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Sci Fi President Dave Howe Talks "Syfy" Rebranding, Responds to Criticism

Many viewers have been either skeptical or outwardly critical of Sci Fi Channel's recent announcement that it would rebrand itself as Syfy, with a new logo and tagline, beginning in July.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sci Fi President Dave Howe, who took the opportunity earlier this week to talk to journalists about the rationale behind the name change, what he hopes to accomplish under the new rebrand as Syfy, what the future holds for the channel, and an alternative rebrand name that they looked into.

Howe responded to the comments made by Syfy Portal's Michael Hinman, who sold the rights to the Syfy trademark last year to NBC Universal and rebranded his site as Airlock Alpha, stating that the company wasn't being totally honest about the origins of the Syfy name.

"I don’t think [...] we’re not acknowledging it," said Howe. "We’ve been actively working on this brand evolution for the last two years. And we’ve explored a lot of name options. And I think at the point at which there are any short list of names the first thing we do obviously is look at the URLs and look at whether any of the names are trademark protectable. I think once we looked at alternative names and we also looked at whether there was a way of taking ownership of our existing name through, you know, an addition of extra letters or changing the order of the letters I think once we settled on Syfy it became apparent to us that the Syfy Portal existed."

One thing that many skeptical viewers are wondering is why Sci Fi would opt to go with name change based around a spelling change (or misspelling, as some have pointed out), rather than a whole new identity, given how far Sci Fi has expanded on its original brand identity.

"I think the honest answer to that actually is that we didn’t come up with a name that we liked any better than what we’ve gone with which was Syfy," explained Howe. "Naming is an incredibly incredibly tough exercise. I’ve been at SciFi for eight years, I’ve been in the TV business, a marketing head for about 20 years. And, trust me, the hardest and toughest thing to ever get to is a name that everybody likes; it’s incredibly subjective. It’s never going to solve all of life’s problems for you. There will always be things that it does communicate, things that it doesn’t communicate. But at the end of the day, people watch content, people watch shows. And they’re not going to be drawn to something or alienated from something necessarily just because of the name. So, we didn’t come up with a short listed name that we liked."

Still, said Howe, much of the impetus to secure the name came from URL availability. "We were able to secure syfy.com before we even entered into a conversation with Syfy Portal," he said. "So although that name was taken in relation to Syfy Portal, syfy.com was available and we secured that very early on this process."

Howe is the first to admit that there has been a "feeding frenzy" from the online community as a result of the rebrand announcement but is quick to point out that it's likely far less than if the channel announced an entirely new name rather than a mere spelling change.

"The feeding frenzy in the chat rooms and online, etc., would probably be considerably greater if we changed the name completely, if I’m honest," admitted Howe. "But naming is incredibly difficult. And if you look at [new] brands that launch [...] they have to have a name which is completely made up so it will be a word that you’ve never seen before. You see this particularly with drugs; you look at a name like Celebrex or Viagra or Cialis, any of these drugs you have to invent a word that doesn’t exist and you have to do that because clearly it’s incredibly critical for you to secure the URL. So any real word is going to be completely ruled out from the trademark perspective not just in the US but probably anywhere in the world and from a URL perspective. So straight away you’re confined by having to invent a word."

"That’s the first challenge and then once you’ve invented a bunch of words, what you have to look at is the pros and cons of that word," explained Howe. "So, the word may communicate something which you think is good but then it may communicate something which is kind of less good or is misleading or takes you in a direction that you don’t want to go in or ultimately takes you back to where you were. And in lots of respects some of the short listed names that we came up with actually didn’t really move us any further forward than where we are now with Syfy."

As for the new name and logo, Howe believes there's something beneficial to be gained from the mere presentation of this new name format.

"There’s something about the letter form in particular [of the new logo] that we believe--and we’ve had this confirmed in our testing--makes the logo very accessible and relatable, the symmetry of it, the letter forms of the two Ys together with the S and F which are very rounded. We actually see that yes, there is a word; yes, you could argue it’s a misspelled SciFi but actually it’s a new word. It’s a new word and actually it’s a logo in itself. Part of the exercise that we went through is we wanted obviously to let go of the Saturn logo but actually to do that we needed to have a letter form which in and of itself from a design perspective was unique and brandable and trademark ownable."

Regarding the moniker itself, Howe said, "It’s a word that no one’s seen before. I think, you know, smart people who know sci-fi get it; people who don’t just look at it and think actually it’s kind of interesting, it’s cool and contemporary" and he reiterated his earlier point that "a lot of people in the testing kind of said well if I was going to text sci-fi that’s how I’d spell it.
So it delivers quite a lot of things that we like and we think will be quite powerful in the future."

"Just actually to give you an example of a name that actually we did test--and I can tell you what this name is because this was a name that is not trademarkable and there’s no way we would have got the URL or even been able to trademark it I think in any territory--the other name that we put into testing was Beyond," said Howe (funnily enough, referring to a rebranding name that I actually suggested when the news broke). "We tested SFC, which is the obvious contraction from SciFi Channel which has been knocking around for probably 10 years. And that’s what a lot of other networks have done, TNN, TNT, CNN, TLC; all of those are contractions of longer names. We tested that. We tested where we are now. We tested Syfy and we tested Beyond. And what was interesting about Beyond is to the point I was making earlier, it solved some of the problems; it doesn’t solve all of them. So Beyond did create a sense of, well, it’s about the future, it’s about something which is, you know, far and away beyond me and over my head. And maybe not something that I could relate to that, you know, connected with my life as it is now."

Responding to a question about whether the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov would have approved of the name change, Howe said: "I honestly suspect not. [...] I suspect if we took [the writers of a article critical of the name change] through the rationale as to why we were changing they would probably get it because if you read that piece it kind of says that when [Sci Fi] launched it was launched as the Science Fiction Channel exclusively. And that it was primarily about space about technology and the future and essentially Star Trek. And I think that is something that we're in no shape or form want to get away from but I think what we want to do is move to a position where we can earn the broad sci-fi fantasy landscape and include in there fantasy and paranormal and supernatural and super hero and some speculative action and adventure. I think that’s absolutely the object of this exercise so it’s about how do we embrace the broader sci-fi fantasy landscape as opposed to how do we escape from our past? That isn’t the object of this exercise."

Howe also pointed out to the broad range of programming offerings on Sci Fi at the moment.

"If you look at the range and diversity of our programming on air," said Howe, "we still have Star Trek on air, we have still have Battlestar Galactica and Stargate Atlantis, soon to become Stargate Universe. But alongside that there’s Eureka, we’re launching Warehouse 13, [we have] Chase, Estate of Panic, Who Wants to be a Superhero. We have a very broad range of content and the challenge that we have is if you talk to consumers who don’t watch our channel the expectation and the anticipation around when they do surf up the dials to Sci Fi is that all they’ll find there is Star Trek. And clearly that isn’t something from a branding perspective and from a future perspective that enables us to do what we want to do which is becoming inclusive and bring more people in who we know will enjoy a broader range of shows and hopefully we can kind of cross sell and cross promote and cross convert to other shows once they come to us. But the challenge for us is if they don’t think that space opera is for them then they’re not going to come."

But don't think that Howe and the other executives at Sci Fi are unaware of the mostly negative reaction to the new name and rebrand.

"Yes, we are tracking it," said Howe of the online reaction. "And we’re reading all of the message boards and Twitter and we’ve got people basically monitoring it all. I get like a summary of what people are saying. I’m not surprised at all by the comments that we’re hearing. I mean I think the points I would make is that none of us particularly like change; none of us like the idea of a new name. I mean, a lot of new names out there were not particularly well received when they were announced. Nintendo Wii was not exactly great and Tivo and all the rest of those names."

"The thing that disturbs me most about some of the comments, but if I’m honest didn’t really surprise me, is that this is not about abandoning our past, this is not about alienating our existing core viewers because frankly we are still the sci-fi fantasy channel and we’ll continue to be so," continued Howe. "And this is absolutely about embracing our heritage and embracing our future and figuring out how we can bring even more people into the camp. And the thing that I think disturbs us most was people as we expected saying, well, this is just another opportunity to put more [ECW] on our air or this is another opportunity to do even more reality. That isn’t true. [...] We picked up Caprica, we’re bringing in Caprica and it’ll launch in the New Year. We picked up Stargate Universe, the next exciting chapter of the longest running space opera I think in TV history. This isn’t about retrenching, this is about absolutely embracing the totality of not just our core audience but actually a new audience in the future."

So what does Howe believe the channel will be able to accomplish via the rebranding with Syfy as the new name?

"I think what it does do and actually in all that testing we were sort of surprised and actually it confirmed what we wanted to do here [is that] this new name makes more sense of our existing range of programming," he explained. "It makes more sense if you put this brand on a Ghost Hunters or a Destination Truth or Eureka because it doesn’t scream so loudly the science fiction genre it makes more sense for me [from] a program range perspective. So we were very excited to hear that. We do think it sort of gives us the best of both worlds. It keeps our heritage and it enables us to broaden and become more inclusive and create a sense that this is a unique brand name that you can expect a broader range of what we’re calling imagination-based entertainment which is going to be everything from Caprica and Stargate Universe to Warehouse 13 to Eureka to the kind of broad fun human relatable aspect of the genre that we really want to embrace."

As for the future of the channel, whether it might be called Sci Fi or Syfy, Howe says that they want to reimagine the boundaries between linear television and new media.

"What we want to get to in the future and that’s part of this rebrand is how do we become more platform-agnostic because to us the TV screen is clearly important but in this day and age a screen is a screen is a screen," explained Howe. "And I think certainly with convergence and with the fact that you can watch TV series on Xbox and Playstation and all the rest of it the notion of a TV show is somewhat anachronistic. I think we need to get to a point where we create things, stories and characters and intellectual property that can start on any platform and migrate to another."

One step towards that direction is the experiment that the network is undertaking next month with the launch of the two-hour pilot episode of Capricafor sale on DVD and digital download. (Editor's note: You can read my advance review of two-hour pilot here.)

"I think it to some extent is an experiment for us; we haven’t done this before and I actually don’t believe any other cable network has done this before," said Howe. "I think our audience in particular will get this. [...] We have a very techno-savvy pre-early adopter audience that is going to be streaming shows, that is going to be downloading shows, that really is locked into that kind of 24/7 on demand digital world. And it seemed like a valid experiment for us knowing that we’re not going to actually launch the weekly series until the New Year because obviously we have to go into production and write the thirteen episode scripts and shoot it and post-produce it, etc. It seemed like an opportunity for us to get the DVD out there early and also get it up on iTunes so that people can kind of watch it, think about it, you know, pass it onto the friends, tell their family."

"There’s the potential if we get this right for there to be nine months of early momentum leading up to the launch of the series in early next year," he continued. "And that’s kind of a pre-marketing window for us. So it’s a grand experiment but we’re very optimistic that it’ll do what we want it to do which is actually introduce a bigger and broader audience to Caprica when it launches."

Sci Fi's relaunch as Syfy will take place on July 7th.

Comments

Anonymous said…
That was a very long-winded explanation of a really lame branding decision. Yeah, okay, you're in a tight spot because you can't own the term "Sci Fi." That's understandable. But your site is the top result for a search of "sci fi" already and you already own the scifi.com URL. So why the need for something new?

But most egregiously, didn't you realize somewhere in your testing that the channel appeals to an intelligent demographic that would be insulted by this attempt to create a "new word?"

Basically, the PR damage caused here is far greater than the network gains by owning the SyFy brand. It's a simple equation that Hinman seems unwilling to accept.
Anonymous said…
I think people are being too harsh on the network. Who gives a flying eff what they're called?! They're obviously going to still mainly be programming the same type of things as they have been.

The only thing that bugs me is the logo, I think it could look better, but I'm sure they'll be changing it in a few years anyway.
Anonymous said…
@Anon1

Um, I think you mean Howe instead of Hinman.

I really don't like the name at all. Yes it's the same basic name but misspelling? Really? That seems stupid to me.
Unknown said…
Why would an "intelligent demographic" be insulted by the creation of a "new word" for a television channel's name? If you ask me, the new Syfy name is actually pretty clever. It maintains a strong connection with the channel's sci fi origins, and yet creates a new word that is abstract enough to go beyond the limitations of that niche. I think it is at once respectful of its roots and its sci fi audience while also being open to future growth and expansion in creative new ways. By abstracting the term "sci fi" and creating "syfy", they have cleverly opened up their options without jettisoning their SciFi heritage. That seems pretty smart to me.
Anonymous said…
The real identity problem if there is one that keeps a better demographic away from the present Scifi Channel is the identify the channel has received with the crazy big snakes and other mindless "D" grade critter movies that so much air time is given to showing every weekend. Real Science Fiction shows have much less of their air times than the Ghost Hunters, Wrestling and etc. If the folks at NBCU want a better audience put more hours of Science Fiction shows and you will find a loyal audience return and grow for your GOOD programing. All the name changes in the world will not change the reputation the channel has for the poor programing chooses you have made to populate your air.

The TRUTH is if NBCU had actually went after every quality Science Fiction movie, series and documentary when they became available to cable and continued to do this year after year they would be the dominant provider for the genre and the channel would consistently be within the top five rated cable channels. There is about 35 million folks that admit they enjoy Science Fiction programs or about 10 percent of the population of the country. If The channel could get the loyalty of just 10 percent of these folks the ratings would be about double what it is now. No one is saying not to use ECW wrestling to draw the young men to the channel, nor is Ghost Hunters a problem for anyone if the quality Science Fiction shows were also being provided, but do not blame us for your programing failures, nor does press releases that claim the channel needs too change the name to disassociate the channel from antisocial GEEKS that live in a basement some where and watch Science Fiction while playing video games. IMO the technology that allows NBCU to exist would not be available if not for these science interested GEEKS of past generations and the future would be very dim if not for the present science interested GEEKS and those of tomorrow.
Mark Strachan said…
Now that the scifi.com name will be up for grabs, I suggest that a channel come along that is half discovery channel, and half actual sci-fi. It should take the sci-fi name.

You could take the content that the discovery channel plays four times a day on planetary and space science, and play it once a day, add shows like "Universe," and anything else about modern physics. Hell, even take some of the material from the research channel on Dish network.

Then you add your battlestar galacticas, and your farscapes, high quality sci-fi written by REAL sci-fi writers like Larry Niven or Orson Scott Card, and you have a SCIENCE/FICTION channel. Awesome! Thats what we really want.

Dump out the totally lame monster snake movies, and volcano reruns and boring "reality" shows. Kill embarrassingly bad lame ideas like "War of the Worlds 2." That stuff is stupid and insulting to everyone's intelligence--kind of like half the decisions at NBC Universal.

I don't know if you guys have noticed, but people are really crying out for developed ideas that are only possible in long running series. People want to be challenged. A decent amount of time for something to run and develop momentum, makes people care about what happens with it. Roll with that. 2 hour cheapo crap films with bad writing are the worst. Please stop wasting your money on them.

I think you could add in your UFOlogy material as well to the Sci-Fi channel, but don't let it get any more mystic than that, or you're back in the realm of total crap, again.

I think if you tried these ideas, you'd have a winner. Let SyFy play fake wrestling and ghost busters and snake movies and let it die. Who cares. Fuck em. Let darwinism rule, and stupid, ignorant, myopic network execs who sold their sole to misguided marketing theory deserve to lose in the game of life.
Anonymous said…
Can anyone say "New Coke"???
chiefincharge said…
Dave Howe and his cronies have officially proven their dinosaur status. SyFy? So clearly a bad idea that it bears practically no discussion. The brief trend of cute, misspelled texting is dead...maybe they missed the memo? News Flash? It was a trend, and now its over...you're way behind if you still think texting things like "kewl" or "latez" is clever or cool. Not that it wasn't cute two years ago. And no amount of wordy, television execu-speak drivel will convince me (or anyone else that doesn't have a stake in ladder-climbing at the SciFi channel or the network) that a blue sky is really red. Blue is Blue, Red is Red, and SciFi is SciFi. Open an aligned channel called SyFy if you must, and watch it launch, crash, and burn. SciFi is a more narrow focus and it is intended to be. I wanna watch Stargate and XFiles, not wrestling and wide-ranging teen dramas. Don't make the channel something it is not. Better to develop one narrow focus densely and well then try to become too many things to too many people. My friends and I are already planning a "goodbye to SciFi" channel party. We will watch XFiles or Battlestar Galactica one last time, then buy the series on DVD and relegate "SyFy" to the lower eschelons of channel surfing. Watching the SciFi channel slowly disintegrate over the past several years has been a slow, painful process, especially with the latest unrelated introductions. The upper executive layer at the channel have nearly diluted the brand to the point at which there will soon be no real focus at all. Keep your Caprica. I'm not about to expend energy watching a channel where Im actually embarrassed to see such a weak logo floating conspicuously at the bottom of my tv screen. Simply said, I lose all respect for the brand. That logo alone actually motivates me to change the channel. Even the choice of fonts is weak. Its constant presence speaks only of a loss in confidence. To me, it is a constant reminder that those in charge of the channel want to make poor decisions unrelated to its own viewership. And this is communicated by a poor attempt at corporate branding and increasingly weak programming. Speaking for my own core group, and we've discussed this at length, that despite the old adage that "there is never any bad publicity", we want the message forwarded that we dont want to watch unstimulated and mind-numbing programming produced for every audience. That's why we all started a loyal following to watch SciFi to begin with. NatGeo barely got away with its neutering of the National Geographic brand. SyFy? The only thing it brings to mind to me and my group of friends is the acquisition of a newly deflowered virgin's first STD. Additionally, for the record, the SciFi viewership doesn't just sit around in basements working on reclocking computer chips, (not that there's anything wrong with that, we all know technerds are, umm, the new Fabio)--we run profitable companies and are savvy and structured businesspeople. We all get that you have intellectual and legal hurdles. But as so often has been called to the attention of those who have travelled in your footsteps before, when the process of your mission...say, Selling begins to trod on the toes of the actual Sale itself, it's time to take a step back and reevaluate the goals of the impeding process. We appreciate you want to increase your base market in order to expand your advertising revenue. Really, we get that. This is 2009 and we all know how television ultimately works. But if you do it at the pleasured expense of the actual viewers themselves, and you meddle with their loyalties, the only new road you will be paving is a shortcut to shoot yourself in the foot. Now retire gracefully, Mr. Television Executive, from your perhaps too-long extended background in television, and leave the reigns of clever concept programming to the new generation. Just thought, from a real woman's point of view. And, here's a final tip: if you want to romance a woman's attention...don't let her know you are doing it.
Anonymous said…
Well they cancelled SGU. and they want a cooking show and wrestling.. not trying to change their fan base WTFE.. BYE CABLE Dave Howe was probably molested by an EWOK.

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