SCI FI president Dave Howe answers your Syfy questions

Contributed by
Jul 5, 2015, 4:57 PM EDT

Our story "SCI FI Channel to become Syfy" generated more than 1,000 comments from readers, including a lot of questions about the change. So we asked SCI FI president Dave Howe if he'd like to answer them on SCI FI Wire, and following is what he had to say.

Why did you change your name in the first place? What's wrong with sci-fi?

Howe: There's nothing wrong with sci-fi, and we've had 16 great years as the SCI FI Channel. We love sci-fi, which is why we've said we have no intention of abandoning our roots or our core audience. We intend to continue to develop and produce great sci-fi shows like the two upcoming series we recently greenlit, Stargate Universe in the fall and Caprica, the prequel to Battlestar Galactica, coming early next year. Plus we're bringing back Eureka in July, Sanctuary in the fall and launching a brand-new sci-fi show, Warehouse 13, in July. We're still the biggest producer of sci-fi shows in all of TV, and we intend to stay number one.

Isn't this just an excuse to put more shows on that aren't sci-fi?

Howe: As the SCI FI Channel, we've always defined the sci-fi genre very broadly. Some of you may disagree, but we believe that sci-fi includes fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, superhero, horror and quite a lot of speculative action and adventure. Since we launched 16 years ago, we've always carried this broad range of sci-fi/fantasy programming on our air. So the mix of shows isn't new and won't change in the future.

The challenge for our brand is that many non-SCI FI Channel viewers think "sci-fi" is only about space, aliens and the future. (Those are the actual words many people use in focus groups.) They still only expect to see reruns of Star Trek on something called the SCI FI Channel.

So we believe that by evolving our branding, we'll be able to encourage more viewers to check us out and watch the broad range of shows on our air. And that includes our hit reality shows—such as Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth—which are rooted in the supernatural: ghosts, myths and legends. And because our new brand is less literal than the letters "sci-fi," it's actually catching up with our current range of programming and makes more sense to new viewers. And by expanding our audience, this will help us grow as a business.

How does changing your name help grow your business?

Howe: The world has changed dramatically since we launched our channel 16 years ago, and we need to evolve with it. We need to position our brand to compete more effectively in a fiercely competitive, multi-platform, multi-media and global world. To do that we have to be able to differentiate or separate our brand from a generic category. There are literally thousands of sci-fi movies, sci-fi series, sci-fi Web sites and sci-fi games out there. If we're called sci-fi, it's difficult for us to own or brand our own shows when they're watched on DVD, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix or any other digital media or platform now or to come. And there's no way for us to cultivate our own unique point of view.

Here's a couple of great examples that we hope illustrate what I'm talking about in a different way. ESPN and COKE are both powerful brands. But if they were called SPORTS or SODA, no one would know why they're different or why they're worth checking out. They'd lose their personality, point of difference and ability to stand out in the marketplace. "Sci-fi" is the generic term. It's not a brand name we can own or that separates our shows from all of the other sci-fi shows out there.

It's also impossible to effectively trademark the letters "s-c-i-f-i" anywhere in the world, which is becoming a bigger problem as we launch more and more SCI FI Channels around the globe. By the end of next year, the SCI FI Channel will be in about 50 countries.

Also, we need to grow our business beyond just being a cable channel. We want to extend our brand into new businesses, such as gaming, films or the youth market. But if we created a "SCI FI Games" label or a "SCI FI Films" label, it's the same problem of ownability. Our current name doesn't work. But "Syfy Games" or "Syfy Films" does work. It's a unique and recognizable brand name that consumers will know comes from us.

Why do you hate your core fan base? Don't you know we helped make your network a success? Why don't you want to be associated with us anymore?

Howe: This is a total misperception, and none of us at the channel have ever said this. As I've tried to stress in the first question, we love the sci-fi genre, and we love our passionate fans. And that's why we continue to create shows we hope you'll enjoy. And it's why we're always at Comic-Con every year, bringing all of our stars to meet the fans and speak on panels.

It's worth repeating what I said in the press release for our brand evolution: "While continuing to embrace our legacy and our core audience, we needed to cultivate a distinct point of view with a name that we could own that invites more people in and reflects our broader range of programming."

And we totally mean it. We've embraced our core audience for 16 years, and we'll continue to do so. And, what's more, we want to invite more and more people to the party so that they become fans of the genre we all love. We think shows like Battlestar Galactica can and should appeal to a wide audience of both core fans and new viewers alike, an idea that was embraced by Star Wars more than 30 years ago and that continues with shows such as Lost and Heroes today. Our strategy is to be more inclusive, to share great sci-fi shows with more people.

Then why did you say, "The name SCI FI has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular"?

Howe: We didn't say this! This was a quote by a TV historian named Tim Brooks, speaking to TV Week, which has been mistakenly attributed to us by some people. That is not our view, and we wholeheartedly disagree with what Brooks had to say. He does not work for the network, and he hasn't for more than 10 years.

Our view is that we want to build on 16 years of delivering great shows to our core viewers, as well as to broaden our brand to attract more new viewers to shows like Eureka, Caprica and Stargate Universe.

Did you do any research about the new name with sci-fi fans?

Howe: Yes, we did extensive research with our core audience. Here are three quotes from sci-fi fans that are a good summary of what we heard:

"SCI FI sounds very generic, sounds basic. Syfy sounds cool, cutting edge, ... the cool thing you want to be associated with."

"It tells me that they are going to have different kinds of shows that are not just science fiction."

"The way it looks now, you look at it, and you think science fiction in terms of future shows, outer space ... as opposed to some of their shows, like Eureka and Ghost Hunters, which don't fit really into your outer-space science fiction."

Do you know there are more than 1,000 comments on SCI FI Wire about the new name and that almost all of them are negative?

Howe: Yes, and we've read them all and welcome the feedback from our viewers, good and bad. We're incredibly lucky to have so many people who feel passionate about our brand, even when they say things that are critical about us. And, of course, we didn't expect everyone to like our new name. One of the things that's a constant about any new brand or a brand that changes its name or logo is that the initial reaction will always be "Why?" or "That makes no sense." (And, yes, we knew the phrasing would not be quite as polite as that!)

We've done a huge amount of research over the years about changing our name, and we knew that not everyone would welcome it. But we believe our new name, Syfy, gives us the best of both worlds. It builds off of our heritage but still creates a unique and ownable brand name that we can use to separate our shows from everyone else's and opens our brand to new viewers. We think the long-term effect will be game-changing. Other brands that people didn't like or didn't get at first include Wii, Hulu, TiVo and even Amazon and Google! That's great company to keep. And there's another beloved brand we re-imagined a few years back that at first everyone didn't trust us to get right, and that's a show called Battlestar Galactica!

Without Stargate Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica on the network, what science fiction shows are left to watch?

Howe: Eureka will be back in July, and Sanctuary is back in the fall. A brand-new sci-fi series, Warehouse 13, debuts in July, and Stargate Universe premieres in the fall. Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, a two-hour event movie, will air in the fall, and the Battlestar prequel Caprica will premiere early in the new year. We think this is a fantastic lineup of new and returning sci-fi shows, and we're developing even more for the future.

Is this just a move to justify putting more reality shows on your network? What does reality have to do with science fiction anyway?

Howe: We strongly believe that reality has a place in our programming mix, together with non-scripted documentary specials that we've always had on our air. Shows such as Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth have a huge and growing audience, and they're rooted in speculative or paranormal investigation. Reality series help us bring in new and younger viewers who discover and stay for our scripted shows. And we invest a lot of creative energy in them, ensuring that our reality series make sense for our brand and our audience. We realize, though, that reality isn't for everyone, and that's why we're committed to maintaining a mix of programming that includes a fantastic lineup of original dramatic series.

Is this just an excuse to put more wrestling on your channel?

Howe: ECW has successfully brought new younger viewers to our channel. We have no plans to increase the amount of wrestling on the channel.

You say you want your brand to be more female-friendly, but I'm a woman and I like the old name. Don't I count?

Howe: You absolutely count, and we appreciate that you're watching our shows. And we're not saying that no women watch the network. In fact, almost half of our audience is women, thanks to shows such as Ghost Hunters that attract more women than men. But overall, our channel and the sci-fi genre in general tend to skew more male than female, and we want to ensure we remain gender-balanced and continue to bring in new female viewers, who often say they don't like traditional sci-fi.

Do you know what "syfy" means in Polish?

Howe: Yes, we were enlightened early on in the process that in Polish, "syfy" means everything from sludge, gross objects, articles without value, devices not performing according to specification, even a social disease! What a colorful language! Because we knew this ahead of time, we had already made the decision to keep the SCI FI name in Poland. But other international territories were overwhelmingly in favor of Syfy, and we'll be implementing our new brand in all other countries.

Are you sure this isn't just an early April Fool's joke?

Howe: I'm sure!