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Sci-fi TV: do we have lift-off?

Tomorrow a cable channel devoted to science fiction boldly goes on air. Meg Carter examines its prospects
Do not adjust your television set. Any disruption to normal service is entirely intentional. Fans of flying saucers, giant spiders and the living dead get their very own 24-hour TV station with the UK launch tomorrow of the Sci-Fi Channel. It's a small step for mankind, but a brave move into a market dominated by BSkyB. The station is banking on a resurgence of interest in all things sci-fi. Some predict a bumpy ride.

The Sci-Fi Channel is backed by Hollywood heavyweights Paramount and MCA and will be available round the clock in 87 per cent of UK cable-TV homes. It will also broadcast between three and six hours a day to Sky subscribers in homes with dishes, where the channel will be part of Sky's basic-tier, multi-channels package - an endorsement of the potential interest, claims Rafael Pastor, managing director of the Sci-Fi Channel parent USA Networks.

The decision to boldly go into Europe follows the success of the format in the US where the station launched in 1992. "Sci-Fi Channel will be available in 27 million US cable homes by the end of the year. That's 40 per cent of the market," Pastor says. "Research proves that about 30 per cent of the population buy sci-fi books, magazines or videos. A similar survey shows interest is twice that in the UK."

Few dispute the claim. "Science fiction has always been popular but never more so than today," according to Matt Bielby, editor of the sci-fi magazine SFX. He puts this down to the encroachment of computer technology into our daily lives, the imminent advent of a new millennium, and increased supply.

"Twelve of the 20 top grossing films of all time are sci-fi and more are now in production. The falling cost of state-of-the-art special effects has also boosted the sophistication of production for TV. And new TV channels have fuelled demand by plundering broadcast archives for series from the Sixties and Seventies."

And audiences love it. That is why even established British broadcasters have upped their sci-fi quota. "Many more sci-fi shows are being bought for the UK than was the case just 18 months ago," says Stephen Arnell, programme development executive at broadcast researcher Paradigm. "Robocop: The Series, Star Trek Voyager and Nowhere Man have consistently been among the top rating shows on Sky One, while reruns of Sapphire & Steel and Space 1999 have performed well on Bravo."

Over the August bank holiday, Channel 4's Babylon Five was required cult viewing, while its sci-fi weekend attracted a 27 per cent share of viewing with an audience of more than 6.5 million for footage of an "alien autopsy". Meanwhile, Space Precinct, Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spin-off, Deep Space 9, are performing well on BBC2 where the top rating programme is The X Files.

"X Files regularly attracts audiences of more than six million. That's large by any standard," says Mark Deitch, BBC1 editor of acquisitions. He believes the series has moved sci-fi into the mainstream. "Unlike much traditional science fiction, which dwells on technology, X Files wears a human face. It has mass appeal. The very fact that ITV is putting Cracker up against BBC2 on a Monday night speaks volumes."

While science fiction has yet to find a prime-time home on ITV and BBC1, it is making an impact. "Both channels have tentatively begun to dip their toes into 'unexplained phenomena', commissioning peaktime programmes such as Chiller and Bliss," Arnell says. "With its reliance on hi-tech and special effects, even BBC1's Bugs owes something to the sci-fi genre." It is this invasion which the Sci-Fi Channel hopes to exploit.

"The Sci-Fi Channel is not just Star Wars," Pastor insists. "We're not a niche service, like The Golf Channel, but a broadcaster with broad appeal." In fact, it will offer a blend of traditional science fiction such as Outer Limits, The Six Million Dollar Man and Swamp Thing; "fantasy" programming such as Beauty and the Beast; science fact (Apollo 13: The Real Story goes out tomorrow night) and classic horror such as Friday the 13th and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Programming will be stranded: targeting children with animation at breakfast, women with sci-fi soaps in the afternoon and more adult fare later at night.

Sounds familiar? That is because much of the output is familiar by necessity. For although Hollywood is now developing more sci-fi projects than ever, demand outstrips supply. Competition was fierce at the MIPCOM TV market last month where the hot property was Dark Skies. Described as "X Files meets Forrest Gump", the US-produced series was snapped up for UK terrestrial TV by Channel 4. Meanwhile, the likes of Bravo and Sky One are buying longer licences on acquired programmes: three to five years is the norm.

Science-fiction is a genre likely to boost general cable and satellite audiences. Conversely, unlike broader format channels, such as The Family Channel, sci-fi is an identifiable niche. However, many question the viability of launching a 24-hour dedicated service into today's competitive multi- channel market. As a senior TV executive observes: "It's all very well launching a dedicated sci-fi channel, but what product have they got? Like all satellite channel launches, all the good product is tied up elsewhere. It will be worse for Sci-Fi Channel because of competition from other services - especially Sky One."

BSkyB retains a dominant position in the UK market with its numerous long-term supply contracts with Hollywood and control of the encryption technology needed to operate pay-TV. The only reason the Sci-Fi Channel is on Sky is because BSkyB threatened to launch its own "Sky-Fi" service if the Sci-Fi Channel was only available on cable, industry sources claim. It is a suggestion both vehemently deny. Even so, the dish distribution alliance is widely regarded as a marriage of convenience rather than choice: USA Networks has struck a deal to become a full satellite service when Sky launches digital TV some time next year.

Others wonder whether there is enough decent sci-fi to go round. "There'll be a great deal of barrel-scraping, but then that's the same with cop shows. Most TV production isn't very good," film critic Kim Newman observes. "Sci-Fi Channel undoubtedly has potential. Whether it can support a round- the-clock service, I'm not sure, although with the arrival of digital TV, no niche will be too small."

Pastor concedes the sci-fi boom is driving up the price of programmes, but insists that despite growing competition the Sci-Fi Channel can compete. "There's still a whole range of good shows and movies which have not been seen in the UK before," he says. USA Networks also plans to invest in new UK and European production. And it is negotiating with the BBC for a whole raft of series, including BBC stalwarts Doctor Who and Blake's Seven.

Whether sci-fi will remain as popular over the longer term remains to be seen. Says Deitch: "Like the Sixties TV western, or the Seventies TV detective, every genre has a natural shelf life. Dallas, Dynasty and The Colbys are no longer with us because people grew bored with the format."

Sci-fi has the advantage of a solid following of hardcore fans. But Pastor needs no such reassurance. Already he plans to roll out the channel beyond Europe into Latin America and the Far East. His game plan is clear: next stop, world domination.