I'm wrapping up my two-week stint here as a guestblogger and just wanted to extend my thanks to all the readers of BoingBoing who checked out my posts and weighed in with their opinions. I had a great time and it was a great discussion. I learned a lot and hopefully I gave you some insight into how the business works, even if it's just to help you figure out how to change the system.
Thanks also to Cory, Xeni, Rob and the rest of the BB crew for having me.
If you have more questions or comments, feel free to come chat with me on Twitter. I'm there every day at @syfy.
Since I've been talking a lot about Cable TV on BoingBoing over the last two weeks, the topic of why Cable TV was started in the first place has come up a lot. If you're wondering, here's an excerpt from About.com's history of cable:
Community antenna television (now called cable television) was started by John Walson and Margaret Walson in the spring of 1948. The Service Electric Company was formed by the Walsons in the mid 1940s to sell, install, and repair General Electric appliances in the Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania area. In 1947, the Walson also began selling television sets. However, Mahanoy City residents had problems receiving the three nearby Philadelphia network stations with local antennas because of the region's surrounding mountains. John Walson erected an antenna on a utility pole on a local mountain top that enabled him to demonstrate the televisions with good broadcasts coming from the three Philadelphia stations.
Walson connected the mountain antennae to his appliance store via a cable and modified signal boosters. In June of 1948, John Walson connected the mountain antennae to both his store and several of his customers' homes that were located along the cable path, starting the nation's first CATV system.
The network never gave your show a chance. It was scheduled on a night no one watches TV, or put against a ratings powerhouse. The episodes aired out of order, and the time slot got moved. It wasn't marketed properly...you never saw an ad for it, and no one you know saw an ad for it. Plus, the show didn't have enough time to catch on, the network never understood it and wanted it to fail, the DVR numbers were great and the Nielsens are useless anyway.
Why do networks spend tens of millions of dollars on shows then treat them this way? I'll do my best to give you insight into why these things happen, or at least seem to happen. Be warned, you'll disagree with some and quite possibly all of it.
Okay, so here's why networks...
Schedule episodes of a show out of order
There are two main reasons this happens:
1) More people sample a show when it's new, so networks try to run the best episodes first. Sometimes this happens and viewers never know it, and sometimes it's pretty obvious and might do more harm than good.
2) Some episodes originally slated to air earlier in a season might have a problem and need to go back to the shop for more work, so they get pulled, fixed and slotted later.
Canceled shows are one of the most aggravating aspects of TV. You check out a new series, watch for 5 or 10 or 13 episodes, fall in love with the characters and the story, and then suddenly some faceless jerk executive in a suit who never cared about the show cancels it. Argh!
That's the general perception anyway. From my side of the table things tend to look a little different. Shows are never canceled blithely. Everyone working on them at every level has invested too much time, money and - most importantly - passion for that to happen. There is no one who wants a show to succeed more than we do.
Take a new show that ran for 13 episodes. That's 13 hours of TV you watched if you include commercials, or around 9-10 without. Given how many options are out there, that's a huge commitment in viewing time for you to devote to one show, and it's about all we can ask of anyone. On our end, to get you those 13 hours, our commitment to that show has been thousands of human hours given by hundreds of people who've been working on that show for six months, a year, or more.
As if you needed proof Sir Ian McKellen is a damn fine actor:
The 70-year-old actor is rehearsing Waiting For Godot in Melbourne, Australia, and was sitting in his tramp costume having a break when a passer-by gave him an Australian dollar.
He said: "During the dress rehearsal of Godot, I crouched by the stage door of the Comedy Theatre, getting some air, my bowler hat at my feet (and) seeing an unkempt old man down on his luck, a passer-by said, 'Need some help, brother?' and put a dollar in my hat."
According to this report in Media Daily News, the number of people paying for TV in the U.S. grew by 3% last year, to 99.9 million. That's good news for me in the TV business because everyone over here is fairly terrified that "cord cutting" in favor of watching free TV online might catch on before a business model to support it comes along.
The increase to nearly 100 million comes as the popularity of online video continues to expand. Plus, Hulu and ESPN are offering premium product for free -- at least for now -- that is prompting some fear that people may drop a pay-TV subscription entirely, known as "cord-cutting."
A fun thing about working at Syfy is that we have a VERY vocal audience, and that means we get a lot of feedback. I personally see hundreds of notes from viewers each week through e-mail, Twitter, on our message boards, on Facebook...even actual letters. I also talk directly to viewers whenever I can, at places like Comic-Con or when I speak at Internet conferences.
Something viewers tell me all the time is that Syfy needs to LISTEN to its core audience and put the programming on that true sci-fi fans REALLY want to see. I agree 110%, except which audience and what programs? Turns out, just like the rest of the TV world, sci-fi fans don't agree on what they like and don't like. For everyone that loves Stargate, I can find someone who hates it. If you think giant monsters count as sci-fi, the next person over disagrees.
The most famous example I can think of is Battlestar Galactica. When we announced the Battlestar remake and that Starbuck was going to be (gasp!) a woman, a big selection of fandom went semi berserk. They hated the idea that Battlestar was being remade, and they REALLY hated Starbuck's gender switch. In the Wikipedia entry for Starbuck there's a great quote from Ron Moore on the topic:
There's a minor brouhaha going on over the $45,000 speaking fee Neil Gaiman recently charged to give a talk at a public library. You can read all about it at the link if you want. I admit my first reaction was "Well, that does seem like quite a bit..." until I read Neil's awesome FAQ about the fee:
Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?
A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn't even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it's true, he's not cheap.
On the other hand, I'm really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn't say 'no' a lot.
UPDATE: Neil has a new blog post about the topic that goes into even more detail for those who care to read it. You should. Here are some tidibts:
"The vast majority of the events I do and of the talks, lectures or readings I give are done for free, often as charity fundraisers"
"I figure money like that, sort of out-of-the-blue windfall money, is best used for Good Deeds, so I let a couple of small and needy charities (one doing social work, the other library/book based) know that I would be passing the money on to them"
"The scary thing is that if you are (to pick a couple of real-life examples from the last few years) an advertising congress or the R&D department of a multinational car company, I charge a lot more than that to come and speak."
I get asked a lot about why Syfy and other TV networks pick some shows to air and not others. There are of course the obvious things everyone knows or can figure out: Is it good? Will our audience like it? Will it do a good rating? Can we afford it?
But beyond that there are dozens of other things we consider along the way. Some weigh more heavily than others, and each show follows a slightly different path. Below are a dozen things we think about when evaluating shows and potential shows that might give you more insight into how things actually make it onto TV. This isn't comprehensive and it's definitely not a formula, but it does go beyond just the cost vs. ratings most people know about:
What kind of show is it?
For Syfy we talk about, is the show set in space or on Earth? Is it science fiction or fantasy? Does it take place in a small town or a big city or on another world? Is it a scripted series? A serialized show? A reality show? A comedy? To bring in the most viewers throughout the week, our lineup needs to be balanced. After all, if we only had one type of show, we'd only bring in one type of viewer. Overall, TV viewers want variety, so it's important not to lean on one type too heavily. Of course sometimes we'll look for shows that ARE like other shows
What are the "auspices" attached to the show?
Who's "attached" to the show or what the show is based on can play a big role in its success. We call these "auspices." For instance, any show based on a book by Stephen King will get more attention than a show based on a book by Craig Engler. Johnny Depp as your lead, or J.J. Abrams as your creator, will attract a bigger audience than a show with people no one's ever heard of. Also, more bloggers and critics will want to write about it. A Star Trek show will have an automatic following because of its franchise vs. an all-new show. Conversely, sometimes the "newness" of a show can be like an auspice...is it the kind of show no one's ever done before?
At BKLYN DESIGNS this weekend I ran into Katie Deedy, whose handmade wallpaper featuring a Victorian woman walking giant bugs on a leash caught my eye. She explained that all of her wallpaper was "narrative-inspired" and this was her new line, which paid homage to under appreciated 19th century female scientists:
And while discoveries by men such as Darwin and Newton have made them household names, there are countless others whose scholarly work has been lost, forgotten or even usurped by other intellectuals. Our Spring 2010 wallpaper line highlights three such individuals, all of whom are women, whose phenomenal academic stories have fallen between the cracks of history.
As female scientists in the nineteenth century, these women faced an oxymoronic distinction that their male counterparts eluded. Sexist barriers discouraged most young girls from the pursuit of an intellectual calling, yet our subjects persevered by challenging the status quo and developing their own route to recognized scholastic excellence. Each woman was largely self taught, and relied almost entirely on an innate passion for her respective field--something that makes their achievements all the more remarkable. Our bonnet is off to these unsung scientific heroines!