Syfy's Dave Howe on New Strategy, "Frustrating" 'Defiance' Experiment and More 'Sharknado'

Matt Furman
Dave Howe

The network's president on the channel's plan to return to its outer space roots with 'Ascension' and why 'Battlestar Galactica' was ahead of its time

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

The era of "genre-lite" at Syfy is over. On Dec. 15, the NBCUniversal-owned cable network will introduce the space opera miniseries Ascension, the first of a packed slate that will embrace the channel's science fiction namesake in a way that it hasn't since Battlestar Galactica concluded its run in 2009. In fact, in the half-decade that followed, Syfy tweaked its name (formerly SciFi) and made a play for broader viewership with a string of Earthbound series, including Warehouse 13 and Being Human. During that time, other cable nets seized the opportunity to tackle the serialized sci-fi/fantasy space, launching genre juggernauts led by AMC's The Walking Dead, HBO's Game of Thrones and FX's American Horror Story.

Now, Syfy chief Dave Howe, 52, is looking to reclaim that territory in a major way, scooping up big properties with even bigger talent. What began with the launch this year of the sci-fi thriller Helix, from Battlestar's Ron Moore, will pick up pace with Ascension, a 12 Monkeys adaptation, Childhood's End and The Expanse. Thus far, Howe, a Brit who began his career at the BBC before taking a gig as executive vp marketing at Syfy in 2001, is pleased with the early traction. His network, available in 86 countries and in 17 languages, is poised to deliver profit growth of 44 percent this year; and ratings in the key 18-to-49 demo are down only 5 percent (with 474,000 viewers tuning in), a few percentage points above the cable average.

Howe keeps autographed cast shots, along with Sharknado toys, in his office.

Seated in his corner office at Rockefeller Center, Howe, who lives in Manhattan with his longtime partner, John Sherratt, opened up about the network's big genre push, the "frustrating" Defiance experiment and the reason Battlestar was ahead of its time.

See more The Long, Historic Career of 'Battlestar Galactica' Creator Glen A. Larson

How would you define what you're looking for today compared to a few years ago?

I joined this company 12 years ago specifically for one project, Steven Spielberg's Taken, which was the biggest, the most ambitious and probably the boldest project in all of cable. It was a $40 million production! Twelve years later, we have an owner that gets it. Comcast recognizes we need to be in the high-quality content space and is prepared to invest in that and give us what we need in terms of owning this space in a way that we haven't since Taken. The other thing that's gone on in the last three or four years is that there's been an explosion of this genre across pretty much every broadcast and cable network. We have to position ourselves as the experts in this space, and we have to be seen to be tackling the smartest projects: genre-heavy as opposed to genre-lite.

How much is Comcast willing to pony up?

You cannot be in this space and not step up. From a sci-fi/fantasy perspective, you're competing with Game of Thrones, Walking Dead and a lot of those more expensive series. The Expanse, which we greenlighted straight to series for 10 episodes, is by far our most expensive series. We had to compete to get it. HBO was in the mix; Netflix was in the mix.

Ascension marks Syfy's first space opera since Battlestar Galactica.

Do you look at Walking Dead and think, that should have been us?

We clearly aspire to those numbers, and I do think that we have the capability and the potential to get them. We talk a lot about Battlestar Galactica, which was the smartest, most pro-vocative show on TV before its time. Six or seven years ago, heavily serialized shows didn't play, there was no social media and there was very little in the way of nonlinear catch-up. If we had Battlestar Galactica on our air now, it would absolutely be a Breaking Bad, a Walking Dead, a True Blood. The aspiration is, we want to get back in that space.

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Is it limiting to set things in space today in the way you felt it was when you had Battlestar on?

No, because several things have happened since then. One, the genre has so exploded across every single media platform: movies, shows, books, video games. This is the most mainstream genre, and that gives people permission to embrace it in a way that they may not have done before. And in the rebranding of Syfy and tweaking of the name, we created something that was a brand and a destination, but it didn't overtly lean into something which people identified as being not interested in.

In Howe's office sits an alien artifact from the Roswell ship that crashed in Spielberg's Taken miniseries that aired on Syfy in 2002.

In that bid to be broader, you rankled some of your core viewers. If you had it to do all over again, what would you have done differently?

We're running a business, ultimately, and that juxtaposition of the creative side and the business side is always difficult to manage. So in a world where you don't have the cash to do expensive miniseries events, you have to rethink your strategy. There's no doubt the scripted series are 10 times more expensive than unscripted, so experimenting in that space, especially when you've seen success with Ghost Hunters and with Face Off, was the right thing to do. It may not have been where the heart of our audience wanted us to be, but that's where we're heading now.

You're doing projects such as Ascension as limited series. Do you go in planning for more?

The mandate is that if we're going to invest in a miniseries event, we want the potential for there to be a series coming out the other side. That said, next year's miniseries event, Childhood's End, which is a 1953 Arthur C. Clarke classic, is closed-ended, so there will be no series coming out of that. It's kind of off-strategy, but it influenced some of the biggest movie and TV franchises and it's never been adapted, so how do you not tackle it?

There's a misnomer that sci-fi skews heavily male. What else has surprised you?

Exactly. We tend to hit a 55-to-45 split between male and female. The other thing that surprises people is how broad the sci-fi-fantasy spectrum is. The default perception is that it's just space and the future, whereas in reality, it's supernatural, paranormal, superhero, fantasy and magic, and each of those subsets appeals to a slightly different audience. For instance, the paranormal, supernatural space appeals primarily to women. This is a gross generalization, but women, intuitively, tend to believe in the afterlife, ghosts, the supernatural, talking to the dead, all those things, which guys tend to be very skeptical about. The space [subset] tends to skew male. When Battlestar was on, it was about 70 percent male.

Howe has a disturbing doll from breakout horror drama Z Nation, which launched in September. 

Read more Syfy, David Goyer Developing Superman Origin Story 'Krypton'

You talk a lot about these ambitious series, but you're also the network behind Sharknado. How does the B-movie fit into your long-term plan?

B-movies have impacted perceptions of the network negatively over the last few years, but I'd argue Sharknado transcended that. Sharknado was cool because of the low production value. B-movies are designed to be disengage-your-brain TV, and Sharknado was the epitome of what you can do in that space. Sharknado will be an annual event for us.

What did you learn from the $100 million Defiance experiment, which involved creating an original TV show alongside a video game?

We built a video game together with a series — it was a very risky, long-term project, but we need to be in the business of what's new and what's next, storytelling beyond the linear experience. The series has been very successful, the game less so, and the learning curve around immersive storytelling was incredibly powerful for us. So, the Defiance experience was incredibly fun and incredibly frustrating.

Why frustrating?

It took five years! And it took that long because the technology kept changing. It was designed to be a PC game, and then console platforms became online-capable, so we decided to launch it on PlayStation. Then suddenly we could do it on Xbox. Each time we added, it added another year to it and a level of expense to it. And the gaming space has also changed. It's now about free-to-play, so people don't want to pay for console games.

Was working in TV always your plan?

Absolutely. I was lucky, my father [Don] was a famous soccer coach in the U.K., and he was on TV constantly, so from the age of 6, I would follow him around and sit in control rooms of TV networks. I was determined to work in TV.