What’s Up with the Sci Fi Channel?

By | January 16, 2009 | 8 Comments

I’m not the first person in the world to wonder this: Why does the Sci Fi Channel suck so, so badly?

My brother and I have this conversation about six times a month, because we want the Sci Fi Channel to rock. We want to be glued to it on a regular basis. On paper, the Sci Fi channel is a Big Win. In reality, it is so often an Epic Fail. This is just my opinion. Mine and several thousand other folks who can be quickly found by searching on “Sci” “Fi” “Channel” and “Sucks” or variations thereon. It’s one of the last boutique basic cable channels that retains its identity; back in the early mists of cable TV there were lots of channels designed to grab thoughtspace in viewers by focusing on one subject thoroughly and becoming the brand – sort of the same way people registered domain names like www.sports.com or www.pets.com back The Day. So we had the Biography Channel, Arts and Entertainment Channel, E! Entertainment Channel, MTV Music Television, etc. Most of these channels have since broadened their programming quite a bit, becoming, in essence, regular old TV channels. Even MTV has a broad slate of various programs, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with music, all of which have everything to do with maintaining their precious audience of teenagers.

Not Sci Fi. It’s still. . .well, it’s still The Sci Fi Channel, y’know? It proudly stakes out SF/F as its subject matter and by that virtue alone it should be one of the coolest channels on TV. And yet, it broadcasts swill like Gryphon, starring Anthony LaPaglia’s brother and Larry Drake. Nothing against Larry Drake; I’m glad he’s getting work. But. . .seriously. I saw fifteen minutes of this turd and wanted to poke my eyes out and mail them to the Sci Fi channel, demanding compensation.

My brother and I wonder at the economics of it. The SF Channel regularly creates these original movies, all of which are terrible, all of which seem to feature a huge oversized something as a monster. They then give these movies brilliant names like Mammoth, Kraken, or Ice Spiders (subtly telegraphing the shocking moment when the mysterious monster that’s been eating everyone is revealed). Now, even assuming these films are made on absolute shoestring budgets (which, judging by the 15 minutes of Gryphon I saw, may actually redefine the term shoestring) you have to wonder how this dreck makes any money. Unless the SF Channel’s needs are so low they can actually scrape out a profit on the ad rates they charge for this shit. Another possibility is a small, hardcore audience that will literally watch anything that has an SF/F element in it and doesn’t star Lauren Conrad or any of her Hills ilk. In theory, this is a possibility, but I can’t imagine anyone could watch Gryphon and stick to that course of action. Maybe they make a killing in the long tail of international DVD and Pay-per-View sales? Maybe Gryphon is huge in Uzbekistan. Maybe it’s a variation on the Superman III heist scheme, where billions of fractional profits from cheap DVDs with cover art promising a much better movie results in significant overall profits for the channel.

It’s a mystery. Because the programming sucks donkey balls.

The Sci Fi Channel may be working with serious budget limitations, but things like the Battlestar Galactica reboot prove you can do wonders if you put your mind to it. Even the cheapo original movies could be interesting if they actually told interesting stories – stories that maybe didn’t require a lot of special effects, but were heavy on the mind-bending SF elements (like, say, Primer, a film I am still getting headaches from). If the money isn’t there for 10 more BSGs, then why not run some great old classic series and movies? Plenty of great SF/F was produced in the years prior to 2000, after all, much of it forgotten and probably cheap.

The point is, there are plenty of opportunities for the SF Channel to be cool, and they resolutely refuse to pursue any of them. This mystifies and angers me. Any ideas?

8 Comments

  • Craig says:

    My wife shakes her head and chuckles each time I give the SciFi channel movies another chance. The only time you can really count on the SciFi channel is when they air The Twilight Zone marathons…

  • jsomers says:

    Craig,

    That’s true–there are the rare nuggets in the crap, like TTZ marathons or BSG or what have you; that’s what’s so frustrating. They’re like glimpses of an alternate-universe SFC that’s actually kind of cool.

    Of course, in the DVD age, maybe re-running old faves isn’t as profitable as it might have been 20 years ago. I mean, if you like The Twilight Zone, you can own the DVDs and watch them any time you like, so ad rates maybe aren’t very high on that stuff.

    Weirdly, I never watch DVDs. Never. I can’t explain it. Miller’s Crossing is my fave movie ever and I own the DVD, but I never watch it. but when it’s on TV once in a blue moon, and I happen to come across it in media res, I always leave it on and watch it.

    Weird. It must be the era I grew up in, where my formative years were spent in the wasteland prior to VCRs and such, and you were conditioned to just be ecstatic when something good came on TV, and you had to grab it then and there, immediately, or lose it forever.

    J

  • Smedley says:

    I’m 28 and i’ve been watching the SciFi channel since i was 13 years old. I think the scifi channel is the reason i got into scifi/fantasy. They had this 100% weird schedule and they would play all the classics. Soylent green, Logans run, old time machine, clash of the titans, Jason and the Argonauts every kick ass movie you could think of they were airing them.

    As i got older so did the programing for a while scifi’s programing went to complete shit. Then there were a couple good shows showing up farscape, invisible man, good vs bad, SG1 and every time a show got a following it was taken off the air. As they will do doing with Atlantis this season and BSG. Sometimes they have a decent miniseries like Tin Man but thats been rare.

    I don’t understand this whole shot self in foot business model.

  • akabrady says:

    I’ve been asking this for years. How can a channel produce so much crap and not go out of business? Does anyone actually watch that crap?

    If it wasn’t for the one or two good shows they somehow manage to produce once in a while, I would never watch that channel.

    And if they replace one more good show with another reality suckfest, I think they should be mandated by law to change their name to the Suck channel.

  • jsomers says:

    I have dibs on the term “The Suck Channel”. Watch for it on your cable system in 2012, shortly after the Mayan Apocalypse. Be warned: I will litigate.

    J

  • Enders says:

    It used to be half-way decent, but what you have to remember now is that’s owned by the USA channel, thus all the wrasslin’ and such with the sweaty guys in tights hugging eachother.
    It’s not Sci Fi anymore, it’s The USA Channel Shit We Won’t Show, So We’re Gonna Ship It Over Here to Retain Our “Respectability” From Monk and Burn Notice.

    Late post is late.

  • jsomers says:

    Enders,

    That does explain some of it, you’re right–corporations treating it simply as a distribution node. Still, you’d think they could at least dump their vaguely-SF/F kind of crap there, instead of. . .well, everything they DO dump there.

    J

  • Paul Riddell says:

    Jeff, it’s even worse than you think. There’s a reason why I call the Skiffy Channel “Where Bad TV and Movies Go To Die”. Shitty movies such as Mansquito and Boa vs. Python aren’t being made specifically for Skiffy to run: they’re movies made by any number of goofballs, either because they see themselves as cinematic geniuses or because they’re trying to hide profits on some other film being made by the same production crew, where nobody else will run them. Skiffy’s getting them for maybe pennies on the dollar as compared to USA or TNT, and most of their producers are ecstatic that they’re getting some kind of television play at all.

    And there’s the problem: Skiffy, especially in the form of head honcho Bonnie Hammer, isn’t interested in paying a penny for any of its content. Battlestar Galactica is paid for, lock stock and barrel, by Skiffy’s parent company NBC Universal. Farscape only ran because its producers were paying all of the bills, and Bonnie cancelled the show in minutes once the Jim Henson Company’s old owner declared bankruptcy and Brian Henson asked for Skiffy to cover its fair share of the production costs. Most of the other television shows running on Skiffy are old pilots or syndication projects that never went anywhere (please see The Invisible Man, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, or Black Scorpion), or they’re Canadian film industry workfare crap to keep Canadian crew from moving to Los Angeles (Stargate, Lexx).

    The worst thing is that, much like how MTV execs know how pissed off viewers are about how MTV doesn’t run music videos any more, Skiffy execs know how badly their channel is hated, and they simply don’t care. There’s no incentive to run classic genre films, because Bonnie might have to pay a whole dollar for the broadcast rights when she could just buy a piece of shit like Free Enterprise for nothing. Ever notice all of the TV programs being run and rerun and rerun during the daytime are all Universal productions, like The Six Million Dollar Man or The Twilight Zone? Best of all, why the hell should they bother to pay for good content when they know perfectly well that half of the audience consists of folks like you that ignore Proverbs 26:11 and give the Channel another chance, and the other half are Cat Piss Men who’ll watch anything?

    Sorry if I’m overly cranky about this, but I spent way too much time dealing with the Channel when I was working for the Channel magazine. For the record, they treated subscribers and contributors like shit, too, because they knew they could get away with it. It’s why, after making the supreme mistake of doing a favor for a friend and writing a review back in October, I’m starting legal action against Skiffy for nonpayment for that review, because Skiffy’s attitude about contracts is that “payment within 60 days” means “Payment when we goddamn well feel like it, but only after we’ve made you crawl.” And since I deliberately refuse to get cable because I’ll be damned if any of my fees go back to Skiffy (this, incidentally, is why NBC Universal spends lot of money on lobbyists to make sure that cable customers never get the right to select the stations they want to pay for, because then Skiffy would be toast in a week), I’ll be completely free.

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