Usually we just report the news here at GateWorld, but every now and again I feel it necessary to abuse my privilege as chief and editorialize a bit. This is one of those posts. Please just take it, for what it’s worth, as one science fiction fan’s opinion.
AN OPEN LETTER TO SYFY CHANNEL:
Thank you for the many years of outstanding entertainment you have given to me and my friends. While I haven’t agreed with every creative or scheduling decision, every killed-off character or series cancellation, I do recognize that because of Syfy Channel I have laughed, cried, and cheered over the likes of Farscape, Stargate, Sanctuary, Battlestar Galactica, and so many others.
Since you ventured into original, scripted drama more than a decade ago, you’ve been one of the best places on television for the genre that I love so much. And you’ve been one of the safest. The big networks put the pressure on shows and cancel them after a season or less, sometimes not even airing all the episodes they paid to have filmed. Firefly. Defying Gravity. The Event. No Ordinary Family. Moonlight. Earth 2. Surface. Invasion. Threshold. But you give new series time to find their audience. You’ve rescued shows from cancellation oblivion, you’ve aired those unaired episodes, and you’ve funded additional seasons when it looked like shows like Sliders and Stargate SG-1 were done.
Lately, however, your actions have started to concern me. Consider this an intervention on the part of those who love you. While your ratings are high and things seem like they are going great, you are on a self-destructive path. And it doesn’t just hurt you. It doesn’t just hurt those who fall in love with your outstanding scripted dramas. It’s hurting the science fiction genre.
I understand that reality programming is here to stay. Because it’s less expensive to produce and typically gets as-good or better ratings than scripted fare, reality TV has become a building block for the television landscape in the twenty-first century. Hopefully that will come with some balance — something scripted, something unscripted, and viewers will choose what they like. Face Off and Ghost Hunters are cool ideas. But please, do not forsake scripted drama because it doesn’t have as high a cost-benefit ratio.
I think you know this, and it’s not why I am writing today. I’m writing to talk about professional wrestling. Your mother and I are very concerned about the kids you have been hanging out with. I recognize that WWE Smackdown is the cool kid: he gets double the ratings of nearly any other show on the network, which is a huge boon to your ratings averages and, ultimately, to your profitability. Money earned from wrestling can then be invested in making shows that don’t rate as highly. Like the Republicans say, the ratings “wealthy” can create jobs for the “middle class” of TV shows. It’s not a terrible idea, even if I don’t think that wrestling fits with your network brand.
By changing your name from “SCI FI” to “Syfy” it became clear that you don’t want to program for the niche of science fiction fans any more — you want broader appeal. You want to be popular. If NCIS repeats became available and you could afford them, you’d snap them up and tell viewers to “imagine greater.”
Those of us who are first fans of the science fiction genre can see the writing on the wall. When it comes to mass appeal, sci-fi is always at a disadvantage. Good science fiction television needs to be nurtured, given space and time to grow. But it will never be hugely popular. And you don’t seem to be as interested in nurturing these days.
Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not writing you off. A two-year commitment to an expensive show like SGU was terrific, and Caprica‘s ratings were pretty bad. I’m not even saying that expanding to new nights of the week has been a bad idea. I recognize the business strategy at work in your scheduling choices, and I see where it has paid off. But the last seven months have told a powerful story to the programming department, and today you have to own up to your mistakes. Let’s review the course of events that brought us here:
- You acquired WWE Smackdown, and decided to keep it on Friday nights — where its own fan base expects it. Since it is a 2-hour block, the fall of 2010 seemed like the best time to branch into another night using those shows that were previously on Fridays.
- So you planned to move Stargate Universe and Sanctuary to Tuesdays, where your other dramas have had great success during the (less competitive) summer months. (With Warehouse 13 overlapping one week into the start of the fall season on the big networks, maybe you could hold on to some of those summer viewers and keep them on Syfy on Tuesdays.)
- Caprica still needed an immediate renewal decision, however, so at the eleventh hour you put it in Sanctuary‘s place and kept Sanctuary on Fridays, after wrestling, in the one primetime hour still available there.
- Tuesday nights during the fall season are incredibly tough. Caprica sank below 1 million viewers and didn’t survive a month. Stargate, meanwhile, flirted with disaster in its own ratings, hovering just inches above the 1 million viewer threshold.
- Stargate finished out its fall run, but compared to its (falling) numbers on Friday last spring, things weren’t looking so good. You cancelled it in December.
- In January you were ready to premiere a new scripted series, a remake of BBC’s Being Human. The show started strong and did very respectable numbers on Monday nights. You renewed it and called it a win. When Stargate returned for its final episodes, you moved it to Monday, too. But it was a dead man walking, so no one expected a ratings resurrection.
- Sanctuary, meanwhile, was still on Friday nights — and now it had WWE as a monster lead-in. You know lead-ins matter. You know that Fridays at 10 p.m. is now the plum time slot on your network. You wish that the show you put there would retain a bit more of WWE‘s 2.5 to 3 million viewers, but Sanctuary was clearly doing well enough for a fourth season renewal.
When April arrived, things got truly telling. Sanctuary started its spring season with surprisingly low numbers, considering it is a mid-season premiere and it has a 2.8 million viewer lead-in. Meanwhile, your new Monday reality series Urban Legends premiered after Stargate on Monday, and couldn’t keep even half of SGU‘s already dismal viewership. Sanctuary and Stargate have always had a similar audience, and Urban Legends could really benefit from that post-WWE time slot — so you did the logical thing and quickly switch them.
- Now on Mondays at 10 p.m., Sanctuary is pulling in lower ratings than the already cancelled Stargate Universe.
What lessons is a programming executive to learn from this? Putting original (and expensive), scripted dramas on Tuesday nights during the fall season was a disaster. Sanctuary is a good show, and it didn’t lose 40 percent of its audience because people decided to tune out. It lost that audience because people expected to watch it on Friday night, where it’s always been and where science fiction has thrived on many networks. And because it had a monster lead-in there.
Now I understand that there are only three primetime hours per night, and you have a lot of good shows. It helps the network tremendously to air original series on other nights of the week. One million for a new original is better than 300,000 viewers from a repeat of Hercules. But you must realize that the ratings for those shows will be proportionately lower than they were on Friday nights — about 40 percent, apparently. Competing with the big networks on their big nights is still tough.
In short, cancelling SGU and Caprica because they couldn’t perform on Tuesdays was a mistake. You should own up to it. You should admit that those shows would have performed much better (about 40 percent, apparently) on Fridays, and it’s your fault that they didn’t have the chance. They may well have earned enough viewers to warrant renewal. But you decided not to nurture them, to give them the space and time they needed to solidify themselves creatively and in their audience.
You know that Stargate Universe is better now than it has ever been, and is even starting to win over some of the naysayers. But you cut it off at the knees, mid-story, without so much as a shortened season or mini-series to tie up this epic story in which you convinced us to involve ourselves.
Why? What was that one critical factor that brought an end to a 14-year franchise that made you a Top 10 cable network, that could have been your everlasting Law & Order or CSI?
Because wrestling has to air on Friday nights.
WWE Smackdown is your highest-rated show, far and away. The fact that it is so highly rated — that no other show you make, scripted or unscripted, comes anywhere close — should tell you something. I’d like to tell you it’s because it doesn’t belong on your network, but I’m resigned to the fact that it is a breadwinner. But it is destroying good science fiction. If you move it off of Friday nights, most of its loyal and ridiculously large audience will follow. WWE does monster numbers for USA Network on Mondays. Wrestling fans will watch Smackdown instead of NCIS on Tuesdays, because they are already in the habit of not making good life choices. Then your ratings still have the wrestling boost, but you’re back to having three hours of primetime real estate to nurture scripted drama.
Think of it this way: If your best friend moves out to the sticks, he’ll have a hard time convincing you to come and visit as often. But if you build a 50,000-seat sports arena in the sticks, fans will carpool and rent buses to get out there.
If you had renewed Stargate and demonstrated that your expectations for Tuesdays in the fall are proportionately lower (about 40 percent lower, apparently), we wouldn’t be having this conversation. For the show’s creative growth, ultimately I don’t care how many people are watching it. But to cancel one series and renew another, when the only ratings difference between the two was the night of the week you aired them, was incredibly short-sighted.
You’ve done great with Friday nights in the past, and you are doing great with Tuesdays in the summertime. I think switching your summer dramas to Mondays will be an even greater success. I’m even happy with your foray into Mondays this winter and spring, even though it has been tougher-going. (I wonder if you had tried Mondays instead of Tuesdays back in October, if SGU might still be with us.)
But wrestling doesn’t belong on Fridays. Your own ratings data shows that the scripted dramas you put there will thrive for years, and those that don’t get the coveted Friday hour — well, they get killed. Not because of the show. Because none but the most loyalist follower want to watch an intense, thought-provoking science fiction drama at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday.
Syfy, move WWE Smackdown off of Friday nights. It does great there, and it will do great elsewhere. It will make your Tuesdays or your Thursdays amazing. But, more importantly, it will free up the Friday schedule to allow you to support scripted drama again. Then all of your shows will thrive, and your ratings averages and your bottom line will shine even brighter. As the schedule stands, wrestling isn’t complimenting your scripted science fiction — it is destroying it.
These shows deserve it, and your viewers who watch you because they love science fiction deserve it. Without it, you aren’t going to be a haven for science fiction any more. You’ll just be like everyone else.