Why SyFy cannot keep its shows alive

SyFy’s Craig Engler wrote a thoughtful response to the various “Save Our Show” campaigns that are presently underway on Boing Boing. In “How to REALLY save your favorite sci-fi show from cancelation” Craig writes:

So the biggest way you can have a real, meaningful impact – the way that will work every time if you can pull it off — is to find a way to get NEW viewers to try the show. And a LOT of new viewers. If a show isn’t successful with 900,000 viewers, it’s not going to start working with 950,000 viewers. It’s going to take a few hundred thousand new viewers to make an impact.

The way to do that is to go big. Instead of talking to us, talk to the critics and TV bloggers out there who have the most readers and try to get THEM to talk about the show. Do something so unique that your “save the show” campaign gets covered on the homepage of CNN. Find a way to get Jon Stewart to joke about your campaign on his show. Use tools out there like Twitter and Facebook that let you reach people on a mass scale. If you’re sending letters to the network, send them to your friends too. And send them to your friends’ friends. You need scale, and you need it quickly because…

And that is where Craig lost me. Jon Stewart doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to building audience share for a television show. There are three factors that directly affect a show’s success in building audience:

  1. It’s targeted at the right timeslot
  2. It’s targeted at a receptive demographic
  3. It’s targeted at productive advertisers

If you miss the targeting on one of the three you might still have a successful show for a while but it won’t realize its full potential, and I would argue (probably with Craig’s agreement) that you cannot be successful without productive advertisers.

Productive advertisers embrace the show’s brand. They become more than suits running commercials in-between your three acts and finale — they set up show-related marketing initiatives. That’s where the fast food chains come in with their spaceships and ray guns, their characters-on-a-cup, and that’s where the breakfast cereals get their special packaging, their back-package adventures, and so on. Genre shows are great at building these kind of advertising relationships, but the broadcasting and advertising executives wrongly assume this kind of marketing only works on children.

Take the Hercules and Xena fans. They bought every piece of junk associated with the shows: plastic cups, plastic swords, plastic chakrams — global warming was accelerated three points by the adult fans of those shows targeting cheap junk at children who had little intention or desire of buying the stuff. They weren’t even watching the shows unless Mom and Dad forced them to.

SyFy is feeling some heat from fans of Legend of the Seeker and other shows right now. Why? Because everyone perceives them as the place where genre shows can (or should) succeed. Oddly, SyFy seems to be moving away from genre shows. It’s more interested in wrestling because, oddly enough, money talks. Hey — isn’t that wrestling merchandise I see in the stores?

So ABC Studios hasn’t exactly flooded the marketplace with Seeker merchandise contracts but that’s only one of the three tiers. Anyone who is as sick of depending upon Tribune Broadcasting for picking up genre shows as I am has to be secretly happy that they dumped Legend of the Seeker because maybe, MAYBE ABC might find a way to get the show broadcast in receptive markets on a consistent basis. You don’t build audience share by pre-empting a popular show, changing its weekly broadcast, or otherwise screwing with the audience expectations.

When your audience cannot trust you to broadcast a show as scheduled, you have absolutely no business criticizing the masses for staying away in droves. Tribune wants to invest more money in Jerry Springer productions because they are less expensive and they appeal to the limited imagination of people who will buy just about anything an advertiser sticks in front of their face. Good-bye Tribune. Please don’t pick up any more genre shows. You don’t deserve them.

But here’s where any genre show will fail: if you don’t target the show at a receptive demographic, you have absolutely no chance of building sustainable market share. SyFy, Tribune, and ABC — let me clue you in to something: You’re living with the INTERNET GENERATION.

Some people in the film and television industry GET the Internet Generation. Some people don’t.

I’ve been building and promoting science fiction fan sites for over 13 years. I do okay. I’m not a commercial success at it because I never tried to become a commercial success. I don’t want to wake up every morning thinking, “I need 15-20 articles about science fiction and fantasy or my page views will decline 10%”. There are certain genre Websites that go for the mass audience.

I’m good just pleasing 100,000-150,000 fans per month with my network. They generate enough revenue to pay the server fees and that’s all I ask. They make it possible for me to do what I like to do when I have time to do it.

But the Xenite.Org/SF-Fandom network is not alone out there. There are literally thousands of fan Websites — now mostly blogs and forums — that are visited by hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of visitors every day. Those amateur fan sites, like mine, just do what they want and they share what they like and somehow they connect with millions of people.

Today the film and television industry are struggling to generate “screen time” that pays for all the production costs, marketing costs, infrastructure costs, etc. and still makes a little profit to keep investors happy. But they ran into a brick wall a few years back that they still haven’t figured out how to climb: file sharing networks. It is possible to watch virtually every movie and television show online for free if you’re willing to risk being taken to court or possibly arrested (distributing copyrighted materials in volume is a felony in the United States, for example).

As I write this at least two film studios are waiting on me to put up some content to help them promote their genre movies. I’ll admit I have invested more time than I originally thought I would in the Save Our Seeker campaign, but I was drawn into the effort not by fandom’s cries for help — I was enticed into taking action because Slam Internet, Inc. asked me to put a LOTS widget on my Website.

They’re still asking me to help increase exposure.

Craig — that is what SyFy, ABC, and Tribune need to be doing for all their shows: reaching out to the fans online and giving them tools to work with. The studios that do this still haven’t quite mastered the almost twin arts of social and viral marketing. In classic viral marketing you give people something to share, to pass on. It spreads like a virus. In social marketing you give people something to engage with.

What guys like me really need is a constant flow of unique content. I don’t want the same stuff being handed out to 20 other fansites. I want stuff that lets people engage with me in a way that differs from how they engage with other sites. In the world of Internet marketing the audience tends to stick with the site it first arrives at regardless of the quality of the sites behind it. That’s just the way it is. So every site needs something new, something different, in order to peel people away from those “first hit” sites they find that naturally capture their loyalty.

Television networks and film studios have sometimes gone down that path the right way. More often they just put up shlocky cheap crap Websites that do nothing but twinkle in flash and tell you to buy the DvD; worse, they have begun setting up Twitter accounts so they can tell their fans about all the great stuff they are slinging out.

Do you really think your 1 million followers care about whether the DvD for “Slimy Thing From The Pit” just went on sale? They want to know what you’re thinking, what you care about — they want to know where a studio or network is going next, what priorities and trends you see. They want you to engage, to connect.

In that kind of world, Craig, your advice to fans for saving shows just doesn’t work. The fans cannot create quality experience out of a vacuum of resources. They need to be able to connect with the actors, the writers, the stunt doubles, the directors, and the business decision makers who may not feel comfortable explaining themselves to 100,000 hard core fans.

Why are Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars fandoms so big? Why do those franchises keep succeeding over and over again, whereas other genre franchises come and go? Is it possibly because there is engagement there at all levels?

Is it possibly because someone is really thinking about nurturing a relationship with the audience, even if only at an intuitive level.

ABC Studios (and Tribune and CW and anybody else associated with Legend of the Seeker) should have brought Craig Horner, Bruce Spence, and Bridget Regan to Comic Con, Dragon*Con, anyCon and let them meet with and engage with the fans, the media who cover the conventions, and be part of the whole experience.

Craig Horner walks down the street in New Zealand and people don’t know who he is. Maybe that will be great for him as an individual — he won’t be ruined by all the attention that destroys Hollywood style celebrities more often than not. But maybe if Craig had to fight off his fans and flee for the sake of keeping his pants once in a while, no one would be writing “Save Our Seeker” today.

It’s not the fans’ fault that the television networks and studios still cannot figure out how to do 21st century marketing.

It costs about $7,000 to fly someone first class from New Zealand or Australia to the United States. Don’t sit on your hands and say there is no return on that investment. That dog won’t hunt.

For what it’s worth, the 15th annual Xena convention was held in February. Anyone who wants to get into the genre show business should spend some time observing that fandom. That will teach you a lot about how to do it right.

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18 responses to “Why SyFy cannot keep its shows alive

  1. Pingback: A rebuttal to Craig Engler’s bad advice to fans « Save The Seeker – News about the Seeker Fan Campaign

  2. Now that was well worth the read. As a content writer for websites, I fully understand your points on what is needed to fill a site each day to keep the interest flowing. The are a wide range of marketing techniques that are not employed by show’s executives to hit some of the untapped markets out there. The point on exposure for LOS is one of the best on this subject I’ve seen. Thanks for taking the time to put this out there.

  3. Thank you. This helps to give us ( the fandom regular people) an much needed insight and more things to think about, especially in regards to the current Save Our Seeker campaign.

  4. This, is just brilliant.

  5. Wow, love this article and I totally agree with you. While I have never personally seen Legend of the Seeker I have heard great things about it…and I feel its plight is consistent with other genre shows. The one that immediately pops into my mind is Merlin. It is a huge hit in the UK…yet it did not produce the desired ratings when it aired last summer on NBC. The reason it did not perform well is for the exact same reason LOTS didn’t perform….lack of a consistent time slot, a poor time slot, an inability to properly advertise, and a failure to target the proper audience.
    Thankfully Merlin was put on Syfy (although I have issues with it being at 10pm after SGU when Merlin is more family oriented and SGU is not). But at least it is airing.
    Your ideas for the Save the Show campaigns are spot on! I have definitely seen the power that online applications as well as informative and interactive websites have in the building up of a fandom. TV networks need to fully embrace the online aspect and produce quality websites. (And as a complete side note, the rating people should count online views of the shows on hulu or the channel’s website to fully comprehend how many people watch the show. Many college aged students do not watch shows on TV anymore…and they fall within the 18-49 demographic range that seems to be so desired).

  6. I 100% agree with you on this. SyFy should have embraced the way genre fans celebrate their favorite shows a long time ago. Why isn’t there a SyFy convention dedicated to their own shows and more?

  7. Amen. I violently agree on your points. Outstanding post. Just comes from the heart.

  8. Wow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    And don’t give up hope. They brought back Battlestar Galactica (and Richard Hatch) after more than 20 years. Trust me when I say, “Nothing ain’t yet been decided no way no how — not for good.”

  9. Jim Heckman

    There is no doubt that Disney-ABC and the Tribune company marketed Legend of the Seeker all wrong. There was no real advertisement or publicity, I only found the show my accident one Sunday evening last season. There has been no attempt to connect with fans, quite the opposite Disney-ABC and the Tribune Company have avoided the fans completely and still do so.

    Just like Syfy, Disney-ABC and the Tribune Company want to pay as little as possible for something. Syfy negotiated to get the Seeker, but wanted it for nothing, yet most of its shows have worse ratings. It’s very hard to read Craig Engler’s “words of wisdom” when Syfy is broadcasting wrestling.

    Of course, Disney-ABC and the Tribune Company will take no responsibility for their failure to back the Seeker correctly. In fact, the Tribune company is so bankrupt will they even be around?

    I will continue working to save the Seeker, but unless it’s marketed right, the same problems will develop again. Having said that, the Seeker is genre show that I identify with and like, so I must look past Disney-ABC. Hopefully, it will survive.

  10. I like you.

  11. Pingback: Seeker campaign ad on Variety home page « Save The Seeker – News about the Seeker Fan Campaign

  12. Thank you for sharing such a well thought out article. It’s rare to come across someone who “gets it” when it comes to how to help setup TV shows so they have a good chance of success. Especially since most genre shows always have an uphill battle just to survive. Thanks.

  13. I agree wholeheartedly with this, thankyou for posting such an interesting and insightful response to Craig’s blog.

  14. This is fantastic. It perfectly captures all of the excuses the networks keep making and throws it back in their faces.

    Long live the show.

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  16. wow… Yeah, this was a really great article man! Really great job here.

  17. Nice editorial… but, crikey, man — could you not have made your point a little more succinctly?!

    One thing you left out that I feel deeply affects a show’s ratings and survivability: an audience’s willingness to invest in something that they suspect will be cancelled in a heartbeat. I won’t watch “Happy Town,” for instance. It looks interesting, but clearly ABC thinks it’s DOA. In the age of Hulu — where we can catch up on a show’s first season after it’s been picked up for a second — you have to motivate viewers to watch NOW.