Syfy's Plan: More Space Operas, Less 'Sharknado'

Issue 11 BIZ Sharknado Illustration - H 2014
Peter Arkle

Issue 11 BIZ Sharknado Illustration - H 2014

The network shifts away from broad dramas and B-movies to its genre roots as it attempts to find the next "The Walking Dead" or "Game of Thrones."

This story first appeared in the March 21-28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Like the hero in a time-travel story, the Syfy network sees its future in the past.

Almost five years after a rebrand that abandoned the Sci-Fi moniker and enraged fans, NBCUniversal brass is aware that its attempt to lure a broader audience might have lost it some clout in the increasingly lucrative genre that shares its former name. Now Syfy president Dave Howe is trying to rectify the perception problem with changes in the executive ranks that will translate to new programming more familiar to its core audience.

"We want to be the best science-fiction channel that we possibly can, and in some respects, that means going back to the more traditional sci-fi/fantasy that fans often say they feel we've exited," Howe tells THR. "We're going to occupy that space in a way we haven't for the past few years."

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Indeed, as Syfy attempted to broaden its reach with shows like the short-lived Alphas, the sci-fi genre exploded elsewhere on cable. AMC's The Walking Dead remains the biggest series on TV in the key 18-to-49 demo, FX's American Horror Story regularly scores more Emmy nominations than any series, and Game of Thrones has attracted such a fervent fan base, HBO is filling Brooklyn's Barclays Center for its March 20 premiere. (Nevertheless, Syfy's ratings are among the more consistent on cable -- it remains a top 15 ad-supported network among adults 18-to-49, where it skews male.)

But NBCU brass has higher expectations for the network, and it has not had a celebrated and commercial breakout since Battlestar Galactica wrapped in 2009.

Syfy's new executive vp original content, Bill McGoldrick, who joined in November from corporate sibling USA following the exit of Mark Stern, has two mandates: greenlight a space opera a la Battlestar and usher the network back into the golden age of high-profile, big-budget miniseries now duplicated by so many of its competitors.

McGoldrick's first pull on the scripted trigger is Ascension, a limited series for which Syfy is closing a deal and eyeing for the fourth quarter. Part Battlestar and part Downton Abbey, it follows the 100-year-long space shuttle of colonists fleeing an Earth threatened by the early Cold War. In success, this and other forthcoming Syfy miniseries will have series potential.

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Going forward, Defiance, the $100 million gamble with a video game tie-in, and recent debut Helix (from Battlestar co-creator Ron Moore) are being viewed as steps toward what Syfy wants creatively: provocative, allegory-filled science fiction, unlike Syfy's lighter, more procedural formats of current Stephen King adaptation Haven or exiting Warehouse 13. New York-based Howe joined McGoldrick in Los Angeles during the first week of March to communicate their new wish list for originals to the major talent agencies. (The duo is less clear on unscripted plans, as supernatural fare -- including Syfy's long-running Ghost Hunters -- has been exhausted by competitors.)

Also of interest: more international co-productions (see dystopian Continuum and vampire crime drama Lost Girl) that get exclusive stateside first-runs at a modest cost. Howe considers acquisitions of reruns, once Syfy's bread and butter, to be firmly in the past. Off-net episodes of Lost, which he calls "a disaster," proved to him that the Syfy audience already is up to speed on its competitors' shows.

Lurking in the shadows, of course, is Sharknado. After it scored a huge 9.5 million viewers over six broadcasts last summer, Syfy is eager for the social-media cachet that the July 31 sequel likely will bring. But the cheap B-movies that have frequented its schedule are not a priority. Howe says he plans to cut back on campy tele­pics from the 20 to 24 that Syfy now airs each year (though he admits Sharknado likely will remain an annual event).

Instead, McGoldrick is most concerned with his directive of putting the network back in outer space -- be it with Ascension or another project.

"That's the way to send a message in a big way that we're back and we care about sci-fi," he says. "There is enormous pressure to get that back, because we used to own it. And we're going to own it again."