×

Dominion, Tom Wisdom as Michael

Co.Create

SyFy's Head Of Programming On Carving Out An Identity In A World Gone Genre

With "genre" shows now the biggest mainstream hits, SyFy looks to evolve and space may be the next frontier.

When SyFy launched in 1992, the network—then called the Sci-Fi Channel—was an oasis for science fiction fans who struggled to find their interests represented on television. And for years, the importance of the network was clear: When your options for science fiction on television are confined to a few Star Trek shows, Babylon 5, Stargate, and Farscape, a central home for all of the things that cater to your interests is very appealing.

There have always been occasional sci-fi shows that have broken through to the mainstream—The Six Million Dollar Man, Quantum Leap, or The X-Files—but for the most part, science fiction has been a niche part of the American entertainment diet, like legumes. Get too into it and you’re kind of weird. A network for all of the weirdos to indulge their love of original concepts like Sliders, or to recapture the greatness of old episodes of Manimal made a lot of sense, once upon a time.

But now, people who want to watch reruns of Quantum Leap have the power of Netflix at their disposal, if not an army of DVD box sets meticulously organized in a shelving unit somewhere—while original sci-fi/fantasy/horror-influenced shows that it once made sense to build a nerd-haven for have come to dominate the mainstream. Shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Orphan Black, and even out-there fare like Sleepy Hollow occupy a lot of the attention of the TV-watching public. Any of those shows would have had a comfy home on SyFy in years past—but these days, everyone, from television’s representatives of high culture like AMC and HBO to the broadcast networks, is on that beat. In 2014, there will be no fewer than seven shows on network television based on Marvel or DC Comics. That’s a remarkable number that represents a triumph of the geek—but where does it leave a network like SyFy, whose niche is no longer underrepresented?

Game of ThronesPhoto by Helen Sloan, Courtesy of HBO

That’s a question that SyFy’s Executive Vice President of Original Programming, Bill McGoldrick, has spent a lot of time thinking about. After a successful tenure in a similar role at the USA Network—also owned by NBC Universal—McGoldrick was brought on in late 2013 to revitalize SyFy’s programming. The network has had hits even as science fiction became increasingly mainstream—think Battlestar Galactica—but it’s also watched as the marketplace it should own has spread to other networks. And while McGoldrick isn’t adverse to playing the coulda/woulda/shoulda game when it comes to those shows, he’s very focused on pushing the boundaries of what SyFy can bring to network.

McGoldrick laughs when I ask him if there are shows he wishes were on SyFy right now. "If I don’t say The Walking Dead, I should lose my job—but that’s an easy thing to say in hindsight," he says. "Game of Thrones, American Horror Story—I like to fantasize that had I been there, they’d be on my air. There are always those ones that got away in these jobs, but it’s a waste of time."

The plan to bring SyFy to the position befitting a network with that name and that agenda in a culture that clearly loves all manner of science fiction-based programming doesn’t involve chasing trends, then. According to McGoldrick, the preoccupation with genre television on seemingly every other network actually creates more opportunities for SyFy.

"Anytime you have a lot of competition, it’s challenging to carve out your own hits in a crowded marketplace," he admits. "But the opportunity is that if you’re a writer of any talent, you better be writing genre, because that’s where the excitement is. We have more to choose from, and it can get even higher—people who wouldn’t have written a genre will have to, in order to survive. That’s got me really excited. It’s a bigger playing field. I think we’ll be able to spot trends."

Anticipating trends is important to McGoldrick—and it should be. The graveyard of mid-'00s scripted drama is littered with series that attempted to cash in on the "everything is super mysterious and weird" trend set by Lost, and the odds that all seven of the superhero shows heading to television in the fall are going to find an audience is slim. Backing away from chasing trends, and focusing on predicting them, is an important job of any network that wants to do more than just feast on scraps—and McGoldrick isn’t interested in being one of 13,000 people standing where lightning just struck—not that it isn’t a temptation.

"You can imagine how often in my six months I’ve heard about The Walking Dead," he laughs. "But you have to be aware that you’re not looking in the rear view mirror, you’re looking for the things that everybody else is ignoring."

When asked what that means right now for SyFy, McGoldrick has a surprisingly specific answer: Space.

Dominion

"We’ve got a lot of space programming, and if you look around the marketplace, there’s not a lot," he says. "There are superheroes and vampires, but no one is owning space. We have a lot of great stuff coming that we think will own that. So you look around the market and ask if everyone is avoiding one aspect of the genre—and if so, is there a good reason? If not, we try to own that."

Still, creating relevant shows with potentially wide appeal isn’t as simple as soliciting agents to deliver pitches set in outer space. The specific genre is important, but chasing space opera because no one else is doing it isn’t a much more effective way to land great programming than chasing superheroes because everyone else is doing it. The key, according to McGoldrick, is identifying talent as much as anything.

"More often than not, you find a special writer with a special take that’s going to be unique even in a setting that’s sort of familiar," he says. "We know our audience likes time travel, so we try to keep that in the back of our heads, but it’s never the deciding reason why you do a show. If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if it’s space or zombies or vampires, we’re not going to do it. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter if it’s something people have been wanting."

"Good" is the defining word in McGoldrick’s vocabulary when talking about programming, and it’s clear why: once, perhaps, there was a distinction between critically-acclaimed programming and genre schlock, but shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones compete with the Mad Men and Breaking Bads of the world for both attention and prestige. That’s something SyFy tasted during Battlestar’s run, and it’s something that McGoldrick thinks is very much within SyFy’s grasp.

"The stuff that people race home to watch are the unpredictable shows—the things that don’t make you feel good, but make you think," he says. "And that’s how good sci-fi makes me feel. The opportunity is so great in sci-fi, because the feeling at the end of The Twilight Zone, or books I read as a kid, is so close to the feeling os Mad Men or Breaking Bad. We can compete in that space."

The network’s first attempt to enter that space is in a genre that doesn’t see a lot of time on television right now: Supernatural apocalyptic action with a religious bent, in the form of the new series Dominion, which premieres on June 17. The series is based on the 2010 film Legion, an angels-with-guns-in-Los-Angeles epic that’s at least as weird as it sounds. Future offerings include a series based on Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, which keeps the post-apocalyptic theme but adds a time travel twist; and Z Nation, a zombie series from The Asylum—the production studio responsible for the Sharknado phenomenon—that may end up more "satisfying" than "good," based on the company’s track record.

Upcoming SyFy series 12 Monkeys

Regardless, there’s a plan in place for SyFy that demonstrates that the network’s seeking out a leadership role in a television culture that loves watching shows about the exact thing that the network has always been built around. Whether it manages to get there depends largely on how well it navigates the competition—and the reaches of space.

[Photo by Gavin Bond, Courtesy of Syfy]

Add New Comment

35 Comments

  • Tom Laverick

    They want to save the channel?!?!?!?!

    Get rid of wrestling, WTF Why was that even put on this channel. Get rid of Reality TV Shows, Ghost Hunters, GH International, etc..

    Bring back the Good Shows; Warehouse 13 (Save It) Stargate Universe (Canceled before the end of the 1st Season!!! ) Great Show. Bring the Channel back to its roots SCIENCE FICTION!!!! Make Science fiction shows want to be broadcast on your network.

    GET RID OF NBC, They can screw up a good wet dream!!!

  • saikouni

    Possible steps:

    • There's still time to save Warehouse 13. Do So
    • Reboot Stargate, in a slightly grittier version of SG-1. Use Carter, Jackson, etc. Do NOT use people from Farscape .
    • Do a Star Trek series. The Trek universe is by far the richest Sci-Fi universe. There are reams of stuff that has been written that could easily be made into a compelling series.

    Stop recycling actors from one series to another. It hinders the suspension of disbelief that is needed to really get into a Sci-Fi series.

  • saikouni

    Fails:

    • Cancelled Eureka at the time it was their #1 show
    • Cancelled the Stargate Franchise
      • Cancelled Warehouse 13
    • Engaged wrestling. Wrestling of all things!

    Possible steps:

    • There's still time to save Warehouse 13. Do so.
    • Reboot Stargate based on SG1 in a "real time" way. IOW Carter, Jackson and whoever else (except the Farscape people) are older, time has passed, the program is different. Maybe the operations base is on another planet.
      • Do a Star Trek series. The Trek universe is still richer than anything in Sci-Fi. There are so many ideas that have been written about that could be developed into a compelling series.
  • miscstuff8080

    Bring back Stargate Universe - hands down the best show that ever aired on SyFy.

  • Jorge Rivera

    McGoldick is an idiot. Cancelling fan favorites. Making crappy movies. I don't know what the hell syfy execs were thinking and still think. And WTF is up with the Syfy name? SCI-FI was great! I used to watch seefee a lot. I now don't remember the last time I watched. Thankfully there are other channels providing for my scifi needs. Seefee has become irrelevant, thanks to the idiots that are running it and think they know what makes good scifi tv. Why can't I get funding for a competing network? First three things to do:

    1. Bring back and expand upon Stargate
    2. Bring back and expand upon Firefly
    3. Bring back and continue ... Additionally, I would create a system of online petitions where the fans have a say on what kind of programming is pursued by the channel. I'd also create interactive tv. You can drive it with twitter or something created with similar functionality. Other networks are beginning to do this. The sky is the limit!
  • saikouni

    While the execs at SighFy did do those, and many other, idiotic move, they were before Goldicks time. I hope he will make choices that move the channel back to being Sci-Fi in programming if not in in name.

  • Graham Noble

    Firefly FIREFLY Firefly FIREFLY Firefly FIREFLY Firefly FIREFLY Firefly FIREFLY Firefly

  • Stop showing ridiculous reality and pseudoscientific crap like all those ghost hunter variants. Space shows will be great (Stargate!). Choose quality for the TV series (look at TWD, Falling Skies, Almost Human (ooh, bring that back!)). But drop the crap. And change the name back to Sci-Fi channel, so you don't forget what you're for. Thanks.

  • David Groothuis

    Big Fan of the Stargate Franchise. But not liking the ideas of the movie. I thought I did but hearing what they want to do, I want nothing to do with it. re writing the mythology of the show. Now I agree with a lot of comment on this page. but must confess SG1 is done. ended well don't need more, Atlantis happy to see a movie to complete it but not to fussed. But SGU, yes the first season dragged but when season 2 came out it was nothing but action and adventure. SGU had just hit its stride and then boom CANCELLED! SyFy channel I know has a bad reputation for cancelling show. If they want to make amends for past mistakes NOW would be a good time to listen to fans. like I said earlier I am a very long term SG fan I was around for the birth of SG movie then SG1 but unlike a lot of those fans I actually liked ALL spin offs and to be honest SGU has become my favourite. I wish it could be brought back. SyFy is looking for space based TV show? HELLO what was SGU????

  • Cindy Gagnon

    By the way, the real creators of the Stargate movie wanted to make a trilogy, then, MGM took the idea and gave it to the SG-1 creators for a tv series. It's not that they want to rewrite the mythology, they just want to tell the story like they first envisioned it before their idea was kinda stolen.

  • Paul S Madley

    Well said!

    I did read SyFy's comments on the cancellation. But they refused to concede that SyFy were in any way responsible due to changing the time slot and pitching against much bigger stuff on the big networks.

    Agreed entirely that SGU really, really go going. Same way Caprica found its feet then BOOM!

    Stop messing with timeslots, start promoting stuff on NBC etc. I still remain baffled as to why BSG wasn't shown on NBC given it had well known faces and wasn't particularly "Sy".

  • Robert Salem

    I am writing a serial science fiction story and then posting it to the Facebook page Gregory Rauscher. I usually type directly to the site and there is minimum editing. It is a story of a fictional inventor billionaire who travels the universe and space to his repetitively dark suffering. Please look and like!

  • Christian Ernesto

    Stop trying to be different. How about you take something that has always worked and make it even better then ever. Some real time and investment. Create a show maybe a Stargate Spin off. Make it very well written, cast very good actors and put a serious amount of money in the budget. Lets not forget some seriously solid Production / Directing.

    You say you wish you had Walking Dead well guess what we have had Zombie stuff forever! Walking Dead is great because its well written.

    All I know is everywhere I look all I see are scifi junkies begging for the next Stargate or Farscape. We need our fix please.

  • Christopher Powell

    Hyphen problem is the fact that sy-fy does not listen to its fans. Because if it did listen it would bring back SGU OR ATLANTIS OR BG these are all shows that we loved and got screwed on. I hope the degenerates at sy fy actually see all the comments on here but I have a funny feeling that they are simply gonna ignore us like usual. Defiance is a good show but have a feeling it too will be canceled soon since it's starting to get a good fan base, post apocalyptic show that they already have why start a new one other then to replace a already good show. I'm tired of getting hooked on shows just to be disappointed by them canceling he shows.

  • Paul S Madley

    Much as Atlantis was fun and diverting, it was nothing more than SG-1 in another location. Plus of course The Wraith were horribly cliched and derivative.

  • Paul Marsico

    Lastly, it goes without saying that MGM should put their money where their mouth is:

    The story line would allow them to recast. They would have to recast to make a feature. Which is ultimately what should happen, because this would make them over $100 million easily. In fact, it was so well written that I'd dare to trust a SG:U feature ahead of the upcoming reboot...............

  • Paul Marsico

    You can spin it however you want, but the truth is that the production value of Stargate: Universe was outstanding. Louis Ferreira and Robert Carlyle were putting on weekly acting clinics and the entire premise had the show far beyond essentially anything anybody had the capability to do, essentially ever, in ANY science fiction show.
    The thing is simple, in a world where channels are driven mad by the incredible low cost, low risk, and high return of successful reality TV, shows either have to be monstrous hits like CBS' Elementary or essentially nobody will stand behind it when a reality show can be had for minimal investment and acquire mediocre ratings. SG:U was truly excellent TV. But it was slotted in competitive time slot designed to kill it.
    I honestly wasn't a huge fan of SG:1 or Atlantis. This was something different. This was BSG with a compelling story and CGI on par with the acting and overall content.