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?
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.
"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.
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.