By Aaron Dobbs | Indiewire December 12, 2013 at 3:56PM
The foundation of this "Third Golden Age of Television" is often credited to "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "The Shield" and "Mad Men," but arguably as influential was the 2004 version of "Battlestar Galactica," reimagined by Ronald Moore and Dave Eick, which aired on Sci-Fi (as it was then called). "Battlestar Galactica" regularly made the top 10 lists of major television critics and won Peabody and Television Critics Association "Program of the Year" awards -- not bad for a basic cable channel that had launched just over a decade earlier as a small genre-based sibling to USA Network, primarily created to exploit classic film and TV libraries.
Dave Howe joined Sci-Fi in 2001 after 15 years of guiding marketing and branding for the BBC in his native UK. In January 2008 he was named the channel's president, leading the major rebranding effort the following year that gave us "Syfy" and a broader range of genre entertainment. 2013 saw two major events for the network -- the five-years-in-the-making transmedia project "Defiance" and the social media-driven sensation of "Sharknado." Syfy has a full development slate, with "Helix" (from executive producer Moore) premiering on January 10, and just last week Syfy ordered to series its recent pilot "Dominion," based on characters from the 2010 feature film "Legion."
In 2009, Howe also gained oversight of the horror-themed channel Chiller, which had launched just two years earlier. Chiller was a sponsor of the first Stanley Film Festival in May, where it premiered indie horror icon Larry Fessenden's "Beneath" before a July theatrical and VOD release under its Chiller Films banner. Its next feature, "The Monkey's Paw" received a limited release in October and airs on the channel on January 24, and the Drew Barrymore-produced "Animal" is on the 2014 docket.
In the eighth of a regular series of interviews with network heads, Indiewire spoke with Howe about the importance of social media and transmedia to the future of television, Syfy's efforts to create series with more gravitas coupled with the startling success of "Sharknado" and the importance of independent film directors to the growth of Chiller.
How do you feel the expectations of TV audiences have changed over the past five to 20 years, and how does Syfy's original scripted programming fulfill those expectations?
The shift has really been quite dramatic and has, to some extent, been driven by networks that are not dependent on advertisers. Those of us who do carry ads are catching up with that, but the driver is characters and stories that are much more compelling and immersive than they used to be. People are looking for characters and stories that take them to viscerally challenging, emotionally charged, shocking, thought-provoking, provocative and ultimately emotionally satisfying worlds. That's what you're seeing from most shows that break out and tap into the phenomenon that is the digital water cooler. These series generate conversations and clamor that really propels them into the stratosphere from a ratings perspective.
Beyond what many might consider obvious, how would you describe the characteristics that define a Syfy scripted project?
Ultimately, the building blocks of great drama are the same, whether it's sci-fi/fantasy or regular drama, and I think that surprises most people. You still need iconic characters and stories that are emotionally compelling. The point of difference with sci-fi/fantasy is the notion of a world that the audience has never experienced first-hand; one that is escapist, thought-provoking, scary and so fundamentally different to the world that you live in that you're drawn to it in a way that makes it uniquely compelling and you become obsessed with it.
How did the 2009 brand relaunch change or broaden those characteristics?
I think we gave permission to more viewers to come sample the network. The sci-fi/fantasy genre, and sci-fi in particular, is misunderstood by a lot of people. The perception is that it's narrow and "not for me," and yet it is the biggest, broadest and most mainstream entertainment genre, period. This is consistently the biggest genre there is. Among the top box office movies of all time, 17 out of 20 are genre. If you look at TV, the biggest shows are sci-fi/fantasies: "Game of Thrones," "True Blood," "Under the Dome" and "The Walking Dead." This is the nature of this genre: It's big, and it's for everyone. Same with videogames; same with books: "Twilight," "The Hunger Games," "Halo" the video game; these are the biggest franchises out there, and people don't acknowledge that [they're sci-fi/fantasy].
So when we made that subtle shift from S-c-i-F-i to S-y-f-y, we did two things: We created a brand identity that was uniquely ours and that made more sense across the range of what we do: sci-fi/fantasy, superhero, supernatural, paranormal, unscripted as well as scripted. It also gave us a portable identity in the non-linear world, which made it easier for people to seek out S-y-f-y shows as opposed to the generic category of "sci-fi" that in search is of no use to us.
Sci-fi and fantasy have always had their places in pop culture, but this genre entertainment has really exploded over the past several years, maybe to a greater degree than ever before. Why do you think such stories are connecting so much more now?
A saturation kicked in around scripted drama, in particular around procedurals: been there; watched it to death. People are looking for TV that is different and set in worlds that they haven't seen before. People are looking for relatable but sufficiently different stories and characters in terms of the emotional journey. They're drawn to this genre because they ask themselves, "What if? What if I was in that situation? What if I experienced that particular alien invasion or post-apocalyptic world where you have to fend for yourself?" We've all grown-up to live -- and the younger generation, in particular -- in quite a high-tech society and somewhat fantasized environment. We're looking to escape to worlds that are a little more visceral and scary.
More frequently, we're seeing people from outside the world of television -- filmmakers, playwrights, longform journalists, radio producers -- developing series. Cameron Porsandeh, the creator of "Helix," began his career as an economist. What is Syfy's approach to seeking out different creative voices?
That's critical to the success of any creative enterprise. People are increasingly drawn to TV because it gives them an opportunity to do longform stories, especially in the increasingly serialized world that we're living in. New storytellers recognize that the constraint of a singular stage play or movie -- occasionally a franchise -- isn't enough. Really complex storytelling requires the time and space to set-up multiple layers and let them play out through all the twists and turns. I think that's very attractive to anybody who has stories to tell.
Cameron is a great example of that. He took his background as an economist and his interest in how diseases and viruses spread, and he brought the two together. He has a gift for storytelling, and it's amplified by Ron Moore and Steve Maeda's ability to give him the experience and the skill set to help make that story come to life for a TV audience.
Digital technology has given audiences a larger say in how they watch their stories, and this shift seems to have occurred concurrently with this new serialized form of more sophisticated storytelling. Syfy took a big step towards catering to this reality with the "Syfy Now" app. How do you see the basic formats of television continuing to change?
The most groundbreaking thing that we've done was "Defiance." No one had exploited this next generation of storytelling, which is true transmedia-across-platforms storytelling. The unique thing about our audience is that when they become involved with these characters, they want to live, eat and breathe them 24/7. They do not want the confines of just an hour a week for 13 weeks or sometimes less. True cross-platform transmedia storytelling gives you the opportunity to hang out with those characters and live those stories 24/7, 365 days a year.