Re-engineering Pods and Remaking Classic Stories

Road to the Upfront: Sci-Fi Channel

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The Player: Sci-Fi Channel
The Date: March 18, 2008
The Venue: The Morgan Library, New York
Key Execs: Dave Howe, president, Sci-Fi Channel; Mark Miller, senior VP-ad sales, Sci-Fi; Adam Stotsky, exec VP-global brand strategy and market development; Craig Engler, senior VP, SciFi.com and Sci-Fi magazine; Shari Weisenberg, VP-strategic marketing
The Food: An assortment of flavorful Asian dishes, including a takeout box full of stir-fry and vegetarian wontons
The Drinks: A royal-hued cocktail, appropriately titled "purple drink," which consisted of grape vodka, perhaps a splash of chambord to get the color just right, and dry ice to make the drink bubble and produce smoke. A truly sci-fi drinking experience.
The network announced an aggressive slate of original programming for 2008-2009, led by the return of 'Battlestar Galactica' for its final season.
The network announced an aggressive slate of original programming for 2008-2009, led by the return of 'Battlestar Galactica' for its final season. Credit: Sci-Fi/Steve Freeman
The Swag: Upon arrival, guests were handed key chains with computer-screened jump drives for uploading any photos taken with Sci-Fi talent. The channel also gave out the third-season DVD set of "Battlestar Galactica."
The Celebs: Essentially the entire cast of "Battlestar," who hosted a press conference before the official presentation. The stars of "Eureka," "Destination Truth" and "Ghost Hunters" all set up photo stations throughout the event.
The Ratings Game: Sci-Fi has become the little network that could, finishing 2007 as the fourth-highest-rated cable network among viewers 25 to 54. Driving that significant growth was the huge success of "Tin Man," its four-part "Wizard of Oz"-inspired miniseries, which finished the year as the highest-rated original movie on ad-supported cable, garnering more than 4 million viewers a night. Nielsen's C3 metric also has become a friend to Sci-Fi, which frequently ranks as the most DVRed network on the dial.
Last Year's Take: Sci-Fi grossed $276.98 million in ad revenue in 2007, an increase from 2006's take of $268.5 million.
The Digital Play: SciFi.com has become a growing asset for the network, averaging 3.4 million unique visits a month. This year, the company is taking an aggressive online approach by adding three new targeted sites to its portfolio. The first, Dvice, is a tech-and-gadgets blog for the Gizmodo crowd that spun off of SciFi.com late last year. Next up is a gaming blog in April, followed by an entertainment site to roll out by year's end.
The Buyer's Take: Francois Martin, senior VP-marketing, Dimension Films, has partnered with Sci-Fi to promote several of its key male-targeted films, including a deal with "Ghost Hunters" last Halloween for a series of making-of spots to promote "The Mist." "They're targeted, and within their promotional offerings, they're very flexible in what we want to try to do with them," Mr. Martin said. The combined assets of Sci-Fi and SciFi.com have helped the studio reach core audiences across platforms. "I wouldn't say the total delivery is there, compared to a bigger site, but the targeted delivery is there. If you're going with a certain type of movie, it's a place you really want to target."

Until December, Sci-Fi President Dave Howe had one success he could always fall back on as a sign of Sci-Fi's strength as an original programmer: the 2002 Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries "Taken." The highly rated, big-budget production was a major brand builder for the evolving network, and its event-based marketing model was used again in 2006 for the Peter Krause-Julianna Margulies miniseries "The Lost Room." But after the latter was only a modest success, the stakes were high for 2007's entry into tent-pole programming, the "Wizard of Oz" update "Tin Man." After an extensive marketing campaign and an exclusive sponsorship with Verizon Wireless, records started breaking. The miniseries not only eclipsed "Taken" as Sci-Fi's most-watched program, it was also the highest-rated entertainment telecast among adults 25 to 54 in more than two years.

But "Tin Man" is only the peak of a gradual brand expansion Mr. Howe helped oversee in his previous role as exec VP-general manager of the network before taking the reins from Bonnie Hammer as president in September. "We're trying to bridge and unite the whole sci-fi/fantasy genre," he said. "We've tackled all the areas that could fit under that umbrella. There's going to be traditional superhero elements, superpowers, the technology of Sci-Fi, etc., you'll find. ... We're much broader than the technology space."

A recent effort to help change that perception among Sci-Fi viewers, as well as get advertisers in on enhancing commercial retention, is a series of 10-second, co-branded spots revolving around the phrase "If." The animated interstitials act not only as network promos but as mini commercials, as the spots are sold to marketers both endemic to the network's core audience and not so much. A recent Pillsbury spot, for example, featured a man taking a whiff of the word "If," only to turn into the Pillsbury doughboy upon making impact with the brand slogan.

Adam Stotsky, the network's exec VP-global brand strategy and market development, has helped produce 40 to 50 of the spots over the past five years, long before engagement and commercial ratings were front-and-center metrics in the upfront. Since the spots are often scattered throughout commercial pods, the network can't always drill down the quantitative viewing effects, but the qualitative response has been quite favorable. "From an audience standpoint, one of the brand assets Sci-Fi has is branded storytelling. They have told us consistently they always look forward to new brand messaging from Sci-Fi."

Online, the story is also evolving quite rapidly to keep up with the tech-savvy audience's media habits. Where tech blogs such as Gizmodo, Engadget and Lifehacker have captured a majority of Sci-Fi's core audience of men 18 to 49 online, the network has done a sizeable job of maintaining a target demo within the audience online with SciFi.com. The strategy for this year will be to add three more dedicated sites to its stable, beginning with Dvice last year and continuing with a gaming blog in April and an entertainment site by year's end.

Though the ad sales will be mostly horizontal, the targeting capabilities are vertical. "The intent is to take the core consumer and look at those passions, affinities and areas that unite and excite me and feed that insatiable need around entertainment, technology and gaming," Mr. Howe said. "We can aggregate and isolate them depending on the advertiser and the brand."

On the programming front, the network announced an aggressive slate of original programming for 2008-2009, led by the return of "Battlestar Galactica" for its final season, to be succeeded by a prequel, "Caprica." Also on deck are new episodes of hit reality series "Ghost Hunters" and "Mind Control With Derren Brown," a new hidden-camera "Fear Factor"-esque series called "Scare Tactics" hosted by Tracy Morgan, and competition series "Estate of Panic." The network also could outdo its "Tin Man" success sooner rather than later: An adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland," simply dubbed "Alice," is in the works.
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