Television

Popular Science

EW spotlights the Sci Fi channel -- Cable's geekiest channel gets a makeover courtesy of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and NBC.

In a high-level meeting in a conference room in an L.A. skyscraper, a dozen Sci Fi Channel execs are discussing upcoming projects when . . . uh-oh. Seems there's a wrinkle with Ghost Hunters, the network's new plumbers-by-day, spirit-investigators-by-night reality series. ''Apparently they caught a real ghost on tape,'' explains exec VP of original programming Mark Stern, ''and I say this with a straight face.'' Giggles. ''I swear! It freaked them out. The camera guy quit.''

Creepy apparitions aren't the only paranormal occurrences at Sci Fi these days. Behold the growing ratings! (The network is the No. 8 basic-cable channel among 18-to-49-year-olds, up 16 percent since last year.) Marvel at the stellar success of their original programming! (Battlestar Galactica was 2003's most watched cable miniseries, while the series premiere of Stargate Atlantis drew an impressive 4.2 million viewers in July.) Gawk at the Hollywood bigwigs lining up for work! (Hello, Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese!) Tremble at the force of its devoted fan base, who willed a canceled show back to life! (The cult hit Farscape, above, returns Oct. 17 with a miniseries, The Peacekeeper Wars.) Scarier still, reports indicate that not all people watching Sci Fi sleep in Federation pj's! (Forty-three percent of the audience is . . . female.) ''Sci Fi is the little engine that could,'' declares president Bonnie Hammer. ''Every plateau we get to, someone says, 'They're doing great, but they ain't gonna get any further.' And every year, we prove everybody wrong.''

True, but it's taken a while to climb out of Nerd Valley. Launched in 1992, Sci Fi quickly became the place to go . . . when you were bored and wondered if anything was actually on Channel 116. Highlights included repeats of the '60s soap Dark Shadows, and an insect puppet hosting Bug Week. When the millennium dawned, Sci Fi decided to aim a little higher. Its $14 million Dune miniseries drew a surprising 4.6 million viewers. Two years later, Steven Spielberg's Taken — a $40 million, 20-hour multi-generational saga about alien abductions — grabbed an audience of 5 million and earned Sci Fi its first major Emmy. ''For years we'd put calls in to grade-A talent. If we'd get a call back from an assistant in three weeks, we felt like, 'At least they returned the call,''' says Hammer. ''[Now] people are calling us.'' On the phone log: Martin Scorsese, who's developing an Armageddon-ish miniseries; Frank Darabont, who's revamping The Thing; and Ridley Scott, who's updating The Andromeda Strain.

Add another notable name to the list: NBC, which oversees the channel after it merged with Sci Fi's parent, Universal, in May. Now NBC hopes to use its cross-promotional power to break out Sci Fi like it did with Bravo last year. Sci Fi is ''the next big channel,'' says NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker. ''It's a huge priority for us.'' (For example, the Peacock may re-air the Battlestar miniseries to get fans psyched for Sci Fi's January series launch.) That marketing muscle will be useful as Sci Fi explores new (read: more mainstream) programming frontiers. This December brings Earthsea, a four-hour fantasy described as The Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter. ''It's potentially going to bring in a family audience that we never attracted in the past,'' says GM Dave Howe. The network is also developing Tin Man, a Wizard of Oz-inspired law-enforcement miniseries.

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