Why Sci-Fi Grabs More Than Geeks

Human-Focused Content, Novel Marketing Pushes Channel Into Mainstream

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You can't just stick Spock ears on Patrick Dempsey and make a Vulcan McDreamy. But that's just what Sci-Fi Channel has struggled with for years. How do you make the channel's extraterrestrial fare palatable to the mass market -- and to mass marketers?
'Painkiller Jane': Sci Fi is building a downloadable comic book around show
'Painkiller Jane': Sci Fi is building a downloadable comic book around show

What its come up with is a combination of content changes, innovative marketing ideas that go beyond 30-second spots and closer ties to parent network NBC to help widen the channel's appeal. That strategy, along with a shift in consumer tastes in TV programming -- think less reality, more escapist -- has Sci-Fi as close to the mainstream marketing audience as it's ever been.

"I think Sci-Fi, like many focused cable networks, walks a fine line in trying to grow their audience, because they do have an audience that's into the geeky, prosthetic sci-fi stuff," said JupiterResearch analyst Joe Laszlo. "They don't want to alienate them, especially because -- by and large -- they tend to be young men."

Eclectic programming
So instead of writing them off, Sci-Fi is going for inclusionary -- and eclectic. Programming schedules include "Doctor Who" on the same night as "Battlestar Galactica," and "The Twilight Zone" with "Painkiller Jane." Of course, "Battlestar" and "Jane" are still solid science-fiction shows with intergalactic and comic-book origins, respectively, but they depart vastly from old-school sci-fi in tone and look.

Their content is intentionally more "human," with emotional and aspirational stories, social commentary and plain old everyday drama. It is also more human in appearance, with characters "cast with people who look like you and me," said Adam Stotsky, senior VP-marketing and creative for Sci-Fi Channel.

That shift from space oddesseys and aliens has been gradual over the past few years -- roughly since NBC merged with Vivendi Universal in 2004 and added Sci-Fi -- but will continue as older series are updated and new ones are added, said Dave Howe, exec VP-general manager of Sci-Fi Channel.

But it's not just the content that's exploring new frontiers, something necessitated by the fact that you can't drop a can of Coke or a Happy Meal into an alien universe.

Next-gen marketing
In marketing, Sci-Fi's mission seems to be pushing the envelope. A just-launched effort pushes aggressively into mobile marketing. Beginning with "Painkiller Jane," Sci-Fi is setting up a destination site for mobile-device users with games, shows and a downloadable digital comic book. It's planning similar mobile extensions for other programs, including "Ghost Hunters," "Eureka" and "Battlestar Galactica."

Other recent successes include extensive cross-platform deals. Microsoft sponsored "The Lost Room" miniseries in December, promoting Microsoft Live with a program that included an online and offline search for clues across media partners such as the New York Post, The New Yorker, AOL and MySpace. Another marketer, DirecTV, in January began sponsoring all "Battlestar Galactica" episodes with co-marketing, including SMS mobile alerts, DVDs, sweepstakes, and online sponsorships; and promotions on the Battlestar iTunes page, blogs, podcasts and webisodes.

That's not to say there aren't any in-show placements. Last season, Sci-Fi scored an unlikely hit with a goofy reality series "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" which averaged 1.5 million viewers weekly. This season will see at least one marketer immersion. Despite the urge to find new fan bases, it won't surprise anyone that the guest brand is represented by a hot cartoon woman. Online auto insurer Esurance's superhero brand icon, Erin Esurance, will guest star and issue the challenge of the week to rescue stolen money that was destined for a charity.

Jack's Links Beef Jerky signed on as sponsor for Sci-Fi's rebranded Saturday-night lineup of movies, "The Most Dangerous Night on Television," with its icon, Sasquatch, showing up during the block in promotional tie-ins.

Small, yet powerful audience
The potential reach for those marketers will be in the low millions. Sci-Fi is available in some 85 million homes, and it was the third-ranked cable network on Saturdays during the last season of "Battlestar." Still, its viewer numbers are dwarfed by those of the networks: "Battlestar," for instance, draws an average of 2.1 million viewers every week, while parent NBC's "Heroes" draws audiences of up to 15 million viewers.

Yet Sci-Fi's audience is a valuable one, demographically speaking. Experian Simmons recently ranked SciFi Channel at the top of all cable networks in a slice and dice of audiences against four categories of consumers outlined in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point." SciFi came in first among adults 18 to 49 in two of the four categories: "Mavens," or information specialists particularly adept at word-of-mouth distribution, and "Innovators," described as trend creators and risk takers.
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