with a guest spot for “Battlestar Galactica” thesp Tricia Helfer.

Mark Stern, the net’s programming chief, hopes a new name will allow some of his shows to break out in a different way. “I think probably the best example of the barrier, for me, was ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ ” Stern says. “If that show had been on another channel, or a channel that was called something else, it would have done even better. People who were forced to watch it said, ‘Oh, this is a character drama! It’s not sci-fi at all!’ ”

So Stern is keeping the same formula for the foreseeable future: Upcoming shows on the channel include “Caprica” (a “Battlestar” spinoff), more “Stargate” (another fan fave) and a remake of cult hit “Alien Nation” from producer Tim Minear, whose credits include Joss Whedon’s “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” — all huge in geek circles. There are also rumors of a “Quantum Leap” reboot.

“I think that we were already getting the message out,” says Stern. “Our programming has recruited a bunch of people who haven’t watched the channel before. We’re on the right track.”The “Warehouse” bow supports Stern’s optimism, at least for the moment, attracting a solid 3.5 million viewers. Moreover, two of the net’s ratings hits, “Extreme Championship Wrestling” and “Ghost Hunters,” are anathema to its fans, suggesting there is life beyond the channel’s noisy genre base.

All of which sort of justifies the channel’s new four-letter word, which has thus far left many commenters on sci-fi-oriented websites less infuriated than amused.

“Syfy has been trying to escape from the idea that they’re dorky or out of touch, or any of the things that sci-fi fans are afraid the world thinks about them,” says Annalee Newitz of science-fiction blog Io9.com. “And now they’ve come up with a brand name that is, in fact, really dorky.”

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