So, what does it mean when a channel called Sci Fi changes its name to Syfy?
A. New viewers might watch, curious about the change and possibly reassured they’ll see more than just space aliens.
B. The new channel name is cooler, and easier to pronounce if you don’t speak English.
C. Everything loved by current Sci Fi fans will disappear as the channel pursues a broader audience.
A and B, absolutely yes, say the folks at Sci Fi/Syfy. But really, truly, never C — they swear — as Sci Fi morphs into Syfy on Tuesday.
The change occurs both on-air and online, where SciFi.com has become a go-to destination (4 million unique visitors a month) for fans of science fiction, fantasy, supernatural and otherwise wildly imaginative tales.
“Our development strategy has not changed, nor do I expect it to,” insists Syfy president Dave Howe, an eight-year channel veteran, “other than we’ll still be doing creative, smart, risk-taking, ambitious programming, both in scripted and reality.”
Under the new slogan “Imagine Greater,” Syfy launches with the mischievous adventure “Warehouse 13” (two-hour pilot Tuesday at 9 p.m. EDT). Tracking agents who secure paranormal objects for a secret national repository, the show offers not only fantastical action but a hot young hero team (Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly) and quirky humor (flirty banter and sly irony). It plays like a pop-culture-crazed amalgam of ” Bones,” “The X-Files” and “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”
Syfy hopes shows like “Warehouse 13” will entice more viewers to sample an already-wide menu of originals — from the offbeat drama-comedy “Eureka,” about a town of geniuses, to the unscripted frightfest “Ghost Hunters.” Yes, the channel produces space-set dramas like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Stargate.” But it also boasts the hidden-camera show “Scare Tactics,” gamer competitions, James Bond and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, plus original popcorn flicks like “The Man With the Screaming Brain.”
Yet Howe reports it’s stunning “how many advertisers and how many consumers do not know we have original shows.” Research suggests they expect everything on Sci Fi to look pretty much like “Star Trek.” Howe says, “The narrow perception of sci-fi is that it’s primarily space and aliens and the future.”
Never mind that big-screen box-office numbers prove sci-fi / fantasy-based movies like 2009 toppers “Star Trek,” “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “X-Men: Wolverine” can be big hits. Howe says too many people “see Sci Fi as this niche and narrow channel. They don’t see it, as we see it, as very broad general entertainment in the sense that it has something for everyone.”
But what about current Sci Fi viewers who already do know it? You can’t blame them for being wary of the Syfy change. When American Movie Classics became AMC, it shifted to recent films and drama series. Now that TLC isn’t The Learning Channel anymore, it’s the Jon and Kate zone.
“We have this amazingly loyal fan base, who we love, and we’re never going to do anything to alienate them,” Howe stresses. “We just greenlit ‘Stargate Universe,’ the next chapter of the longest-running sci fi series of all time. We just greenlit ‘Caprica,’ which is a continuation of ‘Battlestar Galactica’” — the adult critical hit that still couldn’t cross over, despite passionate characters warring over politics, faith, ethics and other timely issues. (It had hot sex, too!)
In fact, “Galactica” may be the poster child for sci-fi perception limitations. Howe notes “it has none of the traditional trappings of space opera — there are no aliens, there is no technobabble.” It sharply focused instead on “what has always been at the core of great sci fi, which is intense emotional character-driven storytelling that shines a mirror up to society and themes that are relevant to what’s happening in the world today.”
But the action largely took place in space. “I think that was a barrier to some people.” So Syfy’s 2010 drama “Caprica” is “set on an Earth-based planet that looks and feels like the world today. You recognize the characters and the situations.”
And you’ll recognize that it’s Syfy, not lowercase sci fi. Howe says the five-letter old name “is not a legally trademarkable brand name anywhere in the world.” (And by 2010, Syfy plans to be operating in 50 territories around the globe, with “lifestyle-brand” ambitions extending to games, movies and more.)
“Sci fi is a generic category. It is like calling ESPN ‘Sport,’ or CNN ‘News,’” Howe says. That plainness was fine back when Sci Fi shows were viewed only on the main TV channel. But the cord-cutting of current media consumption means they’re watched anytime, anywhere via DVRs, iTunes, online or video on demand. And on those crowded platforms, that generic name means viewers “can’t differentiate our shows from everybody else’s sci fi shows” in online searches or (video on demand) menus. The distinct name Syfy makes that content “attributable to us.”
And it sounds the same to the ear as the old Sci Fi. “That’s exactly why we haven’t changed the name completely,” Howe says. “This bridges the past and keeps the heritage, but it actually creates an ownable word and a distinct brand that is uniquely ours.”
And it’s cooler, too.
SYFY KICKS OFF WITH ‘WAREHOUSE 13’
What made Syfy choose “Warehouse 13” to launch its rebranding? Offbeat humor, moody mystery, sexy stars, paranormal happenings and that wild title location — a secret government stash of alien/cursed objects that are “threatening to ruin the world’s day.”
That phrase comes from its curator (Saul Rubinek), who oversees two bickering young agents (Eddie McClintock and Joanne Kelly). They’re dispatched to rein in everything from dead magician Harry Houdini’s ghostly wallet to an “orgiastic virus.”
“There’s a fantastical element to the various stories that we tell, but you don’t have to be a sci fi geek to enjoy it,” says executive producer Jack Kenny, who previously created the character-based comedy “Titus” and the hallucinatory drama “The Book of Daniel.” Kenny describes “Warehouse” as “a real and funny and dramatic and scary action-adventure procedure-omedy.”
He’s partnered with executive producer David Simkins, who’s familiar with the territory, having run Sci Fi’s mystery “The Dresden Files.” But Simkins also wrote for the superhero romance “Lois & Clark” and witty Western “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.”
“We’re here to sort of shake it up a bit and make people look twice” at the new Syfy, Simkins says. “This show is relationship comedy-drama that happens to deal with whimsy and danger. These everyday objects have a history we’re not aware of. Things happen in our collective past that we think are dead and gone. But they’re not.”