Sci-Fi Storm

A talk with the executives at Syfy

by on Nov.18, 2014, under Television

Recently as part of last month’s Syfy Press Tour, I had the chance to talk with some of the executives with Syfy, notably Dave Howe, President, and Bill McGoldrick, Executive Vice President for Original Programming, who had just joined the channel about a year earlier. They talked about where the channel is heading, trying to get back on track with genre programming.

First, I have to say, these guys take a lot of heat. Of course, someone has to be the lightning rod, and they are at the focal point. But they have to make a lot of hard business decisions and canceling a show is never good for those that watch it, but many complaints are from people who really don’t have any idea of how television works or how the programs they watch really get paid for. No network is going to keep a show that isn’t making money for them, just because what viewers it has are loyal. Loyalty doesn’t pay the bills. If it is borderline they may take a chance – but they need to get advertisers to pay. So many times I see, “They canceled X just so they could show wrestling and reality shows…I’m never watching Syfy again!” First off, such a statement is stupid. It means they are willing to not watch a great program just because they perceive that they were personally slighted. Aside from that, Syfy’s never canceled a show just to show wrestling or anything else. A show gets canceled because the advertisers won’t pay enough for it to be produced. In rare cases as show might be “profitable”, but if the margin is slim and can be improved by something else, it gets replaced.

It isn’t about pure ratings numbers either. Why would a scripted show that gets 2 million viewers per episode get canceled, to be replaced by a unscripted show that gets less than a million? Because that unscripted show is a LOT cheaper to produce, and therefore doesn’t need as many eyes watching it to have better profitability. Every network has done this, and it is a slippery slope (not helped that many were pushed down that slope by writers strikes a few times), but eventually there is a bounceback to original scripted programming as audiences tire of the heavy derivative reality stuff. Networks have learned more moderation is necessary in the mix of programming.

Syfy I think bears a greater brunt of anger because of the fans it tries to serve. SF fans are a passionate group, probably more so than any other genre out there, and there is some history at being slighted. SF programming is historically expensive, and generally didn’t last very long…3 years was a good run, anything more was spectacular. It was VERY hard on a network to pull that off – first-run syndication offered a somewhat friendlier purchase for our type of programming in the 80s to 90s, but there isn’t much of a first-run syndication market any longer.

But it’s important for SF fans to realize that these guys aren’t trying to kill science fiction. They aren’t trying to ditch the fans. In fact, they are making a concerted attempt to win back the fans that made their network special. Good storytelling is where they will start.

How has 2014 been for Syfy, and what are they looking towards in 2015?

“I think this has been a fantastic year for us,” Dave Howe said. “And now I look back to when I first joined Syfy, which was 12 years ago, actually, this month, October, 12 years ago. And I joined Syfy specifically because we had probably the biggest project in cable, Steven Spielberg’s “Taken”, which was a 20-hour, $40 million massive event. And that’s part of why I joined Syfy and that’s why I have stayed at Syfy, and I think this year and next year, especially with Bill at the helm, is absolutely going to be Syfy at its finest because we’re going back to those big, bold ambitious, scripted series that we’ve owned in the past. So the Battlestar Galacticas, the miniseries events, you know, the plethora of announcements that you’ve all been excited about, as we have, over the last six to twelve months, thanks to Bill [McGoldrick] and his team, has been incredible.

“You know, we’ve absolutely gone on record as saying we want to be the experts in this genre. It’s a very competitive genre out there. Everyone and his dog is developing and launching sci-fi fantasy shows. We have to be seen to be the best in terms of understanding the genre and our audience, and I think we’re doing that. Bill has been with us a year. I think Bill is absolutely the best hire that we could possibly have made to get us there. Bill has a fantastic track record, not just on USA, but on SPIKE as well, but he is — and this is why we will win and why we will succeed. He is the ultimate fan-boy as you get to know him.”

“Not in this room, I’m not,” Bill McGoldrick said, referring to the room full of digital press members – all of whom are also fans of science fiction.

“He is the ultimate fan-boy,” Dave countered, “but he has fantastic taste and sets the bar very high and he also has great relationships. So some of the announcements that you’ve read over the last six months and you will continue to read is because Bill absolutely has great relationships with Hollywood, will attract some of the biggest and the best names out there, and I think that will be key to our success.”

What about Bill’s goals in his first year? “We are trying to win back the genre, in a way. You know, there’s a lot of shows that — I’m going to be honest with you — that we envy around the dial, and we want to bring that level of writing, that level of modern television to the genre form, as so many books and movies have. And so my goal over the couple of years is to have not just one, but many scripted and unscripted shows that really speak to this audience and speak to, you know, the audience that you guys cover on a day-to-day basis, and I think we’re on our way.”

Do they have a message for the fans now? “There’s so much to say, to say to the fans,” Bill said. “I mean, having been here almost a year, it’s not quite the one-year anniversary, I’ve been really astounded by the level of passion, the level of commitment, the level of specific care that our fans have for each individual show. Even within each individual show, there’s subsets of passion and arguments on your — you know, I follow a lot of your feeds and a lot of the comments sections on your feeds, and I love trolling through that stuff. And you know, I would tell them, I think that there have been some misconceptions about this channel in the past, that we somehow don’t care as much as they do, that we cancel shows too early. And a year in, I’ve got to say, it’s been really great for me to see that’s just not true and really never has been true. It’s a passionate group of 170 or so people, and in every department, these people love this genre and love the shows, from finance to HR to anywhere there’s a commitment at this channel, that I don’t think people fully appreciate it. I think you’re going to see shows that reflect that commitment. We have a lot of corporate support now, a lot of corporate financing for this channel, for this genre. So really, the handcuffs are off. Dave and I and our team, we’re going to be putting a lot of stuff out there and a lot of stuff that we care about, and I think the fans of this stuff are going to care about.”

Absolutely. We endorsed that,” Dave added. “We have a new owner in Comcast which I think has very deep pockets. They care about investing in great content. Ultimately, that’s what we are tasked with, providing great content. And I think, from the fan perspective, we absolutely want to be the home of the smart, provocative sci-fi entertainment. That’s who we are, that’s who we’ve always been, and you will see from us, going forward, a massive commitment to that in terms of our programming. And to Bill’s point, you know, it started last year with Defiance, and then Helix, and then Dominion. Ascension is coming. We’ve got 12 Monkeys, Killjoys, and then next year, two of our biggest and most ambitious projects, The Expanse, which gets us back into, you know, big, epic space opera, and then the ultimate mini-series event which is Childhood’s End which is the Arthur C. Clarke concept.

“So you can see, just in those titles alone, how passionate we are to really owning the genre space in a way that we have never been able to in the past, and we will continue to do that. It’s great content, and that’s what our audience ultimately is going to seek from us, expect from us. And we don’t cancel shows. We picked up Dominion for season two. We picked up Defiance for season three. We picked up Helix for season two. We’re committed to these shows.

“And I think what we have that is so perfect for this room and our audience is if you create great content that has that deep, immersive mythology that is serialized, that takes you deeper, that has multi-screen ways for you to interact with that content, then you are creating long-term storytelling that is so perfect for our audience and so perfect for the time that we live in, that wasn’t in the past. When we had Battlestar Galactica, it was difficult for people to commit to a serialized show. Now they absolutely want what we can provide the best, which is deep storytelling, great mythology, great back stories, big, epic, bold characters, and it’s exciting.”

What seems to be behind this push back towards scripted programming, especially with the SF genre, as all networks seem to be aiming for, and is there such a thing as too much?

“You know, it is fascinating how many people are in the genre now,” according to Bill. “I don’t necessarily believe there’s a threshold. I’ve been talking a lot about this. You know, I think what’s happening — it reminds me very much of what happened when shows like The Shield and The Sopranos hit ten years ago. It was a provocative sort of storytelling that then launched lots of other shows like that.

“So, Matt Weiner, who was on The Sopranos for all those years, he went and did Mad Men. I think you’re going to see a lot of people coming from these Game of Thrones shows or The Walking Dead shows with their own specific point of view, and it doesn’t really matter the genre, because it really is storytelling after all. So I don’t — I don’t think we’re even — it’s kind of scratching the surface of overkill, because it really is about the specific writer’s voice and how well you execute the show.

“To me, it’s exciting, because doing what I do for a living all day is just try to pick the best writers, and I love that most of the best writers are writing this genre right now, because that gives me and my team more to choose from.”

Can there be too much SF if it is good SF? “No, I think that’s the key to it,” said Dave. “They have to be good. I mean, I think there’s a lot of shows on TV that we refer to on sci-fi light or are in denial that they are even sci-fi/fantasy shows. And I think, you know, we do understand this audience and the genre, and I think Bill in particular does. And I think that’s what we want to do is to create smart sci-fi that is different to what everybody else is doing. It’s not that sort of ‘me-too’ stuff that inevitably you see on TV here. So I think in the next couple of years there will be that explosion of genre stuff. I think a lot of network shows will fail, and I think people will, you know, move on to the next big thing, and then we’ll still be in that space and others will have exited it.

“But I think there’s a whole new audience, a whole new generation growing up with sci-fi/fantasy in a way that, you know, we’ve never seen before; I mean, the big book franchises and the Twilights and Hunger Games, the Divergents, et cetera. You know, this audience, this generation wants storytelling which is different, that explores alternative reality, that takes them to places that they can’t go in their ordinary, mundane lives. And I think that’s what’s driving it in movies and video games and TV, and I think that’s going to continue.”

On research into Syfy’s audience over the past year: “I think one of the new things
that we’ve seen, and I think we’re responding to it is — and this is very clear and very direct and very specific — people want high quality shows,” according to Dave. “They’re not interested in low production values anymore, ‘me-too’ shows. They want smart writing, smart acting, smart directing, the biggest possible aspiration from a production value perspective. And I think if you look at the shows that really are the biggest shows on TV, they all have that, whether it’s Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead or True Blood. These are big, expensive — unfortunately — shows, and that’s I think what audiences are responding to, and that is the demand that we’re also going to respond to as we move forward.”

With different ways to watch programming available to viewers now, like Netflix, does “binge watching” help with serialized storytelling? Does that affect the view on programming, or is it still held to the traditional model?

“I think it’s a positive,” Bill said. “You know, it gets tricky as to monetization and all that sort of stuff, all that boring stuff, but just if you — if you’re a creative guy, you definitely want your fans to be that committed to the show and to want to sit there all weekend and have that level of engagement. So that’s in that positive. As Dave said, this channel was ahead of its time with Battlestar Galactica. I think if Battlestar Galactica launched today, it would have done that Breaking Bad kind of shot in the ratings. So, to me it’s more opportunity for the audience to grab on to it and then for it to ultimately build. And we have ways of — you know, through longer data, to her point, to look at the level of engagement and commitment, socially and otherwise, that gives you better feedback to how much the people like the shows and what they like about it. So, I think that’s good.”

“We’re actually going to lean into it, and we have already,” added Dave. “We’re going to fuel binge watching as early as we possibly can. When we launched Helix this year, we double pumped two episodes and then we simultaneously gave away the third episode as pre-linear premier that you could either stream or download on VOD or however you want to watch it. You’re going to see more of that, not just from us, but from other networks because I think with serialized shows, you need to hook people. And those shows, it takes several episodes for you to really get the hang of the characters and stories. So there’s much more of that to come, because we want our audience to be engaged and loyal and obsessed with great characters and great stories.”

At a later time, I caught up with Dave Howe to ask him about a pressing question – what happened to the Ringworld project that was in development. They really wanted to make it, and it wasn’t their first attempt, but in the end they just couldn’t make it work. “It doesn’t mean we won’t try again,” he said, so there is still hope.

It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now, and talking about 2016…


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