In 2002, when (then) Sci Fi was in the market for a new programming chief, Mark Stern was asked to suggest some candidates. The network executives trusted Stern's perspective, and for good reason. The longtime producer, a partner at Trilogy Entertainment Group and president of its television division, was executive producer of The Outer Limits, already running on the channel.
But things quickly got a little more “out there” when the network brass suggested to the skeptical Stern that he might be right for the post. “I was very wary about being a network executive,” Stern says. Yet he was soon won over.
“The more we talked about it, the more I realized it's not a network job in the true sense of being in a broadcast network where you have lots of layers and lots of bureaucracy, and you're very separated from the process,” he says. “Really, it's like a production company in the sense that you're doing very specific things, and you go very deep into the creative process.”
Stern ended up joining Sci Fi in November 2003, and got off to a running start. He helped the remake of Battlestar Galactica get off the ground, oversaw the launch of Ghost Hunters and developed Eureka, which has since become one of the network's most reliable hits.
Syfy president Dave Howe attributes much of Stern's success to his skills as a producer and his deft ability to utilize the talents of his creative team. “He is the most open and collaborative development head I have ever come across,” Howe says.
It helped that the job fit right into Stern's wheelhouse. He'd been a producer for most of his professional career, after starting as an assistant at Trilogy and rising from there.
“In a weird way, I almost feel like you should have to be a producer before you become a network executive,” he says. “You should know what the process is, what it takes to put together a pitch and sit on the couch as opposed to the chair, and having to sell an idea to somebody.”
Now, as co-head of original content for Universal Cable Productions with USA's Jeff Wachtel, he gets to sit on the studio side of the table. Having one foot on each side can be a challenging task—Stern is quick to add that “there is a clear separation of church and state”—but it allows the studio and network to operate more smoothly.
Stern has explored other areas of the business as well in his career. In addition to executive-producing Limits and Poltergeist: The Legacy for Trilogy, Stern wrote a number of the episodes as well.
And with the network rebrand to Syfy completed July 7, Stern is using all of his creative experience to take things to the next level. Warehouse 13, the series that launched on the same day as the rebrand, trailed only Stargate Atlantis and Eureka as the top premiere in network history.
Programs such as Warehouse and Eureka, both of which have a clear science fiction and fantasy influence but are not purely within the sci-fi genre, are an indication of where Stern hopes to move the network.
Stern also hopes to explore types of programming the network currently lacks, such as animation and single-camera half-hour shows. Syfy's new name and slogan (“Imagine Greater”) have its programming chief looking to the future, and taking advantage of the freedom they grant.
“We have found where our niche is; now let's expand it,” he says. “The whole experience has been incredibly gratifying.”
As busy and complicated as life at Syfy can sometimes be, it actually offers one clear advantage over life as a producer: a bit more downtime.
“I like to sit in my backyard with my kids, my wife and my dogs and just relax, and try not to think of all the things I should be reading and watching,” he says. “One of the nice things about going to the executive side has been being able to spend more time with my family, which was always hard when producing. I like to not do very much.”
That is, until he's back at work, testing the outer limits of what he brings to all sides of the Syfy table.