Monday, March 16, 2009
By STUART ELLIOTT
FOR years, television viewers, journalists who write about TV and services that compile listings have wondered how to refer to a certain cable network: Sci Fi Channel? Sci-Fi Channel? SciFi Channel? SCI FI Channel?
Soon, to paraphrase Rod Serling — whose vintage series, "The Twilight Zone," is a mainstay of the Sci Fi Channel — executives will submit for public approval another name, not only of sight and sound but of mind, meant to signal a channel whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, Syfy.
Plans call for Sci Fi and its companion Web site (scifi.com) to morph into the oddly spelled Syfy — pronounced the same as "Sci Fi" — on July 7. The new name will be accompanied by the slogan "Imagine Greater," which replaces a logo featuring a stylized version of Saturn.
A channel called Syfy will, presumably, not be confused with SyFi Global, an information technology company; S.Y.F.I., the Summer Youth Forestry Institute; or Syfo seltzer, sold by Universal Beverages.
The tweaking of the Sci Fi name, introduced in 1992, is part of a rebranding campaign that seeks to distinguish the channel and its programming from cable competitors — 75 of which are also measured by the Nielsen ratings service.
The Syfy name is to be introduced on Monday to advertisers and agencies by executives of Sci Fi, part of the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment division of NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric.
The name will be revealed at an upfront presentation, when networks try to win commitments by advertisers to blocks of commercial time before the start of the next TV season. Cable channels will spend this month and next making upfront presentations; the broadcast networks will follow in April and May.
One big advantage of the name change, the executives say, is that Sci Fi is vague — so generic, in fact, that it could not be trademarked. Syfy, with its unusual spelling, can be, which is also why diapers are called Luvs, an online video Web site is called Joost and a toothpaste is called Gleem. "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre," said Bonnie Hammer, the former president of Sci Fi who became the president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. "But we can own Syfy."
Another benefit of the new name is that it is not "throwing the baby away with the bath water," she added, because it is similar enough to the Sci Fi brand to convey continuity to "the fan-boys and -girls who love the genre." [...]
Actually, I'm pretty sure that this will convey to "the fan-boys and -girls who love the genre" the opportunity to relentlessly mock the corporate overlords at NBC Universal. Because, seriously, Syfy? Seriously? Seriously?
NBC Universal has been searching ceaselessly for a way to rebrand SciFi almost since they bought it. The previous name change floated was "BeyondTV". This ran into, most likely, two issues: (1) BeyondTV was probably no more copyrightable than SciFi, and (2) the trademark was already owned by another company, who doesn't seem to have been interested in surrendering it. (By contrast, the former SyFy Portal site has now become Airlock Alpha, suggesting that they were not so loath to surrender a relentlessly silly phonetic name -- and my guess, and it's only a guess, is that they settled on that name because if they tried scifiportal.com as an address, the corporate SciFi leaned over and said "Ahem. We don't think so" (which is also why most people gave them a pass for having such a silly name) -- for hopefully lavish amounts of cash. (More likely, NBC Universal informed SyFy Portal of the planned change, and pointed out that once they'd done it, SyFy Portal would then be in trademark violation, and even though NBC Universal would eventually lose any such suit -- SyFy Portal predates the change, and has for quite some time -- it would cost them time and money they surely didn't have, so they might as well just surrender Dorothy now and get it over with.) In any event, it's clear that SciFi's corporate overlords ardently desired a way to rebrand and trademark the channel for ... well, that's just it. What does having a trademark in a television channel get you, exactly? The right to run around telling the kids to get off your intellectual property lawn? What?
With this name change, NBC Universal manages to inflict upon itself the worst of all possible worlds. First, given that it's phonetically the same as the old moniker, most people really won't notice the difference, even though the Saturn logo is also going away. This also means that the "limiting" features of the name will remain -- just because you're spelling it differently doesn't mean that people will think of SciFi any differently, especially when the content isn't any different. Second, people will be mocking them up and down the town. Third, for a channel interested in allegedly showing out-there, thought-provoking television (and, of course, wrestling), they've shown themselves to be signally out of touch. Mind, I don't think this is a debacle along the lines of the Tropicana package redesign, which is also mentioned in the article. Not because it's not just as big a change; I just don't think people are going to care that much.
Mind, I could be wrong. After all, how many consumers would want to be associated with such a channel that could make as brain-damaged a change as this?
Posted by iain at 10:34 AM in category television