Does Syfy really love sci-fi?
Formerly called the Sci Fi Channel, Syfy was once home to dozens of science fiction programmes. But has it forsaken its geek audience? Here’s Ron’s view…
It's a question that has been slowly building in the minds of a lot of observers since the fateful rebranding. When the Sci Fi Channel shed its geek roots and transmogrified into the text-savvy, 'cooler' branding Syfy, a little part of the brand died for me.
I understand that owning your name and whatnot is important for a network, but the Sci Fi Channel? You knew what was going to be on it. With a name like that, you weren't going to see reality television, professional wrestling, or cooking shows. It was designed as an outlet for the classic sci-fi programming for Paramount and Universal Studios, and its original advisory team included such genre notables as Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov.
That's all changed. After a long and complicated series of purchases, mergers, sell-offs, spin-offs, and repurchases, Syfy in the US is firmly under the NBC Universal umbrella and has completely lost its way as a network with a singular vision to promote and produce science fiction shows.
In television parlance, it's called branching out, but for viewers, it has a more negative name: channel drift. That's when a channel that once had a mission and a core audience decides it doesn't need that audience anymore and becomes just another channel with the same crap on it as every other channel.
It started out slowly, of course. Some of the programmes that make up the network's first serious move away from sci-fi can be squinted at and given a passing grade by more casual sci-fi marks.
For example, The Secret Adventures Of Jules Verne wasn't straight sci-fi, but it was steampunk, and that's pretty close. Good Versus Evil is also not sci-fi, but it's got a little paranormal element to the show that makes it kind of fit in. Black Scorpion was straight superhero territory, but it's also based off of a Roger Corman-produced movie, and there's a lot of gadgetry and gimmick villainy there which makes it, again, close enough. At least to me, considering you can trace that lineage back to shows like the Bionic Woman. The Chronicle was more comedy than science fiction, but when you consider that the Sci Fi Channel started off showing a similar show (Kolchak The Night Stalker), it kind of fits.
Still, once the slide started, the slippery slope has pushed the channel farther away from sci-fi and more into the realm of general entertainment. The first serious offender was Scare Tactics, a reality television show based on the idea of scaring people. Yes, they worked in some sci-fi trappings like Bigfoot and UFOs, but you can't throw a man in a gorilla suit and call Candid Camera science fiction, can you? Because that's what the show is, Candid Camera with a glossing of nerd. Once that show became acceptable, that's when the doors blew off the Sci Fi Channel and the network seriously started fleeing from the genre it once held dear.
Ghost Hunters, a simple exploration-based reality show, has become the network's biggest, cheapest success. That spawned Ghost Hunters International, then Ghost Hunters Academy (which was, guess what? A reality TV show!).
Ghost Hunters was followed by Mad Mad House, which put ‘normal' people into the lives of ‘abnormal' people. So, not only did it exploit those with alternative religious beliefs or lifestyles, like a voodoo priestess and a witch, it also had a second layer of reality show crap by forcing the contestants to perform stunts for the home viewers' amusement, with losers being sent home.
So, Mad Mad House was the full monty of bad reality television, with the stunts of Fear Factor, the pandering of Big Brother, and the kind of judgmental exploitation of Wife Swap.
Further exploitation programming occurred under the guise of Stan Lee's Who Wants To Be A Superhero?, where nerds and losers were put into costumes and put through stunts and judged worthy or unworthy, with the winner getting to star in a Syfy original picture based on his or her gimmick. Cute programming, but is it really sci-fi, or just a reality show with a sci-fi glaze? You could replace Stan Lee with Michael Bay and it's now about action movie stars. You could replace Stan Lee with Simon Cowell and now it's American Idol.
Then there was the time Law And Order: Special Victims Unit had a four-episode run in 2006, which featured serial killer episodes that aren't sci-fi.
Is WCG Ultimate Gamer sci-fi? No, it's another reality show, except it involves people playing videogames. That show was better in the early 90s when it was called Nick Arcade! Estate Of Panic is just Fear Factor without the gross-out factor.
Is Syfy's professional wrestling programming, from WWE NXT to ECW to its current Friday night fixture Smackdown sci-fi? No, it's not even close. It's not even glazed with sci-fi trappings like the reality shows have been. It's just straight-up rasslin that has no place on a sci-fi network. And it's only going to get worse.
About this time, Sci Fi's online properties also started to change. The Hugo Award-winning Sci Fiction section of the Sci Fi website? Canceled without any warning. The Sci Fi Pedia project launched in 2006? Also canned. The Science Fiction Weekly online magazine was lumped into Sci Fi Wire, which is now Blastr, which is a general interest news website with sci-fi (and general Hollywood) content. Still, at least they didn't cancel Sci Fi Magazine (yet, but let's give them time).
While Mary Knows Best (a reality TV series based around a psychic mom and her wacky family) has been canned, the non-sci-fi shows are just increasing in frequency. Marcel's Quantum Kitchen, in which a Top Chef runner-up named Marcel Vigneron cooks up futuristic food with a sci-fi flair for various parties and celebrations, is going to be Syfy's next big launch project. Hollywood Treasure is already moving into a second season, in which a pop culture junk collector tracks down old movie props and rare toys and whatnot. So, basically, it's like American Pickers or Pawn Stars or Cash In The Attic or (insert generic junk selling and buying show name here).
So, what are these reality shows supplanting? Why, actual science fiction, of course. There's still a lot of the older sci-fi content on the airwaves, but it's slowly being phased out, and forget about original programming. After all, this is the programming crew who ruined Caprica by stuffing it into the Friday night death slot and splitting the season into two parts. These are the geniuses who killed off Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. These are the people who wrecked Farscape, one of the most inventive and fun sci-fi shows to ever be on television. They also ended Mystery Science Theater 3000, only the greatest show ever invented by robots in space.
Apparently, making real television costs too much money, but following jackasses around with cameras is cheap ratings gold.
Even the Syfy tradition of bad original pictures, which dates back to when the channel was founded in 1992, is being subverted. Yes, they're still cranking out B-movies, but they're also starting to sneak in more and more non-sci-fi movies, for example, Casino Royale, Halloween: The Curse Of Michael Myers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Golden Compass, The Narnia films, and their whole slate of no-budget disaster movies which feature nothing sci-fi aside from weird weather.
The current Syfy schedule in the US has eight non-sci-fi programs, most of which are reality TV, compared to four sci-fi shows. This ain't the Sci Fi Channel anymore, kids. This is like NBC Universal's version of the Fox Reality Channel with some leftover crap from the good old days. (In the UK, the channel fares a little better, with plenty of solid sci-fi shows. But the same trend is creeping in.)
The days of Asimov and Roddenberry have given way to television lifers, who look only at increasing ratings and less about having good sci-fi on TV.
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