By Jon Lafayette
In some universe, the name “Syfy” is less geeky than the name “Sci Fi.” Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, is betting it’s this one.
To that end, the 16-year-old network—owned by NBC Universal—plans to announce that Syfy is its new name March 16 at its upfront presentation to advertisers in New York.
“What we love about this is we hopefully get the best of both worlds,” Mr. Howe said. “We’ll get the heritage and the track record of success, and we’ll build off of that to build a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand.”
Sci Fi is coming off the best year in its history. In primetime it ranked 13th in total viewers among ad-supported cable networks in 2008. It’s a top-10 network in both adults 18 to 49 (up 4%) and adults 25 to 54 (up 6%).
During its fourth-quarter earnings call, parent General Electric said Sci Fi racked up a double-digit increase in operating earnings despite the beginnings of the recession.
Nevertheless, there was always a sneaking suspicion that the name was holding the network back.
“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.
Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.
“We spent a lot of time in the ’90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called Sci Fi,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’ But even the name Sci Fi is limiting.”
Mr. Howe said going to Syfy will make a difference.
“It gives us a unique word and it gives us the opportunities to imbue it with the values and the perception that we want it to have,” he said.
In terms of television, the new brand better reflects that the channel has programs that are not about the typical sci-fi themes of space, aliens and the future.
“We really do want to own the imagination space,” Mr. Howe said. “We want to get the credit for the range of content that we already have on our air and that we’ll be doing more of in the future.”
Mr. Howe said Sci Fi looks at its branding every couple of years. He added that when new executives join the network, they usually ask if it has ever thought about changing the name.
The network worked with the branding consultancy Landor Associates and went through about 300 possibilities before selecting Syfy.
“When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it,” Mr. Howe said. “It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.”
The network plans to make the changeover July 7, when it will launch the new series “Warehouse 13.”
The series, about a secret government facility in South Dakota where all mysterious relics and supernatural souvenirs are housed, is emblematic of the channel’s programming direction.
“It is a dramedy and it is set in the here and now. It’s a kind of an Indiana Jones meets ‘Moonlighting’ meets ‘The X-Files,’” Mr. Howe said. “This is a very accessible, relatable, fun show.”
The network will begin briefing cable operators about the transition this week and plans a trade ad campaign in April as part of the upfront. The new campaign will use the slogan “Imagine Greater,” which Mr. Howe thinks will resonate with both consumers and media buyers.
“It’s a call to action,” he said. “Look at the everyday and how you can turn it to the extraordinary. It’s an aspirational, optimistic message about enhancing people’s lives.”
Mr. Howe said the international Sci Fi channels will transition to the new name over the next six to 12 months.
Web site SciFi.com also will make the change to Syfy.com.
Sci Fi has been working to branch out from being simply a linear cable network to become a hub of businesses operating in the imagination under the Sci Fi Ventures banner.
“We need an umbrella brand we can attach to new businesses: Sci Fi games, Sci Fi kids. It does no use to attach ‘Sci Fi’ because there’s hundreds of sci-fi Web sites and sci-fi publications. So it’s changing your name without changing your name,” Mr. Howe said.
Sci Fi also will be unveiling some of its programming and development plans at its upfront.
But one key venture it won’t discuss is its work with Trion Worldwide to create content designed from the beginning to work on multiple platforms. Mr. Howe said the network is close to announcing a title and description of the project, which will launch as both a subscription-based, massively multiplayer online game and a television series.
A writer has been assigned to the project. The idea is to have the show completely synchronized so that when events happen in the show, they are reflected in the game, and vice versa.
“Because it’s a server-based game, as the storylines evolve in the TV series, so the game echoes that,” Mr. Howe said. “It’s a completely, uniquely interactive 24-7 immersive entertainment experience.”
He’s seen some “amazing demos” from Trion of the graphics and how the world will be built out.
“What that launches, it truly is the next evolution in dynamic storytelling,” Mr. Howe said.