Can Syfy Bring Back the Sci-Fi?

The network is on the hunt for scripted genre projects

Syfy is hungry for a scripted hit. It’s not for a lack of trying. While Defiance, a huge wager on transmedia content, put up decent if unspectacular ratings during its premiere run, the network’s top earners continue to be a mixed bag of WWE (Friday Night Smackdown), reality (FaceOff, Ghost Hunters) and its signature original films (Sharknado). For all that, Syfy’s 2013 prime-time demo deliveries fell 11 percent. With genre shows more popular than ever, there may be no better time for the network to roll the dice on a fleet of high-concept drama series.

Enter Helix, a CDC/outbreak thriller that’s as compelling as anything Syfy’s done. The 90-minute opener premiered to 1.82 million viewers and a 0.6 in the 18-49 demo, and while the initial deliveries were disappointing, a subsequent 24-hour marathon scared up 9 million unduplicated viewers.

Bill McGoldrick, who in November was named evp, original content at Syfy in the wake of Mark Stern’s departure, said he’s been recruiting high-profile talent like Helix’s Ron Moore. “I’m definitely out there pounding on everybody’s door who has a name in the genre,” McGoldrick said. “And we’re open to people who aren’t necessarily associated with the genre but have a great idea.”

While genre shows threaten to oversaturate the market, McGoldrick thinks you can never have too much of a good thing. “[Because] everyone’s doing it, there are a lot of young writers …around town who are thinking about genre but wouldn’t have been 10 years ago,” he said.

McGoldrick thinks genre will prove to be an incubator for great new talent in the way that The Sopranos showcased the writing chops of one of today’s top showrunners. “You saw the name ‘Matt Weiner’ every week,” he said. “[The next version of] that guy is probably on the Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead staff right now.”

If nothing else, a scripted hit would go a long way toward pumping up Syfy’s ad rates. “We use the network for its efficient CPM,” said one buyer. “It’s priced similarly to other networks of the same rating. You get some incremental reach and a somewhat unique audience.” (Syfy is one of a handful of nets that skews primarily male.)

In a sense, the fight for higher CPMs starts with kicking genre bias to the curb. “You can tell good adult stories in the genre,” McGoldrick said. “The pitches I’m hearing … people are approaching [us] as seriously as they would HBO.”