Cable's Sci-Fi boldly builds fans outside its original niche

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Bonnie Hammer and I cele-brated anniversaries recently. For her, it was the tenth birthday of Sci-Fi Channel, the basic cable network over which she presides, and perhaps the best realization of cable's promise to serve niche markets. For me, it was the fortieth anniversary of observing space shots (at first on TV, but later in person) and hoping that we'd land humans on Mars before my soul rockets off beyond the Van Allen Belt.

The subject of our conversation: How does a marketer balance the necessity of attracting as broad an audience as possible against the need to appeal to wiggy fanatics like me?

"You have to continually re-evaluate three things: Who is, was and can be your audience," Ms. Hammer answered. "We have fans out there like you, whom we admire and serve. But I know we need to serve people who aren't geeks-the huge audience who say they don't like sci-fi but loved `Sixth Sense'; who don't see a connective tissue between science fiction and their lives but who loved `The Matrix.' We are always asking: How do we get ourselves out of doing only space opera-without giving up on space opera?"

Over lunch, Ms. Hammer sketched out an answer to the balance question, emphasizing teamwork, research and creativity. A child of the late `50s/early `60s, she never considered herself a fan of science fiction. But when contemplating the Sci-Fi Channel job in early 2001, she realized she'd read Heinlein and Hesse in high school, and had been moved by the "hopeful, future-looking world beyond what you know."

With that background (and a programming team that, because of the enormous amount of original material it develops, is recognized as among cable's best), she has walked the fine line between "geeks" and the mass audience. The former, who tend to be younger and excessively blessed with Y chromosomes, are targeted with high-body-count "boy action" programs, including original movies (weapons so accurate they can pull ratings as high as 2.4 without a penny of off-channel marketing). The latter are lured by series like cable hit "Farscape." It emphasizes plot and relationships and manages to lure surprising numbers of X chromosomals.

Research is now turning up surprising findings that could indicate a crossover between audiences. For example, technology has lost its appeal. "Focus groups with twenty-somethings are telling us that technology for them is a day at the office," Ms. Hammer said. "Nothing will surprise them; `the future' means nothing to them. They want things they can relate to, that are here and now.

"They are interested," she added, "in the question, `What if everything I know is twisted?"'-a query increasingly, and unfortunately, relevant to contemporary times.

Technology, though, is high among the interests of Ms. Hammer and her programmers. She is deeply convinced personal video recorders are already making a "huge" and potentially positive difference for Sci-Fi. "I know TiVo is out there because I talk to people who've seen our shows, yet I know the numbers aren't showing up in our ratings."

Indeed, genre programmers, she believes, can benefit from PVRs if ratings systems can be made to account for the repeat viewings that fanatics favor. "Fans of genre programming, we are learning, like to keep whole libraries of shows on hand," Ms. Hammer said.

I told her I had several episodes of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000"-a Sci-Fi staple-stacked up on my own.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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