Tweeting about Syfy (Pronounced SCI-FI, Thank You)

"The channel that only geeks love decides that it doesn't love geeks."

Beginning July 7, 2009, the beloved though maligned Sci-Fi Channel will officially and henceforth be known as simply Syfy. Monday morning I learned over at Farpoint Media's Slice of SciFi Web site that the network's vice president, Craig Engler, would be answering fans' questions about the rebranding initiative via Twitter. Was this a legitimate attempt by the network to engage its viewers and address concerns about the name change? Or was it a slick Public Relations ploy, making it seem like they were being transparent and open, when in fact they were using Twitter's 140 characters per message limit to keep answers short, sweet, and vague, without having to delve into more detailed replies?

Despite my jaded skepticism, I jumped at the opportunity to let my voice be heard. I've been a long-time faithful viewer of the Sci-Fi Channel. I never thought there was a problem with the name. When my family first got cable, I remember the Sci-Fi Channel being the first thing I turned on. Finally, I remember thinking, a channel that airs only the cool stuff. Cool, in my mind, was anything about speculative fiction -- classics like The Twilight Zone, hit shows from my youth like The Incredible Hulk and The Six Million Dollar Man, and new programs like Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, and wonderful miniseries like Dune, Children of Dune, and Tin Man.

So why change? Why abandon what seems like a perfect, though generic, name like the Sci-Fi Channel? Generic worked for the History Channel, didn't it? Will trademarking the made-up word "syfy" be more valuable than the equity built on ownership of the sci-fi brand which they're now seemingly abandoning (Sci-Fi Channel,, Sci-Fi Magazine -- all of these were trademarkable even if "sci-fi" alone was not -- why not build to Sci-Fi Entertainment, Sci-Fi Comics, Sci-Fi Films, etc. instead of re-inventing the wheel?)
Sci-Fi is more than just science fiction. It's grown to encompass the broad spectrum of speculative fiction, to include fantasy and horror, stories of the fantastic. But there's a danger of straying too far from your base. When do you go too far off mission? Or do the base and the mission not matter anymore, turning the network into another bland "lifestyle" destination, losing its identity. Maybe the network didn't like that identity in the first place.

So I asked the question (#syfyq): Does SyFy's new branding mean less science fiction / fantasy programming? An hour later and still no response, even though Engler managed to answer another question that had been posted after mine (about whether or not Syfy might pick up Virtuality as a series, to which the reply was "unlikely for many reasons.") Was he picking and choosing which questions to answer and which to ignore? I thought my question was a fair one and an important one. So I snarkily tweeted, "Q&A on Twitter should mean quick replies. Syfy not answering tough questions? I'll be blogging about this, mark my words :)" Still silence. Then another person on Twitter wrote that they too were expecting more dialogue with Syfy, especially since they initiated the question-and-answer opportunity. Twitter is supposed to be real-time micro-blogging. Hours of delay defeat the concept in my opinion, and it makes Syfy seem like they're avoiding the questions that they don't want to answer.

Finally, Engler replied, "No, we are not changing our programming mix." Some naysayers out there might argue that the network already is downplaying its science fiction and fantasy programming, but the answer still satisfied me because I don't want to see the channel stray even further down the path of non- SF shows. Look at the negative reaction MTV has earned for itself by moving away from its Music Television roots. People wanted their MTV for a reason. Twenty-four hours of music videos may not have been a sustainable business model, and branching out to non-music programming, like the ground-breaking Real World reality show may have proven successful, but it all happened at the risk of losing some of their core audience and their unique niche identity that virtually defined a generation. Now, MTV is in many ways like a bunch of other networks out there forced to reinvent itself almost every Spring Break.

I tweeted back: "Glad to hear Syfy isn't abandoning science fiction / fantasy for more off-genre content. Thanks for answering." Maybe I read too much into Engler's answer. I hope I didn't. HBO is doing a live version of George R. R. Martin's fantasy epic Song of Ice and Fire and ABC is bringing a new version of V back to television -- these are the types of shows that Syfy should be developing. Instead of just being a repository for old reruns, b-movies, paranormal reality programming, and professional wrestling, Syfy should embrace its legacy as the key destination for thought-provoking speculative fiction.

I asked another question: "Another question for Syfy. Will Sci-Fi Magazine be affected by the Syfy rebranding?" Still no answer. How long does it take to come up with a 140 character reply?

Full disclosure: I always wanted to work for the Sci-Fi Channel or Sci-Fi Magazine. I sent my resume to them a few times over the years, but never got called back. My criticism of the rebranding effort isn't my bitter attempt to prove that I have better marketing/PR ideas. I honestly am just expressing my point of view as a diehard fan of the genre. I sometimes get the sense that some of the folks who work there do not have a love for the content they're providing, and it shows. A lot of them obviously do love the content they provide. I hope they don't lose their vision behind all the marketing gobbledygook. If building new audience means losing your old one, is it worth it?
Science fiction / fantasy is not a fringe market subculture, but in many ways a mainstream genre. Superhero films are blockbusters, programs like Lost, Heroes, and others drew mass market appeal. Let's hope Syfy doesn't forget the fans who tuned in when it all began.

One last thought: the name change has drawn some ridicule. Hopefully it won't become a New Coke debacle. Some claim it sounds like "siffy" the slang for syphilis, but, hey, some wackjobs always mispronounced Sci-Fi as "skiffy" so what are you going to do? If I was working for Syfy, even though I disagree with the name change, I'd start a marketing campaign that plays on the naysayers' reaction -- run ads that say, "Syfy -- It's pronounced SCI-FI." Mr. Engler, you can use that, free of charge. My gift to you. And I'll hold you to your word that you won't decrease the science fiction / fantasy content on the network. I still have faith in the channel that's already brought us so much great entertainment and wonder over the years. I hope it keeps going and doesn't transform into a clone of dozens of other lame channels out there in the boob-tube void.
Thanks for reading. Share your comments. Let me know what you think.


Vinny said…
I feel compelled to offer some defense of the new Sci-Fi moniker, "Syfy." The name change is not an attempt to distance itself from "geeks" or from science-fiction, fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, nor to change it's programming niche. It is an acknowledgement that a large demographic does not turn to the Sci-Fi channel because they simply "do not like Sci-Fi." And these people associate science fiction to trekkies and fanboys and geeks, without ever realizing that a show like Battlestar Galactica had a very broad appeal. What Syfy is attempting to do is remove that wall that instantly blocks others from giving their programming a chance.

However, the new name is a little off the mark. It may have worked before there ever was a Science Fiction channel, being a cute play on the term and indicating that this wasn't going to be hard-core science fiction programming. When I first saw their treatment of the logo, I knew that they were trying to emulate the marketing success of Wii. Here, again, was a name ridiculed at first, but is a perfect trademark stamp that nobody seems to have a problem with now. It, too, was an attempt to indicate inclusion rather than exclusion and it has worked. SyFy in contrast has caused confusion. In concept, it is ambiguous. Are they disguising SciFi because they are trying to distance their programming from science fiction, or are they trying to trick people into watching hard-core science fiction, that really doesn't have a broad appeal?

They have said that they want to corner "the imagination market." So I began to think about names that might have worked better. Visions, Dreamscapes, Dreams, Imagine -- all these words fit the concept but make lousy network names. I thought back to their own promotional ads that pulled the word "If" out of SciFi. This was a word that really could encompass the concept and was simple enough to work as a trademark. However, The If Channel is a terrible name, too. So then I thought of a question mark, knowing full well that couldn't be the name of a channel...and then it came to me. Q. The SciFi Channel should have changed its name to "Q". Not The Q Channel or QTV or anything else. Just Q. What does Q represent? Well, questions...quests...a character on Star Trek the Next Generation. It is an uncommon, unique, sort of mysterious letter. It would probably be ridiculed at first, but something that people would grow accustomed to. And it would encompass just about every form of speculative fiction available - fantasy, mystery, horror, sci-fi, alternative name it. Sadly, it is too late for me to help out the executives at SyFy. Their loss.
Nick said…
Good thoughts, Vinny.

You say that "The name change is not an attempt to distance itself from "geeks" or from science-fiction, fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, nor to change it's programming niche."

However, you then go on to say that the name change is an attempt to reach new audiences who would typically shy away from sci-fi programming. To me, that sounds like a contradiction.

Primarily, the name change is a marketing decision to be able to trademark and brand the channel more profitably. The word "sci-fi" alone cannot be trademarked, since it's a generic word in common use by the population with no connection to the Network. Likewise, the words you suggest also wouldn't be trademarkable as standalone words "Imagine," "Q," "If," etc. (although I agree that all are better than Syfy.)

Syfy is a made-up English word, so it can be trademarked. They can "own" that word in everything, just like "Disney" is a trademarked word.

The Network's big mistake is thinking that this was necessary. As I argued in my original blog entry, they had already built ownership on the sci-fi brand (channel, Web site, magazine, etc.) that they could have continued to build upon. Yes, they couldn't "own" all uses of the word "sci-fi" -- someone else might be able to start a company called Sci-Fi Films, or Sci-Fi Comics, but so what? They were the big players in the market. When people type "sci-fi" in Google, a bunch of other stuff shows up beyond the Network's content, but, again, so what?

Now they have the challenge of reinventing themselves to the public and entering the thoughts and awareness of the masses. How many people will randomly type Syfy in google, whereas before folks searching for "sci-fi" would come across lots of information about the Network's content? How long will it take people to remember how to spell Syfy or learn how to even pronounce it when they see it written somewhere?

And honestly, all the talk about people being turned off by "sci-fi" and not willing to give science fiction and fantasy a try is nonsense. As I said in my post, speculative fiction is a mainstream genre. Yes, some stuff still has a "negative geek" stigma, but for the most part people will judge content by how GOOD it is, not by whether or not it's action, horror, romance, etc.

Any negative connotations toward the Sci-Fi Channel were probably created by the channel's own decisions to run low-budget cheesy grade Z movies. People will give Battlestar Galactica a try whether it's on Syfy or on Spike. The 4400 wasn't on Syfy, neither is True Blood, nor The Dead Zone, or countless other genre-themed show -- and people didn't test them out because they "weren't on the Sci-Fi Channel." With DVRs and the Internet, people don't rely on channel deignations as much as these marketers would have us believe. Content is still king -- but they'll continue to believe that packaging is really the key.

As a result, they'll stray away from sci-fi content in an attempt to become more homogenous with the other networks. It's sad when other channels provide some of the better science fiction and fantasy shows out there.

Syfy should focus more on the CONTENT and less on the name of its network.