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?
Is the premise sustainable?
In the U.S. TV market, successful shows can last for years and run for hundreds of episodes. To do that you need a premise that doesn't wear out after the first six episodes. That's a lot harder to do than you might think. I've seen MANY shows pitched to us that were AMAZING, but they were only amazing for about six episodes, and the U.S. TV model doesn't readily support six-episode series.
What kind of audience will it bring in?
All TV networks want shows that bring in new viewers, because then we can talk to those viewers about our OTHER shows. And of course, the more viewers a show has, the more successful it is. On the other hand, we also want shows that current viewers can enjoy too, since we want to make sure they're getting the entertainment they want. It's important to have a mix of shows that do both. The best show is one that the majority of existing viewers like AND that also attracts new viewers. Currently Warehouse 13, the highest rated show in our history, does that for us. (That's WHY it's our highest rated show in history.)
When can we air it?
Is this a show that will do better Tuesdays at 8pm or Fridays at 10pm? Is it a show that might work better in the spring, or the fall, or does it not matter? Is it a weekend or a weeknight show? Can this show fit into a "night" of similar programming? Syfy is "full" on certain nights, while we have "holes" on other nights. Shows that more easily fill the holes have a better chance of getting the go-ahead from us. But overall, it's kind of like the NFL draft — some teams draft "best available player" while others fill pressing needs (wide receiver, linebacker, etc.). The best strategy is to do both — look for great shows that will also fill our needs. And if you've watched Syfy for a long time you'll probably remember things like "The Summer of Sci Fi" or "Sci Fi Mondays" or "Sci Fi Fridays." Tuesday has recently become our most successful night of the week, so in the fall get ready for "Syfy Tuesdays."
What can we air it with?
Although TV is getting less and less linear all the time, most people still watch it live, one show after another, so we have to think about what will run before the show (its "lead in") and what will run after it (its "lead out"). Ideally you want your audience to flow from one show to another, with a strong show pushing its large audience to the next show and so on. Sometimes we put shows (or more likely repeats) with two entirely different audiences together to get new viewers to sample them.
What can we air it against?
Every shows runs against competition on every other network out there. Can this show go head-to-head with dozens of other shows on a competitive night, or will we have to try to "protect" it? Since there are now NO nights without stiff competition, we increasingly want shows that can hold their own wherever they are. At Syfy we also have to keep an eye on where other genre shows air, as well as shows that are popular with the Syfy audience like Mythbusters. We used to "counter program" our shows in the summer since other networks ran their shows in the spring and fall, but now everyone runs shows all year long so we can't do that as much.
Will it repeat well?
Certain shows might do a massive rating when they first air, but no one watches it again in repeats. Or a show might do an okay rating at first then keep doing an okay rating in repeats. You need a mix of both. The ideal show does a massive rating AND repeats well.
Is it an easy concept to understand?
Shows with a simple, recognizable hook are easier to explain to viewers, and therefore easier to market. If I tell you there is a show called Ice Road Truckers, you'll probably know instantly if you'd be willing to give it a try or not. Of course, sometimes having a new, complicated premise can be a selling point too, if its enticing.
Is it promotable?
This goes hand-in-hand with the auspices and concept, but basically we look at what's the best way to promote this particular show? Will it need a lot of marketing money to push it or can it sell itself? Is it likely to be a critic's darling and get a lot of press, or are the critics likely to ignore it? Will viewers be more or less apt to promote it virally?
Is it "ad friendly"?
Ultimately our business model depends on advertisers, so if advertisers don't want to be in a show it's going to make it tougher for that show to succeed. Not impossible, but tough. Also, product placement is becoming more prevalent on TV. A show like Eureka, that's set in the present day on Earth is a lot easier to put products in than a show like Battlestar Galactica, where they don't have Coke and Starbucks isn't a coffee shop.
Is it interactive?
Every show works differently on the Internet. Some shows lend themselves to big, sprawling Web sites with webisodes, podcasts, and mobile comics that help us build and sustain an audience. Then there are shows people would rather just watch on TV. Non-theatrical movies, for instance, tend to be "just watch" events unless they have a crazy premise like "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus." Shows with extensive fictional worlds like Battlestar are perfect for the Internet, because people always want to know more about them.
I could probably list a dozen other things we also look at when evaluating show pitches, but you get the idea: It's much more than just cost vs. ratings. That said, because TV shows are subjective, there's also no formula for picking winners. We might find a show that hits the sweet spot of all these things, and we might find a show that doesn't hit any of these and works because it's so different. TV is definitely one of those things that's more art than science, but at least you can see there is (occasionally) some method to the madness.