The 2013-14 Upfront

Syfy Bets $105m on a TV Series and Video Game [Updated]

Takes big swing on apocalyptic space Western

At first, both parties bickered like divorced parents fighting over an only child, but the partnership created some profitable confluences. For example, Trion developed a set design to Syfy’s specs much earlier than a TV show would have. “We had an amazing catalog of art and landscaping,” says Stern. “All those different things became much more vital.” Beliaeff adds that the asteroid field become a brag-worthy feature, rather than a hindrance. “Syfy actually brought in a scientist from [NASA’s] Jet Propulsion Laboratory to explain to us how it could happen,” he says. “So our low-flying asteroid field is signed-off on by a JPL scientist.” That’s some serious geek cred.

They eventually became model parents. ”We didn’t want a scenario where Trion won this argument or Syfy won that argument,” Beliaeff says. “We just wanted to do the best thing for Defiance.” But because of the extra-long development cycle, every part of Defiance had to get done early—casting, writing, design and especially ad sponsorships.

Once again, Syfy had to make something new. “It was very important for us, on this project, to begin to redefine what a show sponsorship looked like,” says Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal president of ad sales. She and her team began pitching it as early as January 2012—well before that upfront season, but long after the property had kicked into high gear on the creative side. Yaccarino landed three major advertisers: Dodge, Verizon and Axe. Verizon may not enjoy category exclusivity—the show is so FX-heavy, other marketers may be able to slip in via post-production.

Yaccarino went the extra mile to make sure her clients were getting the royal treatment and would spend accordingly. “Defiance was a very big part of the upfront for the entire cable portfolio,” she says, declining to quantify the sponsorships’ value.

At least one of the sponsors appears happy with his treatment. Mark Malmstead, brand manager for Dodge media, social media and CRM, explains the brand will be integrated deep into both the show and the game, with an emphasis on the redesigned Dart on air and on digital. “We’ve got two Charger police cars that integrate into the programming,” he says. “They’ve been retrofitted to look like…I call ’em Mad Max-type vehicles. There’s an old Dodge dealership that will be one of the settings—there may be an old Dodge billboard that’s crumbling on the side of the road.” The game will have a drivable Dodge Challenger “with pipes and big tires and machine guns” on it. Meanwhile, Dodge is taking the cars themselves around to auto shows and Dodge events to show off their homemade star.

Yaccarino has what she believes is an ideal sponsor here. Defiance is in good (read: young and male) company with the auto manufacturer, including the NFL and the Red Bull Signature Series—two other places where Dodge is spending a lot of money on the Dart.

Francois Lee, svp and group client director at MediaVest, is a guy who knows from this demographic (one of his clients is Xbox). He’s optimistic about Defiance though he cautions that “it’s a huge undertaking.”

To Lee, the whole transmedia approach makes sense: “There’s such a strong story element in games nowadays. It’s not just about going in and playing it.” Lee appreciates the idea of “trying something completely different,” which could draw more young men back to the tube. “I don’t think young men are not consuming entertainment,” he says, “they’re just consuming differently. Instead of watching it on TV, they’re streaming it or watching it on other devices.”

Syfy averages about a 1.0 rating with men 18-49—the network’s big hit with the demo is WWE SmackDown. Syfy’s delivery guarantees for Defiance, adds Lee, are “optimistic but not unrealistic…It’s a premium property, and they’re not giving it away.”

But it’s that story element that worries Gomez: “This is an element that MMO games have not been able to conquer, and that’s why Star Wars took such a beating. In Star Wars, you want to be the hero and save the galaxy, and you can’t. Syfy has taken on a big challenge.” That challenge, he says, is maximizing the player’s contribution. “At the end, you’ve done a small thing that has contributed to a greater success,” says Gomez, “but we all want to be heroes.”

It remains to be seen whether Syfy ends up NBCU’s hero. 

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