Last week executives at The Sci Fi channel announced they were changing the network’s name to “Syfy”, a move that caused much outrage among the geekier sections of the internet. Surprisingly, the hostility isn’t entirely due to the fact that “syfy” is a colossally awful name (although it really can’t be overstated: this is the worst idea in brand naming since Pepsi Pus).
No, the lingering dissatisfaction is due to the network’s explanation of the reasoning behind the change. Network reps say that the new name “broadens perceptions” and “embraces a wider range of […] entertainment,” but the basic idea is clear: they can’t stay in business with an audience completely made up of sci fi geeks.
Pretty much everybody has taken a stab at making fun of the network, so I don’t have much to add there. But there are three things I find interesting:
If this is the end of “geek chic,” I’m all for it.
For years I’ve been hearing that nerds are cool and sexy and all the rage these days. As I’ve said before, I’m completely against this. Mostly because I have yet to benefit from it. I think the system favors nerd poseurs, the ones who knew they’d be hot as soon as they took off the glasses and let their hair down. (Or, I guess, turned out to be totally buff underneath that “Han Shot First” T-shirt). When a hard-core geek like myself remains so socially disenfranchised, that’s a clear sign that it’s not Geek Empowerment, but Geeksploitation.
They really did make a go of the brand, at one point.
It’s pretty well known that when “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was dropped by Comedy Central and picked up by the Sci Fi channel, the network insisted that they only make fun of science fiction movies. It seemed pretty silly at the time — the show itself was about a man on a satellite with two robots, so science fiction was built into the premise — but it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable demand. The bulk of that series was the movie, and it stands to reason you’d want people flipping to the Sci Fi channel to have a pretty good chance of seeing laser beams and spaceships.
Of course, that didn’t seem to keep them from showing WWE extreme cage match events. Which just goes to prove Marshall McLuhan’s most well-known insight about the media: more people want to watch wrestling than see puppets make fun of movies.
The channel method of content distribution is breaking down.
Back when the number of basic cable channels exploded, most of them took the magazine model: choose a target audience, build up a brand catering to that audience, and find as much cheap programming as you can afford that will fit in with that brand. And if my habits were typical of most excessive TV-watchers, it worked. Even before I discovered MST3k, I’d turn to the nascent Comedy Channel and leave it there for hours, watching Rachel Sweet or The Higgins Boys and Gruber or whoever else they trotted out to host a two-hour block of lame, heavily-recycled stand-up clips. The most successful — artistically, although apparently not financially successful — example was the “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” era Cartoon Network and later, Adult Swim. That was a perfect example of network branding that was even stronger than the programming: yes, as a matter of fact, I am watching an episode of “Magilla Gorilla” just to see the commercials.
Over the past five years or so, the model switched from magazines to shopping malls. Channels became defined not by their “brand identity,” but their anchor programs:
- USA was always more of a brand than an “identity,” but it went from being The “Wings” Channel to The “Monk” Channel, since apparently NBC hasn’t yet found a way to devote an entire network to reruns of “Law & Order.”
- As the gap between theatrical and DVD releases got shorter and shorter, HBO and later Showtime changed from movie channels into venues for hour-long dramas like “The Sopranos” that didn’t have ads and could say the f-word.
- Unless Jon Hamm was kidding, American Movie Classics has gone the KFC route and no longer tries to present its content as “classic” or even “movies.” (Which is fine, since watching a movie on AMC always was a nightmarish barrage of commercials anyway). Like the “real” movie channels, it’s established itself by having two really strong series in “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” (I haven’t seen either, but I hear they’re good).
- A&E didn’t take long to de-emphasize the arts and entertainment in favor of Biography (even spinning that into its own channel) and Bill Curtis-narrated crime documentaries.
- And my beloved Cartoon Network has been furiously chipping away at its brand for years, trying to turn itself into another Nickelodeon with live-action movies and shows just barely related to cartoons. And I don’t know what the hell’s going on with Adult Swim anymore.
The History Channel seems to have stayed the course, but then you can never really run out of Hitler and Ancient Egypt.
Last weekend, the Sci Fi channel lost its anchor series, and they’re stuck with reruns of “Night of the Anaconda” and any number of night-vision “Ghost Hunter” shows until they can find a replacement. To do that, they’ve got to cast a wider net: “Battlestar Galactica” was successful, but it was never a runaway blockbuster by any account. And still, it had a bigger audience than something like “Stargate” ever could, partly because it was just a better series, but mostly because you could convince people it wasn’t really science fiction. Look, they use bullets and sometimes hardly ever go out into space and it’s a metaphor for the conflict in Iraq, see? The Sci Fi channel found itself in a mall where the Macy’s had moved out, and they were facing the prospect of replacing it with a Radio Shack.
Why Internet People Think Content People Are Stupid
Related to this is a “lively debate” going on between Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet; and Avner Ronen of the open-source media aggregator app boxee. Cuban is claiming that the notion of on-demand content via the internet being the future of entertainment is a naive idea. I’ll freely admit that I’m a few billion dollars short of being a billionaire like Mr. Cuban, but I have to say that his arguments aren’t particularly convincing. For one thing, he comes across as defensive; the more you have to assure people that you’re not dumb and you know what you’re talking about, the more you have to wonder whom you’re trying to convince, exactly.
But the bigger problem with his argument is that he keeps confusing the role of the service provider with that of the content provider: an internet connection doesn’t have the bandwidth of a cable or satellite connection, he says, and somehow concludes that this means bundled content is the only thing that consumers will accept. That may or may not be true — I’m the only one in contention for the internet connection in my apartment, so I can’t speak from experience — but either way, it has nothing to do with “content people.” The channels aren’t providing me with bandwidth, they’re providing content to the people who are providing me with bandwidth: AT&T or Comcast or DirecTV. (Granted, nowadays a lot of those are the same company, but bear with me for the sake of argument). The channel isn’t adding any value to the transaction by bundling up the content into blocks. Customers don’t care about channels anymore; they want individual shows. And the thing media companies just refuse to understand is that their business model is broken the moment customers can’t discern what value they’re adding.
He gets a little closer to a valid point when he uses YouTube as an example of how content via the internet offers too much choice; he says there’s “Millions upon millions of choices that never get seen.” Traditional media (via the major networks) get views, but smaller sources have to fight to get an audience. That is the only thing that networks and channels provide these days: marketing. And it’s significant value, or at least it was back when it worked. Now, though, it’s turned into a cycle that’s squeezing out the networks: When customers can DVR their favorite shows by title, they don’t have to care about or even know what network is airing the show, and they’re no more or less likely to watch other shows on that network. Since the networks can no longer hold onto a big enough audience by targeting a specific audience, they have to dilute their brands to cast a wider net. When the brand gets diluted to the point that the Sci Fi channel is airing wrestling and Cartoon Network is showing live-action movies, the brand has no more value, making the audience even less likely to care about the network itself.
Take HDNet. (Please). They did the right thing by targeting a specific audience. Unfortunately, the audience is “people who bought an HDTV within the last month, and still want to show it off to their friends.” That’s just not sustainable. Mr. Cuban claims that the networks add value by doing quality control: instead of the millions of crappy videos that YouTube spits out, you see the finest programs hand-picked by highly-paid network executives. But we all know that’s not the case. All HDNet does is check the “is it broadcast in HD?” flag and cross-references it with the “Can we afford it?” flag, meaning that we get Dave Matthews concerts (where you can see every bead of sweat in vivid detail!) and hour-long footage of sunrises (seriously!).
There’s still value to be added: it’d be hopelessly naive to believe that crowd-sourcing and word-of-mouth and star ratings will be enough to push a series to the kind of viewership that a network’s advertising department can drive. But the one thing that channels can still add — providing some kind of filtering and quality control and “identity” — is exactly the same thing they’ve stopped doing. It was a long time ago I abandoned the notion that “if it’s on the Sci Fi channel, it’s probably worth watching.” But now I can’t even say “if it’s on the Syfy channel, it’s probably science fiction.”