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Based on the ongoing barrage of questions for SyFy’s Craig Engler on Twitter, I get the sense that hardcore science fiction lovers are up in arms over the cable channel’s decision to change their name to the made-up word “syfy.” But what are we really so angry about?
Much of this seems to stem from TV historian and original Scifi channel developer Tim Brooks’ comment that, “The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular.” At the time, uber-geek Wil Wheaton responded “SyFy’s Tim Brooks insulted the hell out of geeks everywhere. So on behalf of all us geeks, I say SyFy can go Fyck Itsylf.”
But not so fast. What Brooks said about the “name” Sci Fi isn’t exactly untrue in the sense that if you throw that word around, those geeky adolescent boys in their basements are exactly what comes to mind for the general public.
Now, I’m not sure if anyone’s ever done a serious anthropological study of science fiction demographics, but one way to get a gauge on what we look like is to go to a convention. Any convention. Let me tell you, there aren’t a lot of women there. But there are some.
So is the new Syfy channel trying to recreate itself in order to be more inclusive of these other demographics, “the general public and the female audience”? Absolutely. It’s a cable channel, not a fan club. It operates with the sole purpose of creating for-profit entertainment, and profitability necessitates attracting a wider audience. The good news is, the execs at Syfy seem to have noticed that as the quality of their programming increases, so too does the type of audience the channel attracts.
Growing up, I was the only one in my family that enjoyed watching science fiction. My two sisters somehow managed to deal with adolescence much better than I, and didn’t spend all their time imagining a future where high school didn’t exist, only Starfleet Academy. Fast forward to sometime in 2005, when the reboot of Battlestar Galactica made its viral trip around the pop culture circuit. Suddenly both my sisters were hopelessly addicted. Here was a show that we could talk about together. The quality of writing, the incredible suspense of not knowing how the fleet would survive, all of these things made the show incredibly satisfying for all three of us. Did it even matter that the show was science fiction? For me, yes. That’s why I watched it in the first place. But for my sisters, no. They just heard it was an amazing show. And this is a very good thing for people like me.
I get the sense that the strange anger over the Syfy name change has more to do with injured geek pride and the fact that geek subculture is currently enjoying mainstream status. All those “other” people who don’t know what it means to grow up alone in the basement watching Star Trek have no idea how to properly appreciate science fiction, right?
Of course they don’t. That’s why we don’t need to really worry about anyone taking away our geek/nerd status any day soon. At least not without a time machine and some magical popularity dust. With our geek statuses firmly intact, we should sit back and enjoy the fact that the people out there want to invest money and energy and time into creating quality science fiction for not just us, but everyone. It’s mob rule out there, and right now the mob is favoring us. Relish the moment. Because seriously, if I have to turn on the television and see one more freaking “new” crime show, so help me god…
The curious world of marketing has brought us the rebranding of the SciFi channel, now reincarnated as the SyFy Channel. In a world where neologisms and intentional mispellings of common words has become the only way (tumblr, flickr, etc.) to secure something recognizable as a domain on the web, the SyFy Channel gave up its monopoly on the word scifi in order to birth the new domain of SyFy. Curious indeed.
The reason for changing their name in the first place, Engler said, was to get “something that was ownable,” and “to distinguish [their] brand from the category.” This has been widely reported and is really the only sensible reasoning, because why else would you change the name of something that’s currently successful? So why, then, didn’t they change the name completely, so it didn’t still sound like the genre whose fans love it so? That, Engler said, is because they “wanted to have [their] cake and eat it, too,” meaning they could tweak the brand just enough to allow them to trademark it but keep it close enough that it didn’t change their underlying identity.
In another interview, SyFy President David Howe explains,
Our development strategy has not changed, nor do I expect it to, other than we’ll still be doing creative, smart, risk-taking, ambitious programming, both in scripted and reality.
The conversion of SciFi to SyFy rests on the success of the channel’s recent high-quality original programming and future shows like Caprica, Warehouse 13, and Stargate: SGU that promise to keep the channel going strong. While I wholeheartedly support SyFy for bringing shows like Battlestar Galactica and the Stargate franchise to television, I do hope that they figure out what to do with all that airtime in between the good shows. Movies of the week like “Snakehead Terror” “Wyvern” “War Wolves” and “Yeti”, while hilarious, seem like evidence that money might be better spent on more of that “ambitious programming” that Howe speaks of.
If SyFy really wants to update itself along with its new name, set the bar for cable television as high as possible, and maybe consider easing up on those movies of the week. I hear Virtuality could use a home…
For your viewing pleasure, Snakehead Terror: