This month, SyFy purchased the rights to 400 Days, an anticipated science fiction film set to arrive in theaters in January on the channel not too long after. 400 Days is a legitimate SF flick, starring Brandon Routh, that has gotten positive buzz at festivals. That wouldn’t be head-turning if SyFy wasn’t best-known for repetitious, accessible schlock like Sharknado, Mansquito, and, well, just read the list. So what’s a channel that spent most of the last half-decade as a punchline doing with a film like this? Let’s go full newspeak: It’s un-rebranding.
A funny thing happened to the Sci-Fi Channel on its way to its 2009 rebranding as Syfy: It lost its soul. That’s fine for most television channels, but it may have been a mistake in this particular case. When the channel changed from Sci-Fi to Syfy, it also generalized its mission. Fewer ambitious Battlestar Galactica-like space operas, more wrestling, reality series, and lite science fictions like Haven and Warehouse 13. Its biggest success of the era was the intermittently self-aware Sharknado.
Perhaps this was inevitable. The A.V. Club’s Dennis Perkins has argued that after the wild creation of niche cable channels in the 1990s, an inherent mission drift set in. Channels as seemingly disparate as A&E, History, Bravo, MTV, and perhaps most glaringly, Sci-Fi, slowly became indistinguishable from one another. Reality shows and cheap pseudo-documentaries provided the most bang for the buck.
But, for Syfy, the 2009 name change corresponded both with the mission drift and the end of their most notable science fiction series, Battlestar Galactica, which meant that a channel ostensibly poised to hop on the explosion of geek culture totally missed the boat or spaceship or whatever. Since 2009, we’ve seen The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones ascend to the top of the ratings — that’s a post-apocalyptic series on AMC and a fantasy series on HBO.
Perhaps Syfy never would have had the chance to win those huge licenses in a competition against arguably the two most-acclaimed networks on television. But watching The CW, of all networks, become the home of fast, fun speculative fiction — with horror shows like The Vampire Diaries, superhero shows like Arrow, and straight-up post-apocalyptic SF like The 100, makes it clear that Syfy had wasted its best chance at raising its profile while chasing quick Sharknado hits.
A shift in focus — a re-niching, as it were — was announced in The Hollywood Reporter last year: “….(new VP Bill McGoldrick has) has two mandates: greenlight a space opera a la Battlestar and usher the network back into the golden age of high-profile, big-budget miniseries now duplicated by so many of its competitors.”
Some 18 months later, what the mandate looks like is increasingly clear. The Expanse is the network’s showcase science fiction series, taking a series of popular recent SF novels and turning them into the sort of show that hasn’t really been seen on television before. It’s also aiming for a fantasy hit with The Magicians, a series based on Lev Grossman’s fantastic trilogy, a joyously dark post-modern remix of fantasy tropes (after Thrones, Harry Potter, and LOTR, it may have been one of the hottest fantasy licenses around).
Syfy’s miniseries plans are also indicative: Last year’s Ascension and this year’s Childhood’s End are both classic science fiction, the latter an adaptation of one of the best-known SF novels of all time. Just yesterday, Syfy announced two seasons of a new anthology horror series: Channel Zero. With this, Syfy has rebuilt the third pillar of speculative fiction: horror, to go alongside science fiction and fantasy. (Superhero stories have arguably become a fourth pillar of SF, recently, and Syfy no doubt would be interested in getting in on that action if possible.)
In other words, Syfy is betting on quality. In a world of peak TV, they’re betting that being the same as everyone else isn’t sufficient, that they have to have a distinct brand in order to be sought out. That’s respectable — and in the next few months, with The Expanse, Childhood’s End, The Magicians, and 400 Days being released, we’ll find out if Syfy’s plan to do sci-fi has actually worked.