Reinventing Sci Fi with a teen twist

minutiae, it's clear that science fiction has an image problem. So in an attempt to...
September 1, 1999

minutiae, it’s clear that science fiction has an image problem. So in an attempt to

reinvent the genre-and broaden its subscription base-the Sci Fi Channel has launched

‘I Am Sci Fi,’ an on-air branding campaign designed to update the image of science

fiction from geeky to cutting-edge cool for the new millennium.

‘The idea of science fiction is more than just spaceships and monsters,’ says director of on-air promotions Rick Austin. ‘It’s about cool ideas, open minds and what’s going to happen in the future. It doesn’t have to be Star Trek.’ To get this message across, Austin and his team compiled a list of unlikely messengers for the station, including WWF darling Sable, rapper Busta Rhymes, rock group Everclear, Virgin founder Richard Branson, model and Austin Powers ‘Fembot’ Cindy Margolis, tennis-playing siblings Venus and Serena Williams and computer-generated Tomb Raider star Lara Croft.

What do these people have to do with science fiction? Well, Austin says that’s exactly the reaction viewers are supposed to have-at first. The idea was to take the motley group, which has teen-appeal without necessarily being identified with science fiction, and put its members in various sci-fi-esque situations. Thus, Busta Rhymes floats through space with a flotilla of futuristic turntables feeding him music through his dreadlocks, Lara Croft reveals that her favorite video game is Pong, and Sable hurtles a truck at a lovestruck soldier in a campy send-up of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. Austin hopes that after seeing such personas in sci-fi settings, viewers will make the connection that ‘some of the coolest people out there are science-fiction fans.’

The channel plans to back the message up with new programming embodying the idea that sci-fi is all things cutting-edge, new and cool. This will include an on-air festival of short films featuring experimental live-action and animated work from emerging young filmmakers, a new reality-based show about the paranormal, new magazine shows about the latest technology and a 20-hour miniseries by Steven Spielberg called Take In, set to air next year.

The new branding and programming aren’t designed to shift the channel’s audience away from its core demo of teens and young adults (55% male, 45% female), so much as widen the channel’s appeal so more people within that demo tune in. The current subscriber base rests at about 56 million, but Austin says new USA Networks head Barry Diller wants more. ‘One of the first things he realized when he came here was that the Sci Fi Channel has a huge opportunity to expand and grow, and he’s dedicated a lot of time, effort and money to getting the channel to where it could be.’ This effort included hiring an in-house design team late last year (mainly MTV alumni) headed by VP of marketing and creative Josh Greenberg. A new on-air design package rolled out last March, and the crew is continuing to develop on-air promotional material.

Six to eight new spots will be hitting the airwaves later this month, which Austin says will include a few more ‘eyebrow-raisers.’ At press time, the hunt was on for new personalities, but the only target Austin would mention is grunge rock band Bush, which has a new sci-fi concept album coming out in the near future, according to Austin. ‘We’re looking at doing spots that are a little bit freakier and a little bit darker, [featuring] people our viewers will look at and say, `I can’t believe you did that.”

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