A space odyssey to keep an eye on: SyFy without 'Battlestar' at the helm

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After six years, Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" concluded Friday with a large ratings sendoff: 2.4 million viewers, the best performance for the space opera since 2006.

As the series finale aired, the show's cast and crew gathered in North Hollywood and said tearful goodbyes at a private screening.

"I really don't want this to happen," showrunner Ron Moore told the packed auditorium. "Tonight there is a 'Battlestar Galactica'; tomorrow there was. I'm looking out at faces here who are in anticipation of watching a new 'Battlestar Galactica,' and that will not happen again.

"It was an honor," he added, his voice breaking, "to be your storyteller."

The crowd went straight to its feet in applause, many with tears in their eyes.

Applauding too was Sci Fi executive vp programming Mark Stern, whom producers praised for supporting "Battlestar" even as they took creative risks.

"It's been an amazing journey," Stern said. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do without it."

Indeed, with the series gone, the question for Sci Fi becomes: What now?

Although not the network's top-rated program, "Battlestar" by far was its most talked-about. A vast majority of media coverage about Sci Fi was spurred by interest in "Battlestar." Such shows as "Eureka" and "Ghost Hunters" don't tend to make magazine covers or get covered obsessively by critics and the blogosphere.

The online interest is particularly important because "Battlestar" was the biggest driver of viewers to Sci Fi's Web site and helped spur the online extensions on which parent NBC Universal places such high value. On Sci Fi's message boards, there are 2.4 million posts about "Battlestar," and the closest series runner-up is "Stargate: SG-1" with 480,000.

The conclusion of "Battlestar" coincides with the network's revelation that it will rebrand in July, adopting the broader and supposedly more feminine-named SyFy. Some fans are using the dual events as an opportunity to reconsider their relationship with the network. There's a sense Sci Fi traded a brand that was perfectly clear and targeted for one that's deliberately fuzzy and that only a copyright lawyer could love.

"It's frakked up that they scapegoat the sci-fi fans who have made shows like 'Battlestar' a success," one fan wrote on the Sci Fi boards, echoing a common sentiment. "If we hadn't tuned in for the miniseries, they wouldn't still be here six years later. But according to them, we are what is holding them back, because the general viewing public is afraid of looking like geeks if they watch a channel named Sci Fi."

At least one "Save Science Fiction on Sci Fi" protest site has sprung up online, and even network co-founder Mitch Rubenstein has registered his dismay.

"SyFy, say it's not so!" he wrote in an open letter protesting the switch. "What would Isaac (Asimov) have said if the name was instead SyFy Channel? He would have said, we believe: 'That's just plain dumb.' "

Stern says fan reaction has not worried the network.

"We knew walking into it there's going to be certain concerns or reactions," he says. "I think it's to be expected, especially before they have a sense of a couple things — mainly that we're not changing our programming; we're not changing our genre."

Sci Fi hopes the rollout of "Warehouse 13" in the summer and the "Battlestar" spinoff "Caprica" next year will help reassure fans, along with the order of several fantasy-driven miniseries projects from RHI Entertainment including "Phantom" and "Riverworld."

One suspects the network is correct to think fans will get over the name change. In his letter, Rubenstein notes that genre purists originally were outraged that the network would be called Sci Fi Channel instead of SF Channel, the latter delineating science- and fact-based sci-fi.

Rubenstein recalls presenting the name at a writers convention: "The writers were not happy — and that's an understatement. They said they wouldn't watch it. They would oppose it unless we called it the SF Channel because calling it Sci Fi Channel was a put-down to the SF genre. … Then Isaac started to speak and said that the name had to be Sci Fi Channel and not the SF Channel in order to draw a wide, diverse audience and be successful."

A purist-offending name change to draw a wider and more diverse audience? Sounds familiar, right?

Sci Fi is correct that fans eventually will overlook the name in favor of its content; no sci-fi fan avoids "Lost" because it's on female-soap-driven ABC. Replacing "Battlestar" is a more genuine concern, if more for the show's acclaim and buzz than its viewership.

On both the fictional show and the real-life network, "Battlestar" was the respected leader of a ragtag fleet of supporting players. Sci Fi can drift for a while, but regardless of its name, the network will lack a strong sense of momentum until it can find a new flagship.

James Hibberd can be reached at james.hibberd@THR.com.
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