Syfy knows they messed up. Now they have a plan to win you back.
The cable network’s top executives won’t say this in such blunt language, but they acknowledge that somewhere along the line, the network missed an opportunity to have more great scripted dramas. It happened sometime after the name change from Sci Fi Channel to Syfy and the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica—the acclaimed series that was once mentioned by critics alongside titles like Mad Men and The Sopranos as representing TV’s top-tier of storytelling. Once the weary Battlestar crew decided to settle on Earth in the show’s 2009 series finale, Syfy did much the same thing by launching terrestrial-based dramas like Warehouse 13, Sanctuary, Haven, and Eureka.
Let’s be clear: Syfy executives do not regret those titles; many were successful. The mistake wasn’t the dramas Syfy made but the ones Syfy did not make—acclaimed, must-see high-end “serious” shows like Battlestar that would get a lot of buzz and super-passionate fans.
The post-Battlestar shift made sense on paper. Broad-targeted female-friendly fantasies like Twilight and Harry Potter were dominating the box office while breezy crime dramas on USA and TNT ruled cable. So Syfy doubled down on light, sci-fi-themed procedurals.
Yet while Syfy was seeking TV’s version of Twilight (like Being Human), or an “Imagine Greater” version of Burn Notice (like Warehouse 13), other channels jumped into the serialized hard sci-fi/fantasy turf trail-blazed by Battlestar. AMC’s The Walking Dead—a premise that nobody in the industry thought would deliver a broad audience—became TV’s highest-rated series among adults 18-49. HBO enjoyed huge hits with True Blood and Game of Thrones. FX unleashed American Horror Story, and A&E got in the game with Bates Motel.
“We saw an explosion of sci-fi/fantasy content across every cable and broadcast network out there,” said Syfy president Dave Howe. “Perceptions of the genre have shifted dramatically. What that speaks to is an opportunity to re-own the genre and be at the forefront of high-end buzzy, provocative storytelling — and the epiphany of that was Battlestar.”
Largely in the last year, Syfy has shifted its course. Howe hired new programming chief (Bill McGoldrick, who answers our burning questions in a Q&A below), obtained a larger programming budget from parent company Comcast, and has amassed a truly impressive development slate (the five shows Syfy is betting will lure you back are also listed below). “Because of the cumulative density of the announcements we have made, I think the audiences are recognizing that we’re deadly serious about this and we are determined work with some of the biggest names out there,” Howe said. “We want to be the destination for the smartest, most provocative [genre dramas].”
The first show that felt like it was part of that new wave was last year’s Helix, which reunited the network with Battlestar showrunner Ron Moore and returns in January (and to a less extent, the previous year’s drama Defiance fits in this category too). Another title executives are excited about is Syfy’s attempt to reinvent the time-travel drama with a series take on the Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys, airing in January.
But the two titles to really watch out for are space operas. The first is Ascension, a mini-series premiering in December starring Tricia Helfer (Battlestar again), about a space ark launched in the 1960s. The production includes a massive set that is four stories high. The second is The Expanse, based on James S.A. Corey’s rollicking bestseller Leviathan Wakes, which is aiming to be the next great Star Trek/Firefly/Farscape space drama. “It’s probably one of the best scripts I’ve read in the last three to five years,” Howe said of The Expanse pilot. “We fought off a lot of competitors to get it.”
EW spoke in depth to Howe’s head of original programming, Bill McGoldrick, about the network’s new direction. Like Battlestar’s cylons, Syfy executives have evolved. And they have a plan.
EW: Can you talk about the creative direction in terms of where you saw Syfy before and where it’s going now?
BILL MCGOLDRICK: In terms of where it was before with original content and some of the series that were on the air, maybe they were more procedural, more lighthearted in tone—and by the way, those shows worked really well for a long time. I’m referring to the Warehouses and the Eurekas. What we have in development now is more of a serious tone, more back to our roots. You’ve seen and probably heard about our desire to get back up to space. We have a couple really big shows that are trying to accomplish that—Ascension, The Expanse in particular, which play more toward I think the harder core sci-fi fan who used to be perceived as niche but is now mainstream and commercial in a way they have never been before. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.
What was the sort of change point where you guys said, “Okay, we need to be embracing this stuff again?”
For a lot of the time you’re talking about I wasn’t there. I do think the thrust toward imagination was about broadening the programming. When you look at a show like [reality competition series] Face Off, I think that that plays to the imagination and the rebrand in a way that does not alienate the hardcore sci-fi viewers. I do think there are instances where you have your cake and eat it too. But in terms of this new direction, I think when you look at the marketplace and you look at how passionate people are getting about shows—serialized shows specifically—the bar has been raised for the entire industry in terms of how well you have to execute your content to get that passionate core fan base that really acts as its own marketing in terms of word of mouth. And it’s not just genre—I do think you see certain similarities in Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad when you talk about really high-end, serious, modern cable TV execution. That’s where we’re going to try to play with the shows that we have coming up.
When you say “high-end,” I think of a larger budget. Are Syfy shows being given that larger budget to have that look-feel of those shows? I think one description of the previous Syfy shows is that they’re very “Canadian looking.”
When I was at USA we used to always have this phrase: “USA Network: Made in Canada,” because we shot a lot of stuff up there. A lot of people shoot up there. I know what you’re saying and the answer is Yes. We have bigger budgets now. We have budgets that could compete with anybody else in basic cable. Premium cable is a different story, obviously. The budget that HBO has—they’re playing a different game. But when you look at The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or anything that I worked on at USA, we are at least at that level, if not above. We are trying to bring in directors, producers, you name it, that can execute. I certainly think our shows are already looking better than they have in the past because the corporation supporting us [Comcast], and the corporation understands that we should be investing in genre right now. That’s been the biggest pleasant surprise I’ve had since I’ve arrived — the amount of resources Comcast is providing and kind of everybody up the food chain is recognizing that to pull off sci-fi in the way that we really want to pull it off, you do have to spend. You don’t have to be a reckless drunken sailor, but you do have to sometimes even outspend basic cable competitors for the shows to look the way they will.
So do you now think space operas can attract female viewers?
I passionately believe that. When you see the things that are working … I just went to go see Guardians of the Galaxy and it was not an audience of guys. When you’re talking about big-hit content that we can provide, you’re going to get everybody. At times sci-fi skews more male, but I think that’s changing and that’s an antiquated prejudice. My wife enjoys Game of Thrones as much as I do. I think if the storytelling is good and you can relate to the characters, you’ll get both.
You talked about having more serious content. So if The Walking Dead wasn’t on AMC, could you make that show the way they made it? Although you’ve progressed to some extent, a show opening with a cop shooting a little zombie girl in bunny slippers—that was a very shocking scene in basic cable network when that premiered. In terms of the support you have, internally and from Comcast, how much creative leeway do you have?
We could absolutely do that. I think if you really looked at Defiance, Dominion and some of the content we’ve already done, there’s some pretty rough stuff in those shows. I think sci-fi can be more provocative than any other genre. We will push it wherever we think is appropriate. We don’t want to just do it to do it, to just show that, hey, we can kill a baby, or shoot a dog. If the content points you in that direction, you have to be true to the direction of the story. We’re not looking to shock people just to shock them, but when those moments arrive, I don’t feel any pressure to water it down.
What’s the mandate now in terms of reality and wrestling and the other things that drew sci-fi fan ire over the past few years?
I definitely feel that ire from time to time. I hired a new head of reality who I worked with at USA Network. She’s going to come over and be taking a look at things. The demands we get from our audience in reality are a little different than the demand of other channels, where some of those tried-and-true formats are very much what they want. On our channel, it’s going to have to be more distinctive. We are going to have to invent formats that are specific for our network. I think Face Off is a great example. It’s had a long run of success because it plays to the core [audience]. It’s not a show where people are screaming at each other in a house or some of the other things you associate with reality TV. We had a long run with paranormal shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal Witness. Our audience really rejects those derivative filler reality shows. We have to work harder with smart producers to give them a different flavor of reality TV.
I can’t believe you guys got away with Ghost Hunters for that long.
It’s still going.
It’s been 10 seasons, three spin-offs, and all based on: “I think I might have seen a ghost.” That show is one of the most amazing pull-offs in reality history.
Come on, though, would you say that to Discovery about Ice Road Truckers? I used to watch that show waiting for one of those trucks to fall through the ice but it never, ever did. Certain shows you just watch that way.
Right, and Deadliest Catch—they’re just pulling crabs into the boat. You watch and think: “How many crabs are in the next pot?” It’s almost like a slot machine – you’re waiting for the variations. Though to get back on track, to me it’s amazing that there hasn’t been new hit space opera since Battlestar when all these other seemingly tough-to-crack geeky genres from horror to zombies to fantasy have all been sort of revitalized. How important is it for you guys to sort of claim that area back before somebody else does?
It’s incredibly important. It really is. It’s a staple of science fiction programming. Maybe other networks are just sort of afraid of it. We’re not. I’m almost reluctant to talk about this too much in interviews because I’d like it to just be us doing this because I think we know how to do it. I think we’ve got some incredible material coming. I’m think specifically about The Expanse. It’s a space opera the likes of which I don’t think anyone has seen yet. And we’ve got a great cast that’s starting to be assembled, really smart writers. It’s a huge priority for us and we’re already on the runway.
Any chance of the brands we’ve previously seen like Stargate or Farscape or Battlestar retuning.
Never say never, but no immediate plans.
You’re sort of looking to do something new and cool.
Exactly. Battlestar and Stargate had their spinoffs. I think now it’s about giving our audience some fresh stuff. But I would never close the door completely on any of those that you mentioned.
And Ascension. It’s billed as a miniseries, but so was Battlestar at first. What do you think the odds are, from what you’ve seen so far, of that being upped to series?
Truly, it’s too early to tell. The set is spectacular. You’ll see the way this show looks. It’s going to speak to a lot of your first questions about the budgets.
And you have 12 Monkeys.
I was on the set for a couple days in Toronto. I really could not have been happier. Sometimes you come back from these early set visits and you’re like, uh-oh, we might have a problem. I’ve read pretty far into the season thus far. They’ve put together a really smart take on a time travel show with some actors that are really going to pop. It feels like a show that’s going to be special.
Syfy’s battle plan to get you back: The cable network has projects adapted from beloved sci-fi novels (a series based on Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, a miniseries adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End starring Thrones’ actor Charles Dance), with talented writer-producer (like Oscar-winner Akiva Goldsman) and bigger budgets (the upcoming series The Expanse is the network’s most expensive show ever). Here are the five most promising titles that have been greenlit to air:
Ascension. Mini-series; possible series. Six hours. Stars Brian Van Holt, Tricia Helfer. The show sets up an alternate version of reality in which, in 1963, President Kennedy and the U.S. government, fearing the Cold War will become hot and lead to the destruction of the Earth, decided to launch a covert space mission. They sent 600 men, women and children into space on a century-long voyage aboard the Ascension, a massive, self-sustaining generation ship. Their mission is to populate a new world, known as Proxima, assuring the survival of the human race. Nearly 50 years into the journey (i.e. in the present), as they approach the point of no return, the mysterious murder of a young woman—the first homicide since their departure—causes the ship’s crew to question the true nature of their mission. Premieres Dec. 15, 2014.
12 Monkeys. Series, 13 episodes. Stars Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull and Kirk Acevedo. A complete re-imagning of the Terry Gilliam film. A time traveler from a decimated future journeys back to present day in a bid to locate and eradicate the source of a deadly plague that will pretty much annihilate the human race. Premieres Jan. 16, 2015.
Childhood’s End. Mini-series, 6 hours. Stars Charles Dance. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi classic, follows a breed of aliens called the “Overlords,” who manage to peacefully invade and rule Earth, and create a pseudo-utopia that comes at the price of human identity and culture. Premieres 2015.
The Expanse. Series, 10 episodes. Stars Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Steven Strait. Based on the series of books by James S.A. Corey, a thriller set two hundred years in the future, The Expanse follows the case of a missing young woman who brings a hardened detective and a rogue ship’s captain together in a race across the solar system to expose the greatest conspiracy in human history. No date.
Hunters. Series, 13 episodes. Based on Whitley Strieber’s novel Alien Hunter, a Philadelphia cop searches for his missing wife leads and discovers a secret government unit that assembled to hunt a group of ruthless terrorists who may not be from this world. Premieres 2016.