For Sci Fi, the Future Is Everything

Series plans go forward, even as network awaits takeover by NBC

Sci Fi Channel is expecting big changes over the coming year, both with NBC's pending acquisition of Universal Entertainment and the network's own plans to experiment with more original programming.

Yet, despite the likelihood of other changes when NBC takes over (executives from both companies are spending a lot of time in "integration meetings" these days), Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer says her channel is marching ahead with an aggressive development slate. "This is business as usual. No one has told us to even mildly put on the brakes."

NBC officials are clearly curious about their soon-to-be charge; entertainment chief Jeff Zucker was expected to attend last week's Los Angeles premiere screening of Sci Fi's latest original miniseries, Battlestar Galactica. The two-part miniseries, a remake of an ABC series that aired from 1978 to '80 and starred Lorne Greene, debuts tonight and concludes tomorrow (it will be shown again this weekend).

There is much more in the channel's pipeline for the next two years. With its originals, Sci Fi aims to broaden its audience slightly. That means drawing new viewers, particularly younger ones, while still catering to its science-fiction fans.

That mission kicked off with last December's hit Taken, the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries that resulted in record Nielsen marks for the channel. Now Hammer is looking for more in both reality and scripted formats.

Sci Fi routinely attracts between a 0.8 and 1.0 household rating in prime, making it one of cable's highest-rated niche nets. But, Hammer says, "to continue to grow, we have to live in original programming."

If a cable net like Sci Fi could score a few hits, says Magna Global Executive Vice President of Audience Analysis Steve Sternberg, "then you have the chance to broaden. One or two shows might provide some spillover effect, but it takes more." An ongoing scripted series would provide particular muscle. Along with a ratings pop, "you have the opportunity to constantly promote other programs."

For alternative programming, Sci Fi has several programming experiments coming in March. Debuting that month: reality show Mad, Mad House, featuring contestants, known as "guests", who move into a house filled with "alts" who practice different alternative lifestyles, like a witch and a vampire, and the channel's first animated show Tripping the Rift.

"It may be easier to target a younger demo with non-scripted," says Hammer. "You can be a little more kitschy, have a little more humor and a little more edge."

Still, Hammer and her team are keenly focused on finding a scripted hit. The net already has modest successes in Stargate SG-1 and Farscape, and spinoff show Stargate Atlantis launches next summer.

Two pilots in the works may provide that spark. Sci Fi has ordered pilots for Dead Lawyers, which features lawyers who return from the dead to correct their misdeeds, and Anonymous Rex, based on a book by Eric Garcia and billed as a detective show where dinosaurs live among humans. The series would debut in 2004 or 2005.

The network also plans several more miniseries for next year, including five-parter Five Days to Midnight for the second quarter. And Spielberg and DreamWorks are working on a limited series for 2005, Nine Lives, which will tell a single story over a trilogy of miniseries.