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4 Mar 2009


High Sci Fi

US CABLE PROGRAMMING: Driven by a raft of reality shows and a broadening of the genre, Sci Fi Channel has steadily climbed the US cable rankings. But it's still looking for one show in particular, president Dave Howe tells Adam Benzine.

Last June saw Sci Fi Channel president Dave Howe (left) jetting back to his native UK to meet more than 20 production companies and hear their pitches during a whistlestop four-day tour.

The aim of the trip, on which Howe was accompanied by Sci Fi Channel's executive VP of original programming Mark Stern, was to find a reality show that could match the success of Ghost Hunters, the paranormal investigation series that has been at the forefront of the channel's renaissance.

"We have five projects from that specific trip that are in development," says Howe. "A couple of them fell by the wayside quite quickly, because we couldn't figure out how to structure the deals. The challenge for UK indies, compared with the US, is we aim to own outright all of the products that we do, because with the whole DVR issue we make our money back in the back end, rather than just airing it on the network, so the whole licence fee game is slightly different here than it is in the UK.

"And the thing about reality is we fully fund it, so that's another reason why we aim to own all of the rights."

Reality has really been the lynchpin of Sci Fi's success. That, coupled with a overall broadening of the genre - courtesy of breakthrough shows such as Lost and Heroes on other networks - has seen the channel's average viewing age decrease.

"The thing that always surprises people about Sci Fi is how big it is, how mainstream and how 'not niche.'" says Howe. "Reality is an area that three years ago we really weren't doing any of, and now Ghost Hunters is probably one of the biggest reality franchises in the whole of cable in the US.

"We ended up last year as the number five cable network in the US for 25-54s, which is the advertiser demo that we go after. So that positions us just behind the big three players, TNT, TBS and USA Network. I think A&E just pipped us to number four, but frankly it was within a stone's throw."

The position was the highest the channel has achieved yet, and it was also at number nine for 18-49s, the other key advertiser demo that it targets.

"We're aiming to move up that ranking this year if we can, and we're doing that through a lot of the younger-skewing reality shows," adds Howe. "The reality stuff is also more female skewing, which helps us maintain our gender balance which is almost 50/50 split between the two. Last year was 48% female, which is amazing."

Aside from Ghost Hunters, other shows that have won ratings for the channel include Destination Truth, a reality series which sees host Josh Gates travelling the world to find exotic and legendary creatures and phenomena; and Scare Tactics, a hidden-camera show bought back by the network after a three-year hiatus.

Not everything has delivered as expected, however. "We took a swing with two new reality shows last year: Chase, which was a sort of real-life computer video game competition, and Estate of Panic which was an Endemol Fear Factor-type haunted house show," explains Howe. "We haven't made a decision on which of those shows will come back this year but we're aiming to bring one or both of them back.

"The challenge for us is to get the young-skewing balance right. Sometimes we've had shows that have been too young-skewing. Who Wants To Be A Superhero?, which we had a couple of years ago, did great in its first season but was very young and appealed to a lot of kids and a family crowd, which isn't something that we've actively pursued, so we didn't pick that up beyond a second season."

The key show that the channel has been searching for is a partner for Ghost Hunters (left). The paranormal show airs Wednesdays at 21.00, and the broadcaster wants a similar series to launch off its back at 22.00.

"We are absolutely focused on finding more partner shows that we can launch with Ghost Hunters - anything that taps into the supernatural, paranormal space, that gives you that docu-soap of a team in these houses, and also the visceral fear element of ghostly, spine-chilling stuff going on within the house," says Howe. "We'd really love to nail another show that we can put alongside Ghost Hunters, and that's a big focus for this year."

Like all US cablecasters, however, Sci Fi has to deal with another sort of reality: the reality of the economic downturn. It is something Howe says the network has been feeling particularly sharply since the start of the year

"Quarter one we're seeing slow down on an almost daily basis," admits Howe. "I think we're going to hit our targets in Q1, but Q2 is looking increasingly difficult as we head into the upfronts.

"We've been creative about scheduling, as most networks are being, so there are some shows that we've bumped later into the year. We've moved a few things around. We're still forecasting to hit our targets in terms of ratings and revenue, but almost on a daily basis the news seems to get worse, and I think that there's a lot of uncertainty amongst advertisers.

"Everybody's living from hand-to-mouth, and no-one can quite predict how much money is going to be in the market. We are seeing a lot of advertisers exercising options. Where they've bought airtime in last year's upfront, they have the right to port a certain percentage of that, and we're seeing some of that. That's expected. But we are at this point cautiously optimistic that we'll get through this year, and I think if we can, we should be in very strong shape to reap the benefits of the upturn."

To view the CableU report on Sci Fi Channel click here.

Adam Benzine

4 Mar 2009

© C21 Media 2009


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