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In 2002, one year after becoming president of the then Sci Fi Channel, Bonnie Hammer admitted to Advertising Age, “I know we need to serve people who aren’t geeks.” Last year, Dave Howe, current president of Syfy, relented in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, ”The issue that we’ve always had with Sci Fi is that it only communicates three things: Space, aliens and the future.” As ambassadors for a channel named Syfy, Hammer and Howe sure don’t seem to like Science Fiction.
A quick glance over the entry for Science Fiction on Wikipedia makes it clear that the Sci Fi genre is not just “space, aliens and the future.” But in the executive offices at Syfy attitudes have been to look down on their core audience for over a decade. Dave Howe joined the channel in 2001 as Executive VP of Marketing & Brand Strategy and is currently President of Syfy. Bonnie Hammer joined as Programming Manager in 1998 and within 3 years became President. Currently Bonnie is President of NBC Universal Cable which oversees programming on Syfy. Since they began with Syfy they’ve been attempting to change the channel into something different.
Despite Changes, Syfy Still Thinks Sci Fi is for Geeks
When the Sci Fi Channel changed names to Syfy last year it came as a shock to most viewers – especially the fans. In a video by Broadcasting & Cable, Dave Howe explained the change:
“In a lot of respects our new name is catching up with our programming slate. So if you look at the broad landscape of sci-fi/fantasy, it isn’t just about space, aliens and the future. It’s about fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, superhero, action/adventure, mystery. And I think a lot of our content speaks of that: Ghosthunters, Destination Truth, Estate of Panic. And a lot of shows which are much broader, much more relatable than what people expect from us.”
To the viewers, Sci Fi has always been relatable. As Howe’s comment reveals, the recent change of logo accompanies a change in the programming – a banishing of Science Fiction from Syfy. But despite that it seems like a sudden, drastic measure to fans, executives at Syfy have been trying to shed Sci Fi’s “geeky image” since the 1990s.
In 2003 a marketing campaign was created aimed to reach Science Fiction loving fans that are “not geeks”. Roger Guillen, acting VP for Creative at the time, spoke to Animation World Network about the first time the Sci Fi Channel changed their logo. They wanted to squash Saturn from the logo because it “played right into the pejorative view of Sci Fi.” Guillen explained why it was kept; “We have a lot of equity in the planet, a lot of our core viewers like the idea of a Saturn logo.” And so it stayed part of the logo for 6 more years. Today’s Syfy logo, created under Dave Howe, notoriously eliminated the Saturn icon cherished by viewers. This was one of many actions taken by Syfy over the years against their fans’ desires.
Before the Sci Fi Channel ever talked of changing the logo, there were always talks of changing the image. In 2001, Bonnie Hammer, then Executive Vice President of the Sci Fi Channel was interviewed by CNN. She spoke of her efforts to try to make the channel “more accessible”. The results were the “I am Sci Fi” advertisements which debuted in April of 1999. The ads featured celebrities (specifically from outside the Sci Fi genre) thrown into Sci Fi settings and situations proclaiming, “I am Sci Fi.” Entertainment Weekly labeled them as an “effort to transform the network’s geeky image.” Perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, the World Wrestling Federation‘s (precursor to WWE) Sable starred in one of the commercials.
Why is Wrestling on Syfy?
“If I were to give you [the] USA [network], what would you do?” Jeff Zucker, President of NBC Universal, asked of Bonnie Hammer in 2004. She shared this story in interviews with the New York Times. Her response? “First of all, I wanted to give it a brand. Nobody knows what USA is. And the other thing was to bring back the W.W.E. to its rightful home.” Last year Syfy underwent a brand change and this year took on WWE Smackdown. Coincidence?
Before the WWF ever aired on USA in 1993, Bonnie‘s supervisor had told her she would be responsible for bringing wrestling to the network. Hammer gave her boss the finger and almost resigned. She told the LA Times, “I was so startled. I thought, ‘This is what my career is coming to?’” But Bonnie went through with it and forged a 7 year and growing relationship with Vince McMahon, CEO of the WWE, that she has fervently protected since.
In 2000 the WWE left USA for TNN (now Spike). Ultimately Bonnie fought hard to bring WWE back to USA in 2005. David Zaslov explained it to USA Today:
“The reason we were in the game was because (WWE Chairman Vince McMahon) and his whole crew loved Bonnie and believed that she understood brands. But the (price) was big, and there was a question about whether we should step up to the plate. She fought every battle to get that thing to the finish line — including to raise her hand and say, ‘I will make it work.’ “
Dave Howe, current president of Syfy, ushered WWE Smackdown in as part of Syfy‘s programming this year.
Bonnie recalled meeting Dave to Broadcasting & Cable, ”Dave came into the office, and it was instant chemistry. He was somebody who just had a fresh look at things.” It was Bonnie that convinced Howe to move to the US to join the Sci Fi Channel in 2001. Upon taking over her position as President of the Sci Fi Channel in 2008 he spoke fondly of Bonnie. “She will remain my boss, and she’ll also be a key adviser and mentor,” he told Variety.
Thanks to Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe‘s close professional relationship and interchangeable opinions of Science Fiction programming, WWE Smackdown was enthusiastically welcomed to Syfy. It took over a night that had come to be known as “Sci Fi Fridays”, pushing Syfy‘s two current most Science Fiction entrenched series to Tuesday. Shoving Caprica and Stargate Universe to Tuesday would ultimately prevent them from bring renewed.
Superstition Always Directs Action in the Absence of Knowledge
The name SYFY has more letters in common with the word FantaSY than it does with Science Fiction. This comes as no surprise when you look at the definition of what Science Fiction is from the points of view of Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe:
“[Sci-fi is] anything outside of what we know to be true. Sci-fi is speculative fiction. [...] It’s a place for reverie. Fantastical. The magical. Very different.” This was Bonnie Hammers definition of Sci Fi according to a 2001 article with CNN.
“‘Science fiction’ to most people conjures up a narrow definition of space, but the term ‘fantasy’ is much more appealing, especially to women,” Dave Howe told AdWeek a year before changing the Sci Fi Channel to Syfy. “[Fantasy] doesn’t just mean swords and sorcery, but includes the world of magic, supernatural, the paranormal. And women are more open to the paranormal and supernatural than men are.”
The reason that Syfy‘s programming includes increasing amounts of Reality, Fantasy and Wrestling is because Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe not only have a fundamental aversion to the Science Fiction genre, but they don’t understand it.
Space, Aliens and The Future
In a commencement speech to graduates of Boston University’s College of Communication this year, Bonnie Hammer said:
“Your unique point of view is what will distinguish you in the marketplace, so embrace it! As communicators it’s important for us to remember [...] it’s more than the medium that makes the difference – it’s what you’ve got to communicate.”
Today’s communication mediums are emerging technologies like DVR units, Blu-ray and cyberspace. Though they may seem alien to out of touch network executives, they are the future. A recent study published by Nielsen shows that Science Fiction lovers are the largest group using one of these new technologies. On average, 1.3 million Science Fiction fans watch their shows via DVR within one week of airing.
The most forward-thinking television companies will jump on the opportunity to use the emerging technologies their viewers use to become successful. I, for one of many, would love to see Syfy take the reigns and lead the Science Fiction genre where no man (or woman – or company) has gone before.
Bonnie, you’ve called “asking for what you want” a trademark of yours. I have a few requests for you and Dave:
- Will you embrace Science Fiction for what it is, distinguish Syfy in the marketplace and give us a unique point of view that television currently doesn’t offer?
- Will you acknowledge your fans and help us make Syfy a success?
- Will you bring back quality Science Fiction programming like Caprica?
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