Sci Fi blasting online to test its 'Astronauts'

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Given that the success rate of primetime television makes the restaurant business look like a safe bet, it is difficult to understand why the broadcasters don't shake up the process by which they decide on series orders. Yet as execs gather this time of year for their annual pre-upfront screenings, they insist on following a system that probably offers results no better than what they could achieve with a blindfold and some darts.

Perhaps Sci Fi Channel is onto something better online. The NBC Universal-owned cable network is in the midst of an Internet experiment its broadcast brethren might want to take note of because it could inspire some badly needed innovation.

Sci Fi found itself undecided on what to do with the proposed animated comedy series "Outer Space Astronauts" from executive producers David O. Russell, Russell Barrett and Scott Puckett. So the network turned to the Internet for help, posting five video segments of the series on its broadband player, Sci Fi Pulse, along with a brief questionnaire seeking viewers' input at scifi.com/outerspaceastronauts.

As research goes, what Sci Fi is doing is not terribly sophisticated, nor is it intended to be. The findings won't be the ultimate arbiter of whether Sci Fi will pick up "Astronauts" but will be considered along with the usual array of factors that go into making these decisions, such as production costs and whatever sensation is emanating from the gut of Mark Stern, Sci Fi's executive vp original programming.

Stern may have the final say, but he also will consider what kind of buzz "Astronauts" generates on SciFi.com and elsewhere on the Internet. "We've got an amazing resource in the Web site," he says. "That's where we're able to tap into the core viewers in a very unadulterated way and bring those opinions into the mix."

It could be argued that Sci Fi is just adding another layer of complexity to an already convoluted process. Why invite more voices to the table when there are plenty of them already available internally? But the point is which voices are present, Stern notes.

"Honestly, the audience for this is not necessarily the people in the room making that decision," he says.

That's a profound statement when you stop to think about it. The hubris inherent in the development process is that execs think they know what will appeal to their audience, when really they are just responding to what pleases themselves. The Internet provides a laboratory where they can put their presumptions to the test. It certainly offers a more naturalistic setting than focus groups, where viewing conditions are ridiculously contrived.

But on the other hand, is there a pride in authorship that suffers here? Imagine a four-star chef inviting a diner in the kitchen to find out if the sauce is too spicy while the dish is still cooking.

Still, there has to be untapped value to making these kinds of development decisions semi-transparent that extends beyond just knowing whether the audience will like a program. If viewers do like a program, a network is marketing it before the program actually exists. "We've built a viewership before it's even made," says Craig Engler, SciFi.com senior vp. "They'll be great advocates for you online."

And even if the audience rejects the program, there is value in just letting them in on the process. What better way to make viewers feel an affinity for a network by practically deputizing them? That kind of empowerment is brand-building at its most potent.

Sci Fi isn't about to share any preliminary findings from its "Astronauts" experiment, but Stern says the network is open to trying the process with other programs. In an age where networks have their own well-trafficked dot-coms or independent attractions like YouTube at their disposal, maybe the broadcasters should think about doing same.
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