Craig Engler has been in the business long enough to remember when not just science fiction but the whole Internet was considered nerd property, where tech-savvy guys argued about who was better, Captain Picard or Captain Kirk.
When Engler, who serves as svp and general manager of Syfy Digital, formally joined the NBCUniversal property in 1999 (he’d freelanced there since the early ’90s), it was still known as the Sci-Fi Channel and its signature program was the beloved comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000.
A lot besides the overhaul of a cable brand has come to pass since then, including a prestigious Hugo Award for Engler’s baby, an e-anthology of sci-fi stories he edited with writer Brooks Peck (about the Hugo trophy, Engler grouses, “It falls apart”), and technological developments that make sci-fi content from just a few years ago look dated. There’s also been a shift in the geekosphere to accommodate a wider variety of fan life, and Syfy has approached near parity between men and women viewers.
A serious, trim guy with a neatly manicured beard and an insanely organized office at 30 Rock, Engler is something of a rebuke of the geek stereotype. He has a treadmill where a desk chair ought to be, having slimmed down and having written a book about the experience (“Sitting for hours on end is horrible, horrible, horrible for your body,” he says). And while perfectly tidy, the shelves on his wall boast an assortment of some of the oddest fan gear any Syfy viewer could hope for.
Besides his Hugo, there’s a stuffed “Sharktopus” (the villain of the network’s original movie of the same name) and props from the two movies Engler has written for Syfy, Rage of the Yeti and Zombie Apocalypse. “Only watch Rage of the Yeti when you’re drunk, because it’s one of the worst movies we’ve ever produced,” he cracks.
For all the emphasis on writing in Syfy series like Alphas and Battlestar Galactica, the channel is terribly proud of its ridiculous movies. After all, Syfy made its bones in the ’90s by picking up show-without-a-network MST3K, so perhaps Engler and his colleagues feel they have standards to live down to. Whatever the reason, flicks like Engler’s are oddly popular, particularly among young men who may or may not be inebriated or stoned.
In his post, Engler serves at least partly as brand ambassador in chief. He holds court on Twitter amid the clamoring throngs who want to know why Eureka was canceled, why Syfy keeps renewing Ghost Hunters and whether there are zombies in the network’s future. It’s a key role for a channel that gets a major boost when its evangelistic base takes to chattering about its programs. (Taking a cue from corporate sibling Bravo, Syfy branded its audience “igniters” this past upfront season, reasoning that those early adopters are a more desirable demo because of their propensity to really dig things and then turn other people onto them.)
Thus, Engler has to manage some of those young men—and the network still skews slightly male, even though Being Human attracts mostly women—who come to him demanding answers. His Twitter feed is essentially a running FAQ, shooting down an errant theory about a dropped show here, explaining the math behind TV ratings there. Engler has some 133,000 followers on the network’s official feed, more than TNT or Syfy’s big-sister net USA.
One of the problems with the fanboy contingent is that many are tireless advocates for shows they don’t necessarily support by watching live. Some will write to Engler incensed, wondering how the channel could pull the plug on a certain masterpiece. “I’ll say, ‘Well, did you watch it?’ and they’ll say, ‘Well, no,’” he says.
There are also the purists who bear a grudge against any reboot or a plot shift even before a program airs.
“When Ron Moore was at a convention, he was booed on stage for changing Battlestar [Syfy’s most beloved show to date], particularly for making Starbuck a woman,” Engler recalls. “As soon as the show aired, Starbuck was everyone’s favorite character.”
The exec has to wear several different hats to speak knowledgeably with fans, some of whom, he notes, are better versed in given subjects than he is. “Ghost Hunters has a huge audience, and many of them are amateur ghost hunters themselves,” he says.
Ultimately, his role as brand plenipotentiary pays off. “I see people [on the Internet] correcting other people based on conversations I’ve had with them,” Engler says proudly.
It helps that he has street cred (or wormhole cred, if you will) from his days as a fiction editor. Engler has worked with some of the top names in science fiction (legendary editor Ellen Datlow ran the fiction section on Syfy’s website for many years) and has plenty of war stories. “[Award-winning writer] Harlan Ellison called up my assistant and threatened to send him a dead gopher,” he recalls. “You have to know how to talk to Harlan.”
Syfy has built up a serious complement of digital assets, including news site Blastr (formerly Sci-Fi Wire), tech site DVice and gaming site Syfy Games. The brand has reached out to female viewers. But women are overserved on the broadcast and leading cable channels, so Syfy’s majority male viewer base is a big selling point. That’s why guy-centric content still rules even as the network serves up its first female-skewing show in Being Human and welcomes fangirls into the fold.
A passionate fan base that does some of the heavy lifting for marketing is a godsend for any network, whether it skews male or female. To be sure, Engler and Syfy are looking for more ways to monetize that consumer desire for total immersion.
Engler has his work cut out for him as the new year approaches, as the network makes a costly gamble with new series Defiance. The show is a unique partnership between corporate sibling Universal Cable Productions and video game producer Trion Worlds, the company behind the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Rift. Several Trion staffers have worked on highly successful MMORPGs, including World of Warcraft and EverQuest. With this pact, Syfy and its partner will create a hybrid MMORPG/television series in which players interact with other viewers across a virtual world.
It’s wildly ambitious, and thus has the potential to be either an enormous failure or an unprecedented success.
The result is a wave of anticipation, as Engler strives to calibrate Syfy’s digital assets around the show’s publicity push—developing all-new multimedia integrations around an all-new, and untried, kind of programming.
It’s a challenge he enjoys.
“We figure out how to build things as we’re building them,” he says, “because that’s the only way to do it.”