The Sci Fi channel: Revenge of the nerds

The Sci Fi channel has been taking viewers to other worlds for 10 years. What better way to celebrate than to introduce a promotional character called Geekboy? Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

The geek channel is fighting its corner with a marketing campaign that focuses on the delights of such favoured moves of the playground bully as the ET finger jab, the Vulcan nerve pinch, the Captain Kirk shoulder chop and - for the ladies - the Wonder Woman spin slap. Sci Fi has also unveiled a four-eyed cartoon character called Geekboy as the channel's new face.

It's not that all Sci Fi viewers are total weirdos, explains Nick Betts, the channel's boss (pictured below). "They are leaders in society rather than the great unwashed behind their computers with no friends," he adds. "People go to them for advice on technology."

Geekery, he says, is a sign of passion and individuality. The emergence of "geek chic", a tag that has been used by social commentators to describe the popularity of everything from bands such as Weezer and The Neptunes to the TV show Lost and the movie Napoleon Dynamite, is seen by Betts as a chance to "shift the perception of the Sci Fi viewer".

"Sci Fi is not one of those areas which people readily admit to being big fans of," he concedes. "Geek chic is an opportunity for us to take something positive and say that people are moving away from the mass market and being obsessive about things [they have found for themselves]. It's the rise of individualism."

Just as the Sci Fi viewer is inaccurately stereotyped, so the product itself is often misconstrued, says Betts. It is not just about "monsters jumping out of people's stomachs", he says. "People tend to think of sci-fi as being space aliens. The whole genre is broader than that and extends into fantasy and paranormal."

Much of the best of Sci Fi is simply good drama, he insists, a fact which helps to explain why in August 51 per cent of the channel's audience was female (although 48 per cent is a more usual figure). Betts notes that "as the guns and bombs drop away women are more likely to watch".

Sadly for Betts, rival commissioning editors are aware of Sci Fi's increasingly broad appeal and - with bigger budgets - are bidding for the best programmes. Lost was snapped up by Channel 4, while Battlestar Galactica and Stargate went to Sky One. Living TV (which is aimed mainly at women) has recognised the female fascination with the paranormal and made the turf its own, and next year BBC3 will seek to capitalise on the success of the relaunched Doctor Who with its own adult sci-fi spin-off called Torchwood.

There is certainly no stigma around the genre in America, where it is at the heart of the schedules on the main networks and where 85 million people subscribe to Sci Fi's sister channel. The UK version, comparatively fledgling, has a reach of 2.8 million per week, so there is plenty of room for growth.

Betts was appointed in March by the US media and entertainment giant NBC Universal (the owners of Sci Fi) to realise this potential. As the UK managing director of NBC Universal Global Networks, his remit is not only to develop the Sci Fi brand but also to "widen the NBC Universal portfolio in the UK".

Currently NBC Universal has only a limited presence in this country; aside from Sci Fi it has CNBC, a news service aimed largely at the business community.

Betts says he is looking both at the possibility of acquiring and launching channels, noting that "NBC's strengths are in horror and crime". NBC Universal has a channel called 13th Street which is already popular in France and Spain and would be an obvious extension to the UK portfolio.

Patrick Vien, the New York-based president of NBC Universal Global Networks, says: "I do think that in a market like the UK the next generation of TV channels is going to be that much more specialist. With that comes the opportunity to grab the crime genre, which is extremely broad."

Betts, who was formerly the commercial director of UKTV, the BBC's joint venture with Flextech, is also keen to get a foothold in the market for delivering programmes via mobile telephones and broadband, noting that "sci-fi is an incredibly powerful genre within those technologies".

Sci Fi already enjoys relationships with its geekish cousins in other media, such as the magazine SFX and websites including aintitcool.com. But Betts wants to make more original programming such as the recent Firefly weekend, which was filmed in Los Angeles with Joss Whedon, the writer of the hit series, its movie spin-off Serenity, and before that Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Making sci-fi is "incredibly expensive with the costumes and the sets", complains Betts, and he hopes that the UK channel can work on joint productions with the US channel and other partners to share costs. Sci Fi UK has had to look on as hit programmes made by NBC Universal such as Battlestar Galactica and Stargate have been sold in the UK to the highest bidder, in those cases BSkyB.

Betts knows that there is a large audience which does not see sci-fi as unfashionable and eccentric. But he admits that in the British multichannel universe it is "really, really difficult to get noticed".

He is concentrating his strategy on making Sci Fi's Movie at 10 strand a fixed "appointment to view" in the schedule, raising that slot's profile this week with screenings of Halloween, the original The Ring and the director's cut of The Exorcist.

And if Betts needs a little assistance in raising awareness of the channel, help is around the corner. British television executives like to refer to big players such as the BBC, ITV and BSkyB as the 800lb gorillas of the industry. Betts will shortly be able to call on his own gargantuan ape, namely King Kong, which is being released as a feature film by Universal in December and which offers countless branding and spin-off opportunities for Sci Fi in the UK.

Betts will hope that Kong can help him to raise the profile of the Sci Fi channel so that, in times when the genre is increasingly ubiquitous, viewers remember that he can offer them something spooky or otherworldly any time of the day.

"Sky One shows an awful lot of sci-fi but it ain't called Sci Fi, it's called Sky One. Being called the Sci Fi channel is a huge asset to us," he says. "We are 24/7 science fiction and it's important for us to maintain that identity."

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