I’ve been a long-time viewer of Syfy Channel. How long? Let’s just say I’ve been watching this network faithfully since before it existed. (Does anyone else remember the week-long placeholder of a starfield with the weird “We’re coming for you …” voiceovers before SCI FI launched?)
News came this week that Syfy has canceled Stargate Universe after two seasons. This comes on the heels of a 10-week experiment in moving the show from Fridays to Tuesdays. In this editorial I’d like to explore six network programming factors that I think influenced the ultimate fate of the show. This includes a little history of Syfy Channel, and some insight into their changing programming strategies over the years.
Other lists of reasons might look very different — focusing on the show’s content and the decisions of the writers, for example, or comparing SGU to its predecessors, or to higher-rated shows on the network. (Observe that Syfy’s top dramas, Warehouse 13 and Eureka, are distinctly light-hearted.) But for the purposes of this editorial, I’d like to look at reasons for the show’s cancellation from a network scheduling P.O.V.
So here are six reasons why I think Stargate Universe had an uphill battle to fight — regardless of its actual content or quality.
(1) Year-Round Scheduling
Like many cable networks, Syfy’s overall programming strategy is to get maximum coverage throughout the year. But unlike the major broadcast networks, Syfy doesn’t have enough space in its budget for original programming to cover three primetime hours per night, 12 months per year. And so it makes strategic choices about which months of the year, which nights of the week, and which hours of the primetime block (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific) to program with its originals.
When SG-1 first joined the network in 2002, there wasn’t much going on outside of Friday nights. Shows like SG-1 and Farscape would air on “Sci-Fi Friday” several months out of the year, and then go into repeats. A few years back (when it was still SCI FI), the network decided to commit itself to year-round programming. The thought was that it would do better by spreading out the few shows it had so that something new was airing each month out of the year.
That was the end of the classic Sci-Fi Friday block that so many fans knew and loved (in 2005 and 2006 it was Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica back-to-back). The network also added more original shows (including plenty of reality programming) and branched out into nights of the week when it had never before aired originals. Since then, its new shows have either aired with just one companion, or all alone (next to reruns and older shows, as was the case for much of SGU‘s run).
How did this impact SGU? Stargate was always at its best in the ratings when it aired in the summertime, took a break while the big networks rolled out their fall shows, then came back in the winter. Since Season Four of Atlantis Syfy has aired Stargate against the major network programming (fall and spring seasons), rather than the old strategy of “counter-programming.” The result is both higher competition, and fewer new shows to help strengthen the primetime block on a single night. Syfy doesn’t have enough shows to fill three hours every night, but rather than pair up its shows to make a “must watch” night of science fiction, it spreads them thin.
(2) The Move to Tuesday
The big networks, of course, have not stayed the same over the years either. Counter-programming new episodes in the summer months no longer worked quite as well when ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX started airing new reality series and even the occasional drama during the summer. But Syfy continued to do great business in the summer, with Eureka and then Warehouse 13 setting new ratings records — and on Tuesday nights, even.
It made sense, then, that the network would try to hold on to those Tuesday night viewers when the fall months rolled around, despite the higher competition from the big networks. This fall it finally had a strong show to give it a go, and a reason why it had to try expanding to another night of the week (more on that next). Stargate was moved to Tuesdays at 9 p.m. for Season Two — up against ratings monsters Dancing With the Stars and NCIS: Los Angeles (which drew around 16 millions viewers each). Syfy was once again trying to expand its sphere of influence: it had never before aired original programming on Tuesday nights during the fall season.
Needless to say, the experiment was a failure. Both of its Tuesday fall shows — both continuations of popular, classic science fiction franchises — were canceled in 10 episodes or less.
(3) Professional Wrestling
But why did Syfy move Stargate from its long-established Friday night time slot? From one point of view, it had no choice. In 2010 the network acquired rights to WWE SmackDown, which had long-established its own fan base on Friday nights. As much distaste as non-fans of wrestling have for WWE shows, they do get monster ratings in key demographics that advertisers love (more than double any of Syfy’s scripted dramas). So SmackDown is great for Syfy’s bottom line … though execs have to stretch their creativity to justify why this show has any place on their network. (Part of this stretch has come in the form of the “SCI FI” to “Syfy” name change, as the network shifts from the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres to a more general branding around the concept of “imagination.”)
Not wanting to risk shaking up SmackDown‘s Friday night viewership, Syfy kept the 2-hour block on Fridays — leaving room for only one other show in primetime that night. (And that’s a night that has traditionally been the night of the week where viewers are most friendly to science fiction. See also: the FOX network.)
Originally Syfy was going to move Sanctuary to Tuesdays with SGU — but before the premiere, programming executives decided to pair SGU with Caprica instead, and keep Sanctuary on Fridays following wrestling. (They needed a quick decision on whether to give Caprica another year, so they bumped it up on the schedule from January.) It’s been great for Sanctuary, which seems almost certain to get a fourth season. In spite of the fact that more than 50 percent of the WWE audience doesn’t stick around at 10 p.m., it’s still enough to make Sanctuary the network’s top-rated original drama this fall. (Be sure to catch its mid-season finale tonight!)
Would the story have been different if Syfy had kept Stargate on Fridays and moved Sanctuary instead? We’ll simply never know, because the network is not about to mess with a good thing and change its Friday night line-up. Sanctuary has 20 episodes this season … meaning that as long as Syfy is filling up two hours on Fridays with SmackDown, Stargate has no place else to go.
NEXT: The power of new technologies, plus those long breaks