SCIFI Willing to Try Just About Anything Online

Nerds across the galaxy strapped on their pointy ears and beamed into theaters to catch the big budget reboot of Star Trek this weekend. Science fiction fans may be punching bags for Klingon jokes, but they are also early adopters and provide fertile ground for new media experimentation. Case in point: the SCIFI Channel.
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I spoke with Craig E. Engler, senior VP and general manager of SCIFI’s digital arm, to find out what it does to tap into the power of this rabid fan base. “We have a very techno-savvy audience,” said Engler. “It’s a younger, more modern audience. They jump into this stuff.”

Talk about early adopting. SCIFI actually showed its first full episode of a TV show online 10 years ago. It was for an alternate episode of a show called Lexx that wasn’t going to air on TV, so the network decided to put it on the web. Engler doesn’t remember exactly how they put the show online (this was way before YouTube) and said that “viewers were in the thousands.”

Today the network offers up more than just one-off experiments online, providing Hulu and its own SCIFI Rewind with full episodes of many of its shows including its own popular reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

In addition to posting full episodes online, SCIFI has extended the TV experience online through three “seasons” of standalone Battlestar webisodes. The first and the third webisodic seasons were original productions specifically for the web, while the second was a leftover segment from a special 2-hour Battlestar TV movie repurposed for online audiences.

We’ve had a hard time getting companies that do this type of transmedia storytelling to give us any success metrics, but Engler eagerly offered up playcounts to date for the three webisode seasons:

The Resistance (2006) – 4.8 million streams
Razor Flashbacks (2007) – 1.7 million streams
Face of the Enemy (Dec. 2008) – 2.9 million streams

As a point of comparison, the final season of the show averaged 2.3 million viewers on TV.

SCIFI also does original productions for the web like DVICE, a show about tech and gadgets. While the network has a number of original scripted shows in the works for the web, none have moved beyond the development stage. But that doesn’t dim Engler’s enthusiasm for the medium. “We’re fully integrated with our West Coast development team,” said Engler. “Any online show is a default pilot for on-air.”

Besides creating content for the web, SCIFI has found content there. Both Tripping the Rift and more recently Sanctuary originated online and were brought to TV. “Sanctuary” enjoyed a strong debut on the network and was picked up for a second season.

One of the more innovative programs SCIFI ran was providing tools and footage from Battlestar for users to create their own fan films. Viewers could incorporate official shots of the Galactica, Cylons and other special effects into their own works. Engler said the site received hundreds of submissions, and considered the program a success, but didn’t duplicate it. “We don’t like to repeat ourselves. We like to find the right tool for the right show,” he said.

SCIFI is expanding its digital tool set this year. Engler said his division is already in talks with the producers of upcoming shows Stargate Universe and Warehouse 13 about integrating and extending their storylines with web video. “We’re always looking for broadband video expansion,” he said.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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