On July 7, 2009, NBC Universal's Sci Fi Channel — the network responsible for the hit series "Battlestar Galactica" and such original movies as "Ice Spiders," "Android Apocalypse" and "Mansquito" — will complete a radical rebranding process. When it emerges from the laboratory, it will offer a retooled programming menu and a new name: Syfy.

The reason? For one thing, "Sci Fi" was too ubiquitous a term, the net's owners reasoned, and they needed a brand name they could fully own. And so, after receiving the divinations of expensive consultants, they purchased "Syfy" from a web portal. Why Syfy?

"When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you'd text it," network president Dave Howe told TV Week. "It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise."

Ah, texting equals the coveted youth demographic, which equals "cutting-edge and hip." Though one is advised to avoid using terms like "hip" around said demo.

But the new name will also ostensibly open up fresh possibilities for the brand. "It gives us a unique word and it gives us the opportunities to imbue it with the values and the perception that we want it to have," explains Howe. It will also presumably spawn an array of entertainment properties beyond the tube.

It is a unique word, to be sure, one that can function as a corporate property rather than a public-domain genre; Howe also underlines that the new spelling could suggestively allude to "fantasy." And there's no denying it represents a net loss of one character (a net gain in text-messaging circles). But what it signifies is unclear; thus far, public statements regarding its genesis have been more about how it can be owned than how it serves TV viewers when they aren't texting.

Indeed, if the comments posted by readers of the TV Week story are any indication — Mac Breck's "What chimp dressed up as a network suit thought this one up?" sums up the majority sentiment, though I'm also fond of "Sy Fy ... I think he's my mom's podiatrist," from a guy named Scott — this thing could come back to bite the network like the proverbial Mansquito.

Let us consult Tim Brooks, who participated in the earliest branding of the Sci Fi Channel. "The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that," he opined to TV Week, "as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular."

I'm no TV guru, nor have I purchased the wisdom of media oracles; the following rhetorical question issues from a civilian on the sidelines — albeit one who has spent a bit of time watching Sci Fi (and a lot of unaffiliated sci-fi). But isn't it possible that Brooks' explanation, which says aloud what Howe and company have been dancing around, might alienate the network's core viewership by reducing them to a maladjusted stereotype?

One can only wonder what attendees of the yearly genre confab Comic-Con will make of this. Their collective sensibility now wags the dog of popular culture, and yet the masters of Syfy have, it seems, chosen to cast them aside.

"The real issue isn't the name but the rationale that went with it," agrees Matthew Kruchko, Senior Associate at the innovative branding firm Applied Storytelling. "The Sci Fi Channel's big mistake was justifying the name change in part as a way to reach a broader audience. They pissed off a truly passionate viewership in doing so. If they'd instead said something like, 'We're changing our name so our loyal viewers can find us even more easily,' they might not have taken so much heat. Their viewers might even have seen the new name as a gift — something they could claim as their own."

"As markets have become more segregated, I?m wondering why the Sci Fi Channel thinks going mainstream is the best approach," muses Ilyse Pallenberg of Canyon Design Group, an advertising and design agency serving numerous major media companies. "The new name feels awkward; I only hope the creative surrounding it will continue to emphasize the core brand appeal. I understand wanting to grow your audience. But isn't it better to do that with programming and not rebranding with a name that feels contrived and ultimately still has the same narrow definition? I think the marketing department must be pretty nervous right now."

I also consulted Russell Scott, who knows a great deal about both branding (as cofounder of acclaimed multimedia creative agency Jetset Studios, beloved of Judd Apatow and other movie mavens) and science fiction (I would say his knowledge of the genre is encyclopedic, but that seems a little retro — it's positively wikipedic). He's the kind of guy who knows that '60s sci-fi writers like Harlan Ellison were the first to shun the label, preferring "speculative fiction" (which nonetheless retained the "SF" fans used as shorthand).

Scott (who, by the way, insists that owning the SciFi.com URL was much more of a boon than its possessors could've imagined) also focuses on the question of running away from the core audience.

"The owners of this brand have long attempted to distance themselves from 'the sci-fi crowd,'" Scott says. "There's a certain self-hatred at work that's reminiscent of Ted Haggard. And yet, if they would only stop and embrace who they are, they could have the biggest party ever."

"Everything we've learned in the last 10 years is, when you have a niche audience that's loyal, you grow that niche slowly and steadily," he adds. "You serve it and it grows and forms a community and takes on a life of its own. These fans love forming communities; fandom was invented by science fiction. The original conventions were science-fiction writers and their readers, people like Ray Bradbury and Forrest J. Ackerman. The 'Star Trek' conventions preceded Comic-Con. Sci-fi kids were responsible for the first buzz surrounding 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars,' and their efforts kept those franchises alive for more than a decade until they were revived."

These "nerdy" constituencies, in other words, turned fringe art into monster brands, and their community-based nurturing of entertainment properties formed the very DNA of contemporary pop marketing. Brands in the, er, space space would do well to recognize this.

Since Editorial Emergency is a copywriting agency, it also behooves me to address the small matter of Syfy's new tagline: "Imagine Greater." I'm not the first to object to this tag's grammatical shapelessness, nor will I be the last. But jeez — imagine greater what? Wouldn't "Imagine More" pack a bigger wallop? Or "Imagine Farther" or "Imagine Deeper" or "Imagine Pickled Herring?" One suspects the word "imagine" was agreed upon quickly but that the second word sparked some contention. And as often happens in writing-by-committee scenarios, coherence died an ugly death, "communication-wise." Of course, it's conceivable that some copy maven submitted "Imagine Greater" to unanimous huzzahs.

But now we've entered the realm of speculative fiction.

Special thanks to Northampton, Mass., reader Fred Zinn for bringing this story to our attention.


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Simon Glickman is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. He is also a roving correspondent for music-industry trade publications HITS Magazine and HITSDailyDouble.com, the producer-emcee of Los Angeles institution The Classic Rock Singalong, and an aspiring nature photographer. Many years ago, Glickman earned a doctorate in literature from Oxford University. Click here to read more articles by Simon Glickman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday June 12th 2009, 11:19 AM
Comment by: ladenier (Lansdowne, PA)
Syfy? What's in a name? Well, it has to mean something to begin with. SciFi was perfectly all right since the genre has various aspects to it. But Syfy? What do any of it's components mean? Nothing. I suspect people are going to lose the network in the name change and find some place else to get their scifi fix. I'm certainly one.
~ladenier
Friday June 12th 2009, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Bruce C. (Cle Elum, WA)
heck, why not do what everyone else in the demo does - stick an 'X' on it

Xifi

heh
Friday June 12th 2009, 4:11 PM
Comment by: Manuela F. (Washington, DC)
SciFi, Syfy, whatever. Maybe they need to stop stereotyping the audience so much and deliver some good programming. You want to get more audience and better ratings? Get a clue -- people who want to watch science fiction are NOT interested in wrestling! Why do you even show this? It's like putting romance stories on ESPN, for crying out loud!

The SciFi channel has put out some really good series, but the movies just suck. Why not play some "oldies but goodies" in the movie department, instead of the stupid drivel that passes for "original" movies! Before they look to changing their name, perhaps improving their offerings might be the way to drive ratings. Stop listening to consultants -- ask your audience what they want to watch!

As a long-time fan of science fiction (and fantasy), I take offense to Brook's comments about "dysfunctional people." I doubt that he's ever been to a comic book or science fiction convention, and even if he has, that small sampling of people hardly is a true representation of the entire group of science fiction or fantasy enthusiasts. By the way, all sorts of people attend those events -- even women. And families.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Brooks -- I'm female. And I'm not dysfunctional. But it truly makes me angry that you think I need some "other" kind of show to please me -- I mean, why do you think I watch SciFi -- because I don't like it? Get a clue, dude. I guess you have some alien baby stories coming up, huh? Great, like the Discovery channel doesn't show enough of that already. Now there's another station that used to be really good -- until they found out their audience was mostly female, so they went on a programming spree of baby shows and cute animal shows. Gag.

Where's my remote?
Friday June 12th 2009, 7:48 PM
Comment by: David D.
What I think is that my first reaction, WHAT? was just right. But then, I have been quite put off by the garbage on the Sci Fi channel. There is more blood and guts horror stuff and antique junk films and other silly stuff that is not science fiction at all - than can be accounted. I don't mind a little fantasy. I mean, sci-fi IS fantasy really. All fiction is fantasy if you want to think like that. So "Syfy" is just more stupidity to me. I am an old fart, 73, and have waded through some awful stuff in my time. This has been MY channel with some good and some camp science fiction, but I am going back to reading books. It is clear that the jerks who run the business are not sufficiently imaginative to write anything worth viewing.

Bah! I say, Humbug! Foo on "Syfy."
Saturday June 13th 2009, 11:07 PM
Comment by: Creek
I would prefer less "Texting" in our language - spoken and written. Language is one of our primary mediums for communication. So when we dumb down our language I believe we are also reducing our communication.
Wednesday June 17th 2009, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
Right on! to David D. I too am one of the old fart readers - Hey, I read the big three when they were first published. (I also know that C. L. is Catherine, and Andre is a girl!) If it isn't SF, I'm not watching it. Where is Harlen Ellison when we need him?
Wednesday June 17th 2009, 10:44 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
As a science fiction fan, the change from Sci-Fi to SyFy pains me. The thing I love most about science fiction is the way the stories it tells are interwoven with science. To me SyFy feels less, well, sciency.

Maybe, at 29, I am old before my time, but I already get annoyed when fantasy and science fiction are mixed up at the book store. To borrow Asimov's definition, for me, for a story to be science fiction it has to have some element of, or cosequence of human science. Otherwise we are just making stuff up; which is fine, but it's not the same thing. Science fiction has a lot to teach us about the human condition and how it is related to technology, discover and the world in which we live at its most obscure (read as subatomic/galactic/etc.) level. I occasionally enjoy fantasy too, but fantasy misses those key elements of science fiction that makes it so much more.

Some of the things that get called science fiction are an abomination. I just can't help but think that by taking the sci(ence) out of their name SyFy are abandoning the best bits of sf in favour of more vampire space operas.
Wednesday June 17th 2009, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Judith A. (Hamilton, GA)
Study the demographics of what your audience wants to see. How many different types of bugs can destroy mankind? Am I the only one who keeps hoping for some actual Science Fiction instead of chew-em-up insects?

Sigh Fie. Bye Bye.

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