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Syfy responds to Stargate ratings, time slot changes

Wednesday - May 11, 2011
Category: OPINION | Tags: ,

As Stargate Universe draws to a close this week, many viewers are still wondering just what happened.  Why was a show that has reached its creative zenith, and holding its own (relatively speaking) on a very competitive night of programming, kicked to the curb?

Last week I posted an op-ed piece in which I detailed my own analysis of WWE Smackdown‘s effects on Syfy Channel’s schedule — specifically, the cable network’s ability to continue to offer scripted science fiction drama the time and support that those shows need.  The piece has been getting a good deal of attention, thanks to many like-minded sci-fi fans passing it along. Our friends at TV By the Numbers even wrote about it on Monday, which has generated a great deal of continuing conversation about the network’s scheduling strategies.

Some readers questioned the timing of the publication. After all, Syfy has been airing wrestling since late last year, and SGU has been officially canceled since just before Christmas. We weren’t trying to grab readers the week that SGU is set to go off the air — there’d be no shame in that, but that actually wasn’t the reason we published it when we did. The piece was motivated by Sanctuary‘s startlingly low numbers after its move to Mondays. I drafted the op-ed after those first ratings were announced … then sat on it for a week. The already-renewed show getting fewer viewers than the canceled show? I was prepared to accept that it was a one-time fluke, the result of a change of night for Sanctuary, and potentially even trash the editorial.

So I waited for the second week of Monday ratings to see if Sanctuary would rebound. Instead … it went down. (This week, it went down again.)

Surely, I thought, the gang at Syfy was seeing what the rest of us were seeing. Stargate may have had creative issues, may have suffered seriously in the ratings on Fridays during its first season. (That’s without a 3 million viewer lead-in, remember.) But Sanctuary‘s sustained Monday free-fall proved that the night of the week was critical. After the show lost 40 percent of its audience in the move, SGU‘s drop of 20 percent (from 1.469 to 1.175 million) in its Tuesday move looked pretty good.

Soon after the editorial went up (and sci-fi fans the world over pummeled the network’s Twitter feed and inbox with the link), a network representative offered some words in response via Twitter.

SGU started strong with a 3-part opener, but bled viewers fast.

“I think the real issue is that running on Friday, straight through, one-third of the audience who tried [Stargate Universe] by episode 3 left by episode 7,” Craig Engler, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Syfy Digital, said. “Then we saw a promising recovery in [episodes] 8/9, then a big drop at 10, then another small recovery after hiatus for 11/12.”

Whether or not SGU would have benefited from the post-WWE time slot on Fridays — enough for a renewal — is “hard to say,” Engler said. “By that point I think everyone who was going to sample the show had watched and made up their minds.”

“It’s frustrating because the audience grew from [episodes] 1-3,” he added — “not a lot, but any growth during the first few episodes is usually quite promising. In hindsight, I also think [episodes] 1-3 being somewhat self-contained unintentionally provided an easy break point for sampling viewers.”

Engler is absolutely right that Stargate Universe struggled in the ratings over the course of its first season, when it was airing on Friday nights.  The show had lost 43 percent of its premiere ratings by the mid-season break, and rebounded to 37 percent down by the season finale. Drop-offs from a heavily promoted series premiere are, of course, par for the course.  But as a particularly expensive show, SGU had a tougher case to make for renewal.

I don’t dispute any of this, and I don’t dispute that Stargate may have still been cancelled if it had aired after WWE Smackdown last fall.  Even if it had accomplished Sanctuary‘s numbers of 1.3 to 1.4 million viewers each Friday, SGU might have been cancelled — because it was significantly more expensive than Sanctuary.  Fans may speculate, and Syfy execs may muse over the effectiveness of their strategy.  But the fact that Stargate has been out-performing Sanctuary on Monday nights (by as much as 35 percent, this week) is telling.

Again: It’s not only the show itself, but the night of the week it is broadcast.

When challenged about Sanctuary‘s drop when Syfy moved it off of Friday night, Engler suggested that “[it is] too soon to say about Mondays. [The] change is still quite recent. We’ll see how it does.”

But he did agree that “night of the week and lead-in always matter. TV is a complex beast … hundreds of factors impact shows also, not just the obvious.  The issues SGU had retaining viewers were on Friday nights well before wrestling.”

Did Syfy already have SGU's head stone picked out when ''Intervention'' opened up Season Two on Tuesdays?

Engler also intimated that he might write a blog post to respond in greater detail. If he does, I hope he’ll address whether or not Syfy had already largely written off Stargate Universe because of its first season ratings performance. (The Season Two pick-up, it turns out, was a contractual requirement stemming from an original, 40-episode deal.)  His statements about the ratings losses in the fall of 2009 seem to point in this direction.  Syfy certainly hoped that Tuesdays would help stop SGU‘s viewer erosion — but remember, the network had never before tried airing an original, scripted drama on Tuesday nights in the fall season.

What I tried to stress in last week’s article is not so much a case for SGU‘s renewal (that ship has sailed) as a case for giving the Friday night time slots back to scripted drama. (WWE viewers have noted for us in the past few days that, unlike WWE‘s live programs, Smackdown tapes earlier in the week, and originally ran on Thursdays for several years.) I’m not making the case to bring back SGU (… which would be awesome); rather I fear for the safety of quality, scripted science fiction.  Friday is simply a stronger performer for the genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect from the average viewer of police procedurals and medical shows — something that other networks (especially FOX) know well. Now, the summertime is one thing — but to force scripted dramas to go up against network programming during the fall and spring, on nights when the networks are at their strongest, is to handicap those shows.

This should be undisputed.  The question, then, is how to judge those handicapped shows when the ratings data starts to pour in.

As I said last week: If Syfy had renewed one of those struggling shows, it would have demonstrated that they are adjusting their ratings expectations accordingly.

It’s true that Syfy is building a successful Monday night of original dramas, starting with Being Human (renewed for Season Two) and the sure-hit block of Warehouse 13, Eureka, and Alphas starting in July.  I expect they will try to keep that momentum going on Mondays when the more challenging fall season arrives.  But when their fall dramas run into ratings trouble against the likes of Dancing With the Stars and Castle, will Syfy acknowledge that 1 million viewers is realistic (especially for a show like Sanctuary, which will be in its fourth season) — or will it cancel those shows for “under-performing” on a difficult night?

Ratings expectations must be lowered if Syfy is going to keep its dramas off Friday nights.

In other words: Stargate aside, Syfy must recognize that genre shows do better on Friday night — especially when they are serious character dramas with a demanding mythology and story arc.  If Syfy’s programming strategists are not willing to give Fridays back to drama, they must anticipate significantly lower ratings elsewhere in the week — and be prepared to renew those shows in spite of it.

However one might spin the numbers (and, as someone who loves the show, I’m certainly guilty of putting SGU in a positive light), what is clear from the swell of support that last week’s editorial received is that Syfy has an image problem on its hands.  The network has succeeded in broadening its appeal through rebranding, airing wrestling, and developing scripted dramas that are more accessible to casual viewers than traditional science fiction fare — whimsical procedurals rather than, for example, the arc-based “space opera.”  But that change of image comes at a cost.

Other than BSG: Blood & Chrome, which has not yet been granted a full series order, Syfy has announced no such “traditional” science fiction shows on its development slate.  Perhaps the closest would be Sherwood, produced by the team behind Sanctuary and described as a sort of Robin Hood meets Firefly.  So far that one is just an idea, however, and hasn’t been given the go-ahead to cast and film a pilot.

We’ll continue to watch Syfy’s creative development and programming strategy in the months to come.

Darren created GateWorld in 1999, and today is the owner and managing editor. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and three children. (More)

COMMENTS (101):Rules | Report Comment | Trackback

  • A response? I didn’t expect that. I’ll start reading now :)

  • Well said, Darren! I think all networks, not just Sci-Fi (sorry, “SyFy!”), need to start realising that they can’t realistically expect to get the viewer figures they got perhaps 10 years ago. New technology, such as TeVo means that people want to watch these shows later rather than when they air, and so they should expect that 1 million live viewers is all they’re gonna get.

  • A response, while may be all well and good, doesn’t bring Stargate Universe back and isn’t going to save the franchise.

  • Well, the response is a start at least. At least Syfy recognizes it has a problem. I hope this eventually leads to a renewal of SGU, since it was becoming a really good show in the second half of the second season. Hopefully, the timeline for traversing the intergalactic void on the Destiny will be the maximum time we will have to wait for the show to “wake up” along with Destiny’s crew (a little sooner won’t hurt, and hopefully Eli found a way to save himself).

  • Sanctuary is getteng not that good with the Story in that Season so I would not blame it on Wrestling.. but hey if you still think SGU was that good….

  • Tevo isn’t really new technology at this point and the habit of viewing shows later, rather than as they are airing, is hardly a new trend. Anyone else remember the VCR+ codes? I remember how excited I got about them, because it made setting my recording schedule so much easier.

    We may have traded the VHS for a hard drive, but the habit itself is something we got started doing in the 90s. I still have tapes somewhere with DS9, B5, and X-File episodes I didn’t watch when they aired.

  • Ever since the glory days of SciFi Fridays, the station has been having trouble with space based scifi. The decision to prematurely cancel Atlantis and completely replace it with SGU was a big mistake. They should have found a way to run them together and again create a block of sci-fi that people wanted to see.

    And if all they are going to ever get is 1 million viewers (which I don’t believe, BTW) you will need to resign yourself to much cheaper-to-produce shows than SGU or SGA, in order to make it worthwhile the network. You will never get the likes of Carlyle again in a show that inexpensive.

  • What Shows are actually real SciFi?

    I miss Shows like Star Trek
    Space above and beyond
    Farscape and so on

    that Drama crap is no SciFi its drama with 5 Min Scifitalk
    or that Vampire ..

  • And please note what Craig is saying, SGU was NOT getting enough viewers on Friday to warrant renewal. They moved it to a different night to try to save it. It didn’t work, but they tried.

    Whether SGU would have bounced back up to over 1.6 million viewers they would have needed to keep it going with the lead in of WWE is the question, I guess. I seriously doubt it, but I suppose it will never be known for sure.

  • Nothing will bring Stargate Universe back. Nothing. I’m stunned and very amused that people STILL think it is possible.

  • I’m from the UK, so I am not quite sure about the overall impact of services such as On Demand/Catch-up tv or items such as TiVo have in the US. After all, for good Sci-fi (or at least the hope of good Sci-fi) we have to turn to the television channels in the US and hope that they will renew them. However, if it is anything like in Britain, a huge majority of people are not concerned about watching programmes at the time they are on live, rather at a time which is convenient to them.

    I completely agree with Gate_Fan that the channels like SyFy can’t expect that they will be able to capture the same viewing figures they did ten years ago. Whilst they may be adapting their viewing schedule, I believe that more needs to be done by them to adapt the way they show programmes, and thus, the way they can advertise. After all it is the advertising revenue that pays for the shows!

    I think it is unrealistic expectation of the tv companies to expect people to sit down to watch their programmes at the time they want, unless it is a big sporting occasion or a competition style programme. Neither should they expect people to. Instead the companies should be thinking of ways to get their programmes onto a format, which will be watched by the most people. I believe SyFy already has a rewind service, but I don’t know how advertising works for that.

    If the networks were able to generate more money from their On Demand services, perhaps more sci-fi programmes could be shown and current series renewed. One example from the UK, from the BBC where ratings are obviously not a problem in terms of getting money (no adverts) was a recent adventure in to science fiction with a new programme called Outcasts. Whilst the numbers weren’t amazing on tv, there were phenomenally large numbers watching on iPlayer, the BBC’s on demand service. Yet when the decision for renewal was made, it was made based on the tv figures alone.

    Whatever, I have really grown to love this version of stargate and so will miss not having any (new) stargate to watch in the next few years.

  • There is Supernatural Saturday of BBC America…looks like a fantastic line up…as far as SyFy channel, I have written them off, I could easily watch the B class shows of Dino croc and snake heads on Chiller..

  • Good article(s) about the challenges of where to place shows and ratings. That aside my biggest gripe about SyFy’s decision to cancel SGU has less with the decision and more about cutting it at the knees without a proper ending. It’s a bit of an insult to do that. I understand that somebody has to bankroll this stuff and it’s not free, but a properly marketed 2 hour TV movie that wraps up SGU, SGA and SG would at least make me feel satisfied. Instead it’s like somebody gave me a cool novel to read and then half way through at a chapter break ripps it out of my hands, burns it in front of me and then says “Sorry bud, no more story for you!)

  • I seriously don’t know how they can even write off not only a series but an actually franchise due to the first seasons ratings?

    They knew it was completely different, they knew it would be more indepth, more character based, slower! They know and so does everyone else that a new style would take at least 2 season to pick up.. They also knew that if it was cancelled then the ratings (which are so out of date its untrue) would drop..

    It’s a lame reply in my opinion, nothing concrete to say to that SG:U was going to fail.. Even now the people who used to slate SG:U have changed their opinions..

    They should of just left the season on during the autumn, same day and it would of been amazing, but no, they screwed it over.. Its their error and they have ruined it!

    Screw Sanctuary, it’s garbage compared to SG:U (Sorry Amanda), SG:U is now one of the all time greats and they wouldn’t even give it a chance!


  • The fact they felt the need to respond to the article shows that someone at Syfy, may be there new bosses are questioning SYFY decision making, it certainly rare to get a direct response from an exec from a firm the size of Syfy. I

    The fact that 4 out of five shows aired on Monday or Tuesaday have all failed to established an audience there, with only Being Human succeeding to any great extent, that probably riding on the twilight wave than anything else.

    Even there reality TV Urban legions failed to established an audience on that night but it seem they cared more about that programme than there scripted shows as they move the show to there most successful night, Fridays to support it, where it goes on to get Sanctuary numbers. This to me shows they simply do not care about scripted shows anymore.

    Syfy tried to rebrand the channel to gain more viewers, but it made the classic mistake driving of its current audience and customers off. An attracted a new audience that only watch one show on the network.

    I suspect in the next year or two Syfy will undergo another re-branding exercise that will undo most of the current changes.

  • “”””When challenged about Sanctuary‘s drop when Syfy moved it off of Friday night, Engler suggested that “[it is] too soon to say about Mondays. [The] change is still quite recent. We’ll see how it does.””” Thats a complete cop out by the time they’ve waited and saw the show will be cancelled and all the viewers will have deserted the show. like SGU!

  • Darren – I just read this in your article:

    “(The Season Two pick-up, it turns out, was a contractual requirement stemming from an original, 40-episode deal.)”

    I’m curious as to where you got this information from as Joe Mallozzi stated on his blog recently that this wasn’t the case and that if the ratings for season 2 hadn’t been sufficient that SGU wouldn’t have been picked up for a second season. That was in response to a tweet from Engler about season 2 being a forgone conclusion. Which is corret, I wonder?

  • Sorry, I mis-typed, I meant the ratings for season 1 !!!!!!!

  • @lin21 Joe Mallozzi blogged this 2 days ago: “The second season pick-up of Stargate: Universe was a foregone conclusion once we hit the rating average required for the second year component of the deal to kick in.”

    And Craig has responded to this article on twitter by saying:

    “To not misrepresent what happened @gateworld, I was not responding to any perceived gauntlet, simply answering questions asked of me. ”

    “I think a title without hyperbole would be, @GateWorld asked some questions on Twitter and I answered them. Less dramatic but accurate.”

    Darren, are you trying to get Syfy mad at you?!

  • Syfy is going down , the shows on the staion are not that good anymore even Sanctuary is getting more Hookie just like Eureka and WH13. I hope there is another tv station out there that is playing old episodes of Stargat and all the Star trek series. and even the original Battlestar galactica it was good for its time and the new one rocked. Once sanctuary is done on scifi My wife and I will be done with this aweful Station.

  • With the demise of old MTV and VH-1 which actually once aired music videos pretty much all the time but is now all pseudo-reality TV junk, a new network COOL TV( a broadcast network that was created featuring all music video all the time).

    Hopefully someone will create a new SciFi/SyFy network to do what this network is all but abandoning – call it SF TV (tag lines: No WRESTLING Here and No Pseudo Reality Show Crap Here and No ultra low budget crap movies like THOR THE ALMIGHTY).

  • I think the thing that annoys me the most is that when it comes to renewing a show or seeing how well it does it shouldn’t depend on live ratings as many of you have said you can just record it because lets face it not everyone is going to have the time people have to work during the week im sure a large portion of people would be in that boat thats why friday works so well because the majority of people dont have to work the following day.

    There are alot of people these days that will download a show on the internet certainly for fans from other countries this might be an option if they cant watch it. I know here in Australia where i live on free to air tv they have only just shown the 18th episode of the 1st season of SGU and cable is only 2 or 3 episodes in front of that. But i also think television audiences in other countries like Canada and the UK should contribute to that number it shouldnt be just reliant on a US audience if syfy is the main distributor surely aside from mgm then surely theyd make alot of money off giving the program to those networks such as Space and Sky i think its on in the UK.

    This should be all tallied up and contribute to whether or not a series is renewed its global viewership is important.But i guess the US company doesnt understand that.

    On another note i loved this show it was amazing and it was sci-fi unlike Sanctuary its more fantasy not knocking it in anyway just IMO SGU is better.

  • SGU is currently the best show on SyFy. Yes, season 1 was rough, but the execs at SyFy need to realize how much better the show has gotten. Plus, we routinely DVR the show, with kids to put to bed (etc), we often can’t watch the show live and they need to realize that their 30-40 year old demographic (like myself) may be recording the show and watching it later.

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