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Sci Fi Seeks a New Universe

With higher ratings, it vies to compete with the 'bigs' for ad buys 4/06/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The Sci Fi Channel is trying to unearth another universe. Another part of the Nielsen universe, that is. With its ratings on the rise, Sci Fi, long considered one of the strongest niche channels on cable, is venturing into what President Bonnie Hammer calls cable's "big leagues."

Sci Fi Grows Up
In a business where fractional gains make huge differences, Sci Fi seems to have climbed permanently into the 1 rating category since airing Steven Spielberg's Taken (below) in December.
Month HH*
*Prime time average
Source: Nielsen Media Research
March 03 1.1
Feb. 03 1.0
Jan. 03 1.0
Dec. 02 1.6
Nov. 02 1.0
Oct. 02 0.9
Sept. 01 0.9
Aug. 01 1.0
July 01 0.9
June 01 0.9
May 02 0.7
April 02 0.8
March 02 0.9

Sci Fi's prime time numbers jumped 25% in the first quarter to a 1.0 average; showing the biggest growth among major entertainment channels. In March, the network recorded a 1.1 average. Back in December, when Steven Spielberg's ratings smash Taken was playing to a 4.1 average, it swelled to a 1.6 average.

The driver, Hammer contends, is original programming, led by projects like the 10-part, 20-hour maxi-miniseries Taken
and last month's Children of Dune
mini. From here out, Sci Fi will beef up original production and scale back on acquisitions. "Now we have a choice of what we want to put on the channel," she said. "We don't have to throw [acquisitions] up there and hope something sticks."

After its success with Taken—which alone cost $35 million—Sci Fi is ready to pony up for big projects. This year, the network will spend about $190 million on programming, according to industry estimates. Sci Fi plans to double spending over the next three years. So far, so good: Its latest original series Tremors: The Series
got off to a good start March 28 with a 2.0 rating.

Going into the upfront, media buyers say Sci Fi is well-positioned to increase business and attract new clients. "One of the reasons that they are successful," said veteran media buyer Howard Nass, of HN Media, "is that no one else is really talking to this niche. They really own it."

Said Jeff Lucas, ad-sales chief for Sci Fi parent Universal Television, "We've jumped from a tier-two network to a tier-one network."

In last year's upfront, Sci Fi, like sister USA Network, slashed pricing 10%, according to Morgan Stanley estimates, to increase sales volume and, in the process, attracted 40 new advertisers.

No one is expecting Lucas to use the same strategy this year. Sci Fi is in better shape—with strong ratings and higher sell-out—and the overall cable marketplace is widely expected to be more robust. Sci Fi is also a cheaper option for buyers, with lower CPMs than general-entertainment cable networks like Turner's TNT and TBS or USA.

With more ambitious programming like Taken, "they can compete among the higher-ranked cable networks," said John Rash, senior vice president, broadcast negotiations, Campbell Mithun.

Sci Fi's development slate for 2004-05 is headlined by big miniseries, including another project with Spielberg and DreamWorks. The "trilogy miniseries"—not a Taken
spinoff—would consist of six hours aired each quarter for three consecutive quarters. It would be Sci Fi's "own Lord of the Rings, our own Harry Potter," Hammer explained, "when one lives and breathes on the heels of another."

Other miniseries plans include a futuristic murder-mystery 6 Days 'til Sunday, a six-hour miniseries that will play over six straight nights; The Thing, a four-hour project about explorers trapped in Antarctica; and Red Mars, a six-hour series about adventurers who colonize the planet.

Sci Fi is pushing forward on seven new original series. Dead Lawyers
is about lawyers who come back from the dead to defend clients they failed. In The Divide, a trio of characters—a DJ, the ghost of his dead twin sister, and the local coroner—team up to fight crime. Painkiller Jane, based on an Event Comics series about a female superhero, is being made as a two-hour backdoor pilot. And the first Stargate spinoff could be Stargate Atlantis, linking Stargate with the lost city of Atlantis.

September
October