June 28, 2009

About My Comments on the “SyFy Channel”

Reporters have been interviewing me about current and historical TV subjects for many years, but no comment has excited quite the reaction of something I was quoted as saying in the March 16, 2009 issue of Television Week about the newly rebranded “SyFy Channel.” In response to a question about why the channel might be changing its name, here’s what I said.

“’The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,’ said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.

“Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like ‘Star Wars,’ they don’t think it’s science fiction, they think it’s a good movie.

“’We spent a lot of time in the ‘90s trying to distance the network from science fiction, which is largely why it’s called ‘Sci-Fi,’ Mr. Brooks said. ‘It’s somewhat cooler and better than the name ‘Science Fiction.’ But even the name ‘Sci Fi’ is limiting.’”

Among the comments I got, some “flames,” some calmly rational:

“I don’t know what kind of females you hang out with, Mr. Brooks, but all the ones I know watch Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who.

“Sir, I must protest. As a woman who adores s/f, fantasy and horror, I am deeply offended by this grossly inaccurate generalization. Not only am I not a socially inept loser sponging off my mother, I am a professional librarian and writer, a military wife, a mother and a former Playboy model.”

“I imagine many investment brokers, accountants and librarians would agree with you. But if you polled surgeons, pilots, editors and physicists, you would find many who not only vehemently disagree with your generalization but count themselves among those ranks.”

“I happen to be female, and I am enraged by this statement. How can you make such a prejudice, judgemental (sic) statement of the viewers that have supported the Sci-Fi network throughout its swiftly deteriorating ratings because of executive decisions to take away the programs that made the Sci-Fi Channel strong to begin with? … We are the dreamers, the writers, and the ones that jump through that portal of ‘where no man has gone before’ to bring great scientific discoveries and data back to help the common man.”

“I am proud to call myself a geek.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Someone needs to shut Tim Brooks up before he alienates so many viewers that the channel backslides. He comes across as a pretty major ass in this article. Not saying he IS one, just that he comes across that way.”

“Let me ask you this one, Mr. Functionality. What medications are you on? Any anti-depressants, sleeping pills, lithium, Lorazepam, or Viagra? And why do so few ‘geeks’ need such things?”

“Seriously, the last time I played Nintendo alone in my bedroom—with my Spock ears on, mind you—must have been, like, many hours ago.”

“As for me, I’m going back to reading my book (sci-fi).”


First, an explanation of “helped launch.” As USA’s research chief I was part of the three-person team that put together the original programming plan for the Sci Fi Channel in 1992. Also on the team was one of the best—and nicest—schedulers I have ever known in the business, (the late) Neil Hoffman. We worked under the direction of CEO Kay Koplovitz and programming head Dave Kenin. All of them were first rate television executives, dedicated to the success of the new channel, and equally dedicated to the proposition of always respecting the genre and its fans. Kay, who is one of cable’s great visionaries, made that clear.

But of course we had to run a business too, and believe me, in television it can be cutthroat. Remember all the early channels that came and went, or got pushed aside? Noble intentions do not always make a viable business. So we did some research and found quite clearly that while a lot of people liked science fiction programs, many were turned off by the name. Not the core fans perhaps, but most beyond that. The phrase about “geeks in basements” is an unfortunate stereotype, but it wasn’t mine. It came from ordinary viewers in focus groups and surveys. And the job of any responsible researcher is to report what is, not what we might want to hear. (Mr. Spock, anyone?)

If in the course of a live interview I made it sound like that’s who sci-fi fans really are, I apologize. But the facts remain.

So how could we make the channel good and financially viable? One way was to present it in a manner that would invite in viewers who would not come to a “science” channel (sounds too much like spinach!). Hence, “Sci-Fi” rather than “Science Fiction.” The programming’s the same, only the label is different. Labels can make a difference. That’s the reason why, when asked why they might be making this latest change, I answered as I did. I have no connection with the channel today, and have never even met the current president, the esteemed Mr. Howe, but I suppose they are trying to bring in more viewers, not to change the programming. And the programming overall, in my humble opinion, is pretty good, no matter what they call it.

Personally, I’m a fan of sci-fi, or science fiction, or syfy, or whatever you want to call it. Some of our early original programming, done on a shoestring, was pretty bizarre. Does anybody remember Dr. Franklin Reuhl and his Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion, or the news from the future on FTL Newsfeed? (They’re described under “Sci-Fi Channel” in my Complete Directory to TV.)  The first programming chief, Barry Schulman, did the best he could with an absurdly small budget, and later things did get better with shows like Sliders, Farscape and the estimable Battlestar Galactica. One of my personal favorites, and a show I fought to get on the air, was the raucous, black-humor-filled Canadian series Lexx. You may or may not agree.

Not everyone is going to like everything on a channel, of course. I don’t mind if it caters to tastes other than mine at times. As long as it periodically turns out series like Lexx, Farscape, Eureka, Stargate, Doctor Who and Galactica, it has my respect.

In any event I hope those sci-fi fans offended by “geeks in basements” will understand that it’s not who I personally think they are—well, not most of them, anyway (even William Shatner told some of his fans to “get a life!”, didn’t he?). In my experience they’re smart people who like smart programming. And the programming is what it’s all about.



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