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."
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.