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A Channel for Science Fiction

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  • Publication: Omni
  • Date: October 1992
  • Author: Melanie Menagh and Stephen Mills
  • Page: 76
  • Language: English

"The Sci-Fi Channel will be bigger than Star Trek," foretold Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Trekker series, advisory board member of the nascent cable television network and all-around science-fiction guru. "Star Trek was one show," Roddenberry observed, "but this will be twenty-four hours a day. It will be more powerful because you're creating a whole new cultural environment--like MTV did for music." Both Roddenberry and fellow Sci-Fi board member Isaac Asimov died before the channel finally passed from the realm of fiction into a real, viable, working network--in fact, Sci-Fi almost followed the two men into the great beyond. Plagued by funding problems, skepticism from risk-shy cable-system operators, and the fits and starts of launching any such wildly ambitious venture, Sci-Fi almost became a has-been before it made an official debut.

Roddenberry's prediction--"bigger than Star Trek ... more powerful"--is very much to the point, however, as the channel's founders Mitch Rubenstein and Laurie Silvers sold their baby to the USA Network, and by extension, USA's parent companies, Paramount and MCA. Suddenly Sci-Fi has not only a bankroll, but also the production facilities and advertising might and a staff of battle-tried TV execs who were champing at the bit for a new project. They are ready, they insist, to boldly go where no network has gone before, to create a new cultural environment as Roddenberry proposed. They speak with Messianic fervor about a channel that will look like no other on TV: When you stop at their dial, you'll know where you are. Computer-aided design (CAD), sound intonations, quirky program scheduling, rare and classic science fiction, fantasy and horror from the 1940s onward--these are on tap for the first year. Many of the ideas came from science-fiction connoisseurs who have swamped the station with requests to air their favorite shows.

But the real point piquing expectations are plans for the future. The Sci-Fi channel is a natural for premiering new technologies: They don't want to merely report on what's up and coming, they want to employ it--from HDTV, which is ready to go, to evolving systems like Interactive Television and virtual reality. "We're not only going to show science fiction on the Sci-Fi Channel," says vice chairman Rubenstein, "we're going to play with the new science of TV and introduce these things as a part of the channel. We'll be a launch pad for new technologies."

That's great for the hard-core fans, whom polls number at somewhere around 800,000, but Sci-Fi is going into 10 million homes at launch and hopes to escalate to 50 million in five years. According to those in the know, Sci-Fi has its voyage cut out for it. In the cable biz, you have several audiences to please: the advertisers who foot the lion's share of the bills, the cable operators who decide whether or not to zap your channel into the living rooms of their million subs (subscribers), and the viewers. In the case of Sci-Fi, even this last category needs further qualification between the dyed-in-the-wool fans and the much larger crossover audience--discrete camps with distinct expectations. "It's hard to know exactly how to do this," says David Kenin, executive vice president of programming. "The eight hundred thousand fans don't want to see anything touched or edited or moved; they want to see a film in its pure form. The larger community of nine million doesn't want certain words or body parts to arrive unannounced in their homes--they have a very different idea of purity."

Yet, expectations will be high in all camps. Kay Koplovitz, president and CEO of the USA Networks, acknowledges that Sci-Fi will be battling for a slice of some very tough turf. "People expect a new network to look as refined as any network out there. They're expecting a product to go on the screen and to have a good look about it from the very beginning. You have to have deep pockets to be a serious player." Kenneth Johnson, creator of The Incredible Hulk, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation, and V, and producer of The Six Million Dollar Man, adds to the equation: "Audiences are so sophisticated. Look at Terminator 2--a hundred million for a two-hour film. When you turn on Sci-Fi, you expect to see Terminator on a budget of two million. This can be a problem."

Johnson is quick to point out, however, that a massive dose of money isn't everything. "Science fiction and fantasy shows today are more style than substance. One of the biggest mistakes is that people rely on special effects to carry a picture, and that never works." Johnson's admonitions to Sci-Fi Poo Bahs? "Technology should only be used to serve the story or else there's a tremendous danger of the tail wagging the dog. All of the shows I've worked on were created for a core audience, but they managed to reach a larger group because we were about quality: compelling characters and good storytelling."

Serving the interests of both the 800,000 and the 9 million in exquisite equipoise is a major challenge for the corporate-TV tightrope walkers. But many of these Nielsen-defying artistes attest to the universal and eternal appeal of the sci-fi adventure. "There is an essential element of imagination to the genre that has a perennial appeal, that touches something important in adults that harkens back to something that touched us when we were young," Kenin says. "As a kid, I remember the power and magic of Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel, and those images are still magic for me today. The prospect of encountering a reality onscreen that was nowhere else in one's experience made movies like The Thing and It Came from Outer Space memories for a lifetime." According to Kenin, Sci-Fi is to provide, in one place, as much variety and choice in science fiction as it can achieve. "This will allow those of us who were affected by those products of popular culture to have easy access to them again," he says.

And Andrew Besch, senior vice president of marketing, loves to go on about the technological trappings that "everyman" loves to play with. "There are so many toys--I mean that in the nicest, not frivolous, way--for us to use." For instance? At the launch of Sci-Fi at a cable convention in Dallas, Texas, the Sci-Fi booth had virtual reality (VR). "I owned the convention," Besch says. "Literally, it was the most talked-about thing on a convention floor of hundreds of thousands of square feet." Besch recalls an early morning riposte to his field of operations by an intriguing band of VR wannasees: "A guy shows up with two very big, unsmiling people beside him with devices in their ears. It's 8:30 in the morning, he doesn't want to wait in line, and he says, 'Can I play VR before everybody else does?' It's Neil (son of George) Bush. He had heard about VR and wanted to try it." Verdict from this regular American--Secret Service in tow? "Loved it," says Besch. "Thought it was fabulous."

Perhaps it's only poetic justice that the network of supreme adventure was conceived as an antidote to excruciating tedium. "I was listening to a presentation about some cable-systems business," says Rubenstein. "I had a brainstorm and thought, 'Wow, someone should do a science-fiction cable network'--even though the meeting had absolutely nothing to do with the subject." Who can say whence come these sparks of genius, but in this case, the flash came to the right person. Having a backlog of knowhow from running several cable systems and a surfeit of capital from selling them, Rubenstein and his wife and partner, Laurie Silvers, were scouting around for a new venue for their energy and cash.

Rubenstein and Silvers planned a two-step approach: Spend a year researching the viability of Sci-Fi and another year selling the idea to cable operators. Not being science-fiction experts, they scouted out possible members for an advisory board. Martin Greenberg, well-known science-fiction anthologist, was tapped for his encyclopedic knowledge. "I was very excited about what they were trying to do," Greenberg says. "I agreed with Mitch and Laurie that their idea had tremendous potential." Greenberg encouraged Asimov to come on board. "Isaac was very enthusiastic from the start," says Greenberg. "He was intrigued by the educational possibilities--of using the channel to get a new generation of kids excited about science." Asimov in turn brought pal Roddenberry into the fold. "Gene said our struggles getting cable carriage with Sci-Fi reminded him of his days trying to get Star Trek to all three networks, and the only reason NBC finally bought it was Gene changed his pitch with them to say that it would be Wagon Train in space."

Buttressed by their stellar advisory board for genre credibility and armed with a Gallup poll intimating that their channel would be more popular than Nickelodeon and MTV, the Sci-Fi team took its show on the road to win over the skeptical, but essential, cablesystem operators. "There were times we almost stopped," Rubenstein remembers. They had been working for 18 months, spending lots of money with no income coming in, and they didn't have a single nibble. "We were starting to talk seriously that this was perceived as too offbeat," says Rubenstein. Then came, as luck would have it, the Big Break: A one-hour meeting with cable operator Telecable (also owners of The Weather Channel) expanded into five hours. "Within three days they said it was one of the best ideas they'd ever heard and were making a major commitment to us," Rubenstein says. Then the floodgates opened: Operators who hadn't dismissed the idea but hadn't bought it either suddenly got interested--no one wanted to be first, but plenty wanted to be second and third. "Now we have a hundred cable operators--which is unheard of for a new channel--and we're talking major players--Cox Cable, Viacom, Simmons," says a happy Rubenstein.

A very interesting phenomenon had been happening as they were getting started, Silvers interjects. "Word got out through the science-fiction fan network--a network that is very serious. The fans wrote us letters and sent us ideas and called cable operators telling them to put us on; we began to feel the real impact of their support in the marketplace." SF (the abbreviation of choice among the science-fiction faithful) supporters began to gather in fan-club settings, spontaneously, without any direction from the Sci-Fi Channel, to plan strategies for getting it on the air in their area. Soon there were a hundred fan clubs with several thousand members around the country--for an unlaunched network. "One of the things Gene Roddenberry suggested was to hire somebody to answer all the fan mail," says Rubenstein. "He thought that was a major boost for Star Trek because they answered all the mail and took the fans seriously. We followed his advice."

On a tour looking for financial backing, Rubenstein and Silvers ended up at the offices of Kay Koplovitz at USA Network, the number-one-rated cable network. "We looked at Sci-Fi a couple of times before we decided to delve into it," Koplovitz says. "I had to satisfy myself that there was enough product to fulfill the expectations that people would have of a channel like this." Chief cheerleader was Andrew Besch. "I saw the marketing potential," Besch claims. "There were a couple of occasions when Kay called late at night and said, "I don't know if this thing's gonna work." And I kept saying, "If there's any way we can do it, let's do it. It's gonna be worth it. I feel it in my bones; this thing is gonna be bigger than big." March 30, 1992, the deal was struck, and the Sci-Fi Channel became fact.

Now that it is a done deal, every life form on the planet is rushing to sing praises to the brilliance of the concept--and to get a little work out of it. (See "Nice Work" above.)"Already we have had so many submissions from people that have projects, scripts in this genre--and it's amazing that some of them come from quite traditional TV-movie producers," Koplovitz says. "I think there are a lot of people in the creative world who love the idea of the fantasy of Sci-Fi; it's seductive for them."

Robby Benson--actor, director, writer--stars in the first made-for-Sci-Fi film, Homewrecker. Benson says, "It's probably my favorite genre. When I think back on the movies that I really remember--Dr. Strangelove, 2001--they're science fiction." Benson says he's got a script all ready for Sci-Fi: "What interests me is taking a normal situation and warping it in such a manner that everything is spinning in opposite directions, and the outcome of something so familiar could be frightening."

Sci-Fi has an ambitious, unconventional battle plan for year one, a mission to create the total cultural environment Roddenberry predicted. "We're creating a whole new world for viewers that they pass into when they turn on the channel," Koplovitz says. According to Besch, the producers want people to turn it on and say, "I am now in another place. I am not in anything that I remotely know as a TV network." Besch says, "Sci-Fi should seem like it is being controlled and programmed by something not of this earth."

They plan to achieve this from the outset in a number of ways. Perhaps most important for lending the "place" an extraterrestrial texture will be the look of the graphics and interstitial elements. Some of the best CAD cowboys and animators from California are creating the graphics--much of it a mesmerizing swirl dubbed "Liquid Television." "It's a bit different working on the look of an entire channel versus a single video project," says Tony Lupidi, animator at Xaos, a computer graphics company based in San Francisco. "You can play around with things, have a sense of these images developing over time, not just fading out at the end of one project." According to Lupidi, "Liquid Television" is the name of an MTV show for which Xaos does the graphics, and it is also the graphic element of MTV's "bumpers"--logo sequences. "We can organically warp video, and in the case of image warping, we do it with two sets of images," Lupidi says. "The second image is a texturizer and is used to modify or warp the first image. You can use a rough, grainy texture or a smooth, slick image--you can do a lot of different things."

The spot created for the opening minutes of the channel, dubbed by the techies as The Big Bang, "employs a lot of new things we've been doing integrating model shots with animation," Lupidi says. Of the 40-second opening, The Big Bang consists of only three and a half seconds. "It's kind of the creation of the universe with an explosion, perhaps light-years away, with all this gas, light, and debris flying by. It's very dramatic." According to Lupidi, the opening shots include elements from classic science fiction--sort of as an homage to what's come before, and, as Lupidi says, "whetting your appetite for the new channel."

The choice and disposition of programs is also somewhat unconventional. "In putting this channel together, we've tried to stay away from any traditional network thinking," Besch says. "When we get ideas that are based on what we already know, we throw them out." Programmers plan to present a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror--films, series, news programs--from vintage monsters of the Forties and Fifties to a dozen made-for-Sci-Fi features--a visual cocktail, intoxicating and exhilarating.

"We want to be known for doing the rare and the special--series that haven't been seen very often," Kenin says. There will be feature films, like Star Wars, to service the more general community, but also limited-run series from the U.S. and Britain, like Dark Shadows and Dr. Who, which will serve the true essence of the channel.

Kenin feels that how they show programs is as important as what they show. For ratings, Kenin figures, it would probably be best to run one series on Tuesday nights, another on Wednesday, and so on. "But for the purist, we're going to run the entire series through sequentially," he says. "All the episodes from the beginning to the end, every night for as many weeks as it takes." Allowance also has to be made for series not made to the arbitrary and exacting specifications of prime-time America. The BBC, for instance, had the temerity to produce Dr. Who at a length not readily adaptable to an hour-long format. Not to be deterred, Sci-Fi will air the series in its entirety--including the early black-and-white episodes--on consecutive nights, and fill out the hour with created short programs like interviews with Dr. Who writers, directors, and performers, and short SF serials from the 1940s and 1950s. Even the news will be a little out of the orthodox with NASA launches covered by commentary from top science-fiction authors.

Some form of interactivity will be online from the start. "Even if it's telephone lines or mail or something," says Kenin. In fact, interactivity is a leitmotif of Sci-Fi even before it goes on the air. Members of the hundred Sci-Fi fan clubs have been flooding network offices with suggestions, nay demands, of what should be done with "their" channel. "The real diehard science-fiction fans believe that this is their channel," Besch says. "We're just executing their vision. I get calls from people who've spent two days trying to find me. They don't say, 'Well, I've been thinking about it and maybe you might ...' They say, 'If you're going to fulfill the dream, this is what you should have."'

If fans had their way, says Sci-Fi promotions coordinator Paul van de Kamp, there wouldn't be any editing of movies or movie series, and there wouldn't be any commercial breaks during the movies. "They want us to be edit-sensitive, and for them that means not editing out the credits or editing the beginning or any of the footage to allow for commercials." For instance, fans want to see the complete version of Dune--six and a half hours long. Many people have requested European or international science-fiction programs such as Red Dwarf. According to van de Kamp, the diehards have specifically requested Japanese animation--"it's very exciting, very sophisticated"--series like Dark Shadows, Dr. Who, Lost in Space, and classic series like The Time Tunnel and Quark--"the list is endless," van de Kamp says. "We've also had many requests for late-night home shopping for collectors looking for Star Trek memorabilia."

Fan input has been crucial from the outset. Rubenstein and Silvers, not aficionados themselves, decided it would be best to follow the advice of those who were. "The very first programming buy that the channel made was the original Dark Shadows," Silvers says. "We had no idea how strong a desire there was for it, but the letters and calls kept coming in saying that this was something that was at the top of their list, so we went out and got it. The fans were letting us know what they wanted to see." The peripatetic Sci-Fi fan clubs are being shepherded into one flock, which will be known as the Sci-Fi Channel Fan Alliance--a name fraught with Star Trek overtones. There will be a magazine, conventions, discounts at other events, a book club, ad infinitum.

Most exciting are plans for the future. "We'll have a laboratory where you can add almost any ingredient you want and see what happens," says Silvers. Rubenstein interjects: "So we become the home for really hot new sci-fi ideas, like MTV did with new music and bands. This will be the MTV for the Nineties." As a platform for new technology, the possibilities seem endless, with the new-age look to the format being carried through to in-house program links and advertising in what Besch hopes will be "a seamless environment." He says, "We want our advertisers to create ads that match the channel--to the point of going into a commercial so that it seems like we've stopped transmission for a moment and are receiving a message from somewhere else." The formidable battery of new technologies to be explored by the channel includes virtual reality, lasers, computers, and HDTV. The format will also be extended to include cable in the classroom. "We think there are going to be opportunities relatively soon to marry up TV and the computer," says Koplovitz. "We will be working with computer companies to provide the home user with a way to hook up with demonstrations and experiments."

The most fertile area of advancement will be in Interactive TV. Programmers are planning to send messages out over the vertical blanking interval at the bottom of the screen and have it received through computer lines. Sci-Fi viewers can play along with game shows and answer trivia questions. They will be able to vote on what they like and dislike and would like to see more of on the channel. There's even talk of producing films with several different endings and allowing the viewer to choose which one he or she prefers. "We will have a billboard for a variety of interactive users," Kenin says. "Early on in the game, the Sci-Fi news program, which is conceived as an ongoing video database for the twenty-first century, will interface with consumers at home and at work." The consumer will be able to choose items from a menu and get new information as it's happening--news, medical developments, science, technology, as well as fashion. The Sci-Fi news brief will offer much more than newspapers offer today. The consumer will be able to access the database for additional information about the stories contained in the headlines. "I don't know when, precisely, this will happen, but that's the excitement of this channel: figuring out how we can do these things," Kenin says, "even if it's a small audience, even if it's experimental. The essential DNA element of the channel is a sense of adventure, to feel that every time you tune in, you're going to be experiencing the same type of excitement. It will be interactive, it will be technologically adventurous, it will be the next dimension in entertainment."

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT

"We started receiving faxes and letters literally a day after the first trade announcement that we had purchased the Sci-Fi Channel," says Jeff Kuduk, manager of human resources for the USA Networks. "How they found out, I don't know, but first the calls and faxes came trickling in, and then suddenly there was a tremendous flood. I've never seen anything like this deluge of interest in my entire career." The Sci-Fi personnel office received well over a thousand applications in four months--for about 40 positions.

But these were no ordinary stuffed-shirt resumes. Their remarkable quantities were matched by their extraordinary qualities. Some people sent cover letters with futuristic doodles in the margins; others sent envelopes with special-issue NASA stamps; still others customized their stationery with laser-printed spaceships and pasted-on holograms. Comic books came in--some that the applicant had worked on, others just to demonstrate his or her devotion to the genre. One-of-a-kind T-shirts emblazoned with appropriate motifs arrived. Samples of science-fiction writing, short stories and teleplays sailed across Kuduk's disk. Star Trek figurines were tucked in along with resumes.

"They did anything to get themselves noticed," Kuduk says. Undoubtedly, the most creative submission was a foot-tall, plush, draped-in-red-and-green outerspace creature with the applicant's resume in one hand, and in the other, a sign reading, "Hire this human or the consequences to your planet will be terrible.... " Even the contents of the cover letters were decidedly unorthodox. One aspiring Sci-Fier began his with "Greetings Earthling:" and went on to explain that he "came from a planet light-years ahead of this sphere you call 'Earth,' " and yet "found it most amusing to work amongst this life form known as 'Humans.' " The author signed off: "Live Long and Prosper." This salutary sentiment was, in fact, expressed in quite a few introductory letters, along with other snatches of Trekspeak and extraterrestrial double entendres: "My qualifications are out of this world." "I'm ready to blast off into a new career universe." One woman vowed she'd "give her right arm"--and enclosed a sample of same (cut out in cardboard silhouette)--"to be the Production Assistant."

Plenty of inquiries have come not in response to a particular job advertisement, but just from people--all kinds of people--who are diehard fans and want to work for the channel in any capacity. Letter writers admit to being "the original Stars Wars trivia buff," or "the Trekkie of the century," or "a sci-fi fan for as long as I can remember." Kuduk says that applicants come from many different backgrounds, not necessarily just television. Executives, students, housewives, people in banking and insurance have written to say they're ready to toss their current careers aside and start a new life on the Sci-Fi staff.

Right now, chances are pretty astronomical against landing a job on Sci-Fi, Kuduk says. "Nearly all of the approved positions have been filled"--mostly by folks with strong TV experience. Aspiring applicants, however, should not despair, Kuduk continues. "That's just the jobs for this year, though. Ninety-three is just around the corner, and if the channel really takes off, there will probably be more positions available." Engage.

VIEW FROM THE TOP

Barry Schulman, VP, programming:

"We're going to launch with four original programs, and one program concept with the working title, Science Fiction News. The original programs are Inside Space, Dr. Ruehl's Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion, The Science Show, and Sci-Fi Insider--an ET magazine reality-based look at the world of science fiction. Inside Space, formally called Nasawatch, will examine all aspects of space exploration--past, present, and future. Dr. Ruehl's Mysteries will explore many of the bizarre phenomena in the world of science fiction and other Earthly oddities--we call it 'the National Enquirer of science fiction.' The Science Show will investigate subjects such as the brain, genetics, bionics, medical trends, and AI.

"For Science Fiction News, we have commissioned a handful of authors to create new worlds, and we will select one writer to develop a complete world, a society of people and events upon which we will base science-fiction news updates based on this created world.

"In the first year, we also will run twelve new made-for-TV movies, and we're planning to run twelve in the second year. The movies will be well-funded, well-developed, and will encompass science fact and fiction. The movies will utilize cutting-edge technology. In the first movie, Homewrecker, starring Robby Benson, a computer takes on feminine characteristics and becomes jealous of Robby's wife and child."

TALKIN' SPACE--Larry Ross, producer; Steve Feder, executive director:

ROSS: "I believe that sci-fi fans are very interested in space, not only in science-fiction/fantasy films, but also in science fact. The future is really upon us in terms of science. In the next ten to twenty years, people will go into space, but they want to "come on board" now; they want to feel like they're doing it now."

FEDER: "Space is exciting, something that the viewers really do want but have never been given. Ironically, space activities go on today without any kind of coverage. With our use of technology, with our design, we intend to surprise and dazzle."

ROSS: "One of our goals is to get our audience involved through contests. For example, contestants will be asked to design a spacecraft. NASA will cooperate with us by designing the spacecrafts on a computer. The winner of the contest will go to NASA where they will fly the craft through a simulated asteroid belt and the outer planets."

FEDER: "All the subjects we plan to address have already been examined, but we will present the material in a way that people will understand it and enjoy the experience of learning. We also will interview entertainers and showbiz personalities, closet space fans. Did you know that Robert Redford goes to all the space launches and that Jerry Brown and John Denver are big space fans?"

ROSS: "We're not going to explore the politics of space or the exact sciences. We're looking at the personalities involved in all aspects of space exploration. The whole point of the show is that you'll be able to experience what it's like to be in space, and experience the near future."

Segment titles include:

"Are We Alone? The Search for Extra Terrestrial Life": SETI (see "First Word") is a project funded by the government in which scientists at observatories around the world will try to track messages that may be coming in from other parts of the galaxy. The show is about the people who are involved in SETl.

"Space Mysteries" will delve into old and new mysteries--Stonehenge, the pyramids, and the disappearance of the dinosaurs, as well as our future in space. We will also examine the pros and cons of the space plane and the space station. The space station--the vehicle that will set us up for the exploration of Mars and other planets--is upon us and may be approved in the next half of this year.

In "Rock and Roll Space Videos," music videos will be used to tell the history of space by cutting, say, to an Elton John song, "Rocket Man." The show is an entertainment vehicle--"we're not providing information as much as we hope to induce an experiential feeling," Ross says.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Mills, Melanie Menagh and Stephen (October 1992). A Channel for Science Fiction. Omni p. 76.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Mills, Melanie Menagh and Stephen. "A Channel for Science Fiction." Omni [add city] October 1992, 76. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Mills, Melanie Menagh and Stephen. "A Channel for Science Fiction." Omni, edition, sec., October 1992
  • Turabian: Mills, Melanie Menagh and Stephen. "A Channel for Science Fiction." Omni, October 1992, section, 76 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=A Channel for Science Fiction | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/A_Channel_for_Science_Fiction | work=Omni | pages=76 | date=October 1992 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=A Channel for Science Fiction | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/A_Channel_for_Science_Fiction | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2019}}</ref>