After its launch in September of 1992, Sci-Fi had initially garnered a reputation as a depository of old episodes of funky fantasy-oriented retreads like "Dark Shadows" or "Lost in Space."
But while its programming failed to grab the media spotlight, Sci-Fi slowly managed to win over viewers, especially in the all-important demographic of adults 18-49. Now, it has emerged as one of the top three networks on some advertisers' young-adult hit lists.
Part of the reason has been hip on-air promotions catering to sci-fi fanatics, like last month's sweepstakes giving away four week-long trips to destinations related to Sci-Fi's newest programs. They included visits to the Jim Hensen Creature Shop in London and Kuujjuaq, Quebec to see the Northern Lights.
Another element has been programs such as "Star Trek: The Original Series," a 90-minute series featuring restored and digitally remastered episodes. Part of the attractions is the inclusion of interviews stars such as William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Now, Sci-Fi is hitting its stride with a raft of original new sci-fi programs aimed at locking in its young adult fans.
"We're hoping that in a year or two the channel becomes an adjective, that people will start saying, 'That was really sci-fi,' rather than 'That was really cool.' We want the channel in a sense to be a lifestyle; a mix of really cool, imaginative stuff," says Bonnie Hammer, senior VP of programming for the Sci-Fi Channel.
Regular advertisers include Procter & Gamble Co., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Microsoft Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., among many others.
"Sci-Fi Channel has fabulous adult 18-49 comps," says Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director at Horizon Media, New York. He explains that on a viewers-per-viewing household basis, Sci-Fi ranks second only to VH1 in the basic cable universe. (Comedy Central, Learning Channel and E! Entertainment Television round out the top five, Mr. Adgate adds.)
Furthermore, within every thousand households tuned to the channel, he claims, 888 fall within the 18-49 demographic.
Within those households there is a lot of co-viewership, Mr. Adgate adds, meaning that young men and women are watching together. This measurement "is a very important criteria for evaluating cable networks," he says, "because adults 18-49 are such a common target."
To expand its already successful franchise, Sci-Fi last month launched the beginning of an overall network makeover tagged Sci-Fi 2.0. That's a catchy phrase largely for new on-air graphics and wraparounds and increased commitment to original programming.
"We're really hoping to expand and become a destination for a broader audience," Ms. Hammer says.
Sci-Fi's first move toward larger audiences and broader recognition was the launch on March 19 of its new, four-hour, Friday night original series block. This lineup includes new episodes of the syndicated thriller "Poltergeist: The Legacy" and fantasy series "Sliders," which has earned record high ratings since its move from Fox in '98.
Also in the lineup are two ambitious new series: "Farscape," from Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment, and "First Wave," which has as its executive producer film legend Francis Ford Coppola. "Farscape" and "First Wave" are firsts for the network, which co-developed both projects.
Programming exclusivity is "important. . .a big difference for us," Ms. Hammer says.
Another difference for the network is the overall tone of programming on the channel, including movies.
"The boundaries are much broader," Ms. Hammer says, referring to the addition of feature films not necessarily regarded as science fiction in the traditional sense. She cites the recent airing of the Tom Hanks theatrical comedy "Big," about a little boy who becomes an adult overnight. Sci-Fi wouldn't have aired that particular film a couple of years ago, Ms. Hammer explains.
There is more original programming to come, including additional dramatic hours in development for fall and early next year, Ms. Hammer adds. Sci-Fi is also looking at what she calls "original alternative programming," aside from scripted dramatic hours, which might include comedies and reality-based programs. "We're looking at every single genre for the first time and asking how it fits with Sci-Fi," she explains. "What can the Sci-Fi Channel do in this genre that would be truly exclusive?"
Previously, this approach was largely limited to dramas or "reality-based stuff about Roswell," N.M., she continues. "We're not looking at it that way anymore."
Sci-Fi "has made a gigantic investment in original programming. . . . it will be a good, solid media value for the coming year," says Jerry Solomon, president of national broadcast for SFM Media Corp., New York.
'STAR TREK' REDUX
Despite having enjoyed high ratings with its presentation of the original "Star Trek" series, which has been digitally remastered and features interviews with cast members from the show, don't look for the channel to begin repackaging other veteran science-fiction series in a similar fashion.
"We're always looking for smart ways to do that," Ms. Hammer says. "But our real goal is to move forward, not to move backward. It's a nice way to take advantage of retro material, but it's really not going to move the channel ahead to the degree that we would like it to."
"What Sci-Fi needed to do to move to the next level was produce a really fine original show for its audience," says TV Guide critic Matt Roush, who believes that "Farscape" meets that need. The channel, he adds, had carved out a "clever little niche" in the cable universe, based on the idea of the science-fiction fan as a cult viewer. "'Farscape' indicates that they are ready to play with the big boys now," Mr. Roush says.
Sci-Fi's new Friday night lineup catapults it to the top tier of cable networks producing their own original dramatic fare. Its sibling, USA Network, "pioneered the idea in cable of blocking out entire nights for original series programming," says USA Networks Senior VP of Research Tim Brooks. "Sci-Fi is emulating that. Significantly, USA Network ran preview episodes of "Farscape" and "First Wave" several days before they premiered on Sci-Fi.
"It's a unique situation, having entertainment programming preview on one network and run on another," Mr. Brooks notes. "Entertainment programming doesn't cross networks very often."
The launch of Sci-Fi's Friday night was propelled by two promotions: one with Yahoo! which included online elements within both Yahoo! and Sci-Fi's companion Web site, The Dominion, and another in which horror and science-fiction movies were run during the week leading up to the Friday lineup, under the umbrella title "Theater of Doom" and hosted by World Wide Wrestling Federation superstar The Undertaker.
MORE IN DEVELOPMENT
As for future promotional opportunities, Ms. Hammer says, "We have a couple of things that are in the early stages of development that people will jump up and down to wrap their names around. Moving forward we hope to have long term projects connected to the channel that would be sponsorable."
Mr. Brooks notes Sci-Fi's audience is almost evenly spilt between men and women (52% male, 48% female, he says). But while its concentration of 18-49 viewers puts it "ahead of any broadcast networks," he says it isn't attracting many kids or teens. "Our studies suggest that the kind of sci-fi teens want is the very violent," he explains. "We have shows like 'Sliders,' where not too many heads blow up. When we run the theatrical movies that teens like, we run the TV