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Syfy President Dave Howe On How To Capture More Diverse Audiences

The cable network behind the fantasy hits Alphas and Being Human has been working to build an audience that looks more like America. Syfy president Dave Howe talks to Co.Create about racial diversity, Lady Gaga, and gender parity in what was once perceived to be a man’s world.

Syfy President Dave Howe On How To Capture More Diverse Audiences

Once thought to be the province of the great fanboy unwashed, the SciFi Channel underwent a risky rebranding as Syfy in 2009. What seemed silly–even ludicrous–at the time now seems prescient, as Syfy has morphed from a generic platform for outer-space programming into an advertising-friendly home for mystery, action-adventure, fantasy, supernatural and sci-fi. Plus, its audience is not just nerdy white men but also women, African-Americans, and Hispanics–demographics that had rarely been targeted for genre viewing.

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Dave Howe, president of Syfy, who has a marketing background at the SciFi Channel, and at the BBC in his native Britain, tells Co.Create how he went about using the series Face Off, Alphas, and Being Human to broaden the Syfy brand.

Start with a risky rebrand

“We did take a lot of flak,” says Howe, “but we didn’t take anywhere near the level of flak we had anticipated because we were very strategic about how we positioned it, how we communicated, how we made sure our audience didn’t think that this was just another excuse to abandon the genre. We were very specific about why we were doing it and about why we were about creating a brand that was extendable into new platforms. Then we had a whole roster of sci-fi/fantasy shows that reassured people that actually we were going to be a bigger and better sci-fi/fantasy network as opposed to one that was going sci-fi light.”

Do your research

“We have a very good understanding about who our audience is, why they’re watching, how they think, how they behave, how they consume media, and we’re very lucky as a brand. We have this highly imaginative consumer that we just named ‘Igniters,’ in our campaign; it’s this consumer that’s very creative and imaginative and inventive. They’re artistic, they’re seeking out the next best thing, trying it, road-testing it, then basically telling as many people as they possibly can what to buy, what to wear, what to hear, and that’s who they are.”

Identify untapped markets

“I don’t think we look at specific shows and say, ‘Is this more Hispanic than another show?’ says Howe. “If we’re doing our jobs correctly, we work around the totality of the diverse U.S. population in all of our shows, not just in terms of on-screen talent, but also off-screen talent. It comes down to what does the population look like; let’s look at our audience demos and say, ‘Who do we over-represent, who do we under-represent, who’s missing, who do we need to specifically target?’ We realized that there was an opportunity for us in the Hispanic market in particular. We knew that within the content that we were developing, and [in part through] some of the casting and [shaping the] appeal that there was definitely an audience there that should be coming to us. So we set out to figure out how best to bring them in. The Hispanic focus has been going on I think since Battlestar Galactica. We’ve become more proactive now as the population has grown more and as we also looked at the paranormal phenomenon in particular, which we know appeals to this audience. Many of our shows, like Alphas and Being Human, have terrific Hispanic actors and for every campaign that we put together we have a specific, off-air element designed to hit the Hispanic audience in particular. And we’ve seen some great results. When we brought back Being Human, it went up 10 percent among the Hispanic audience.

Understand the female/fantasy factor (i.e., women loved fantasy long before Twilight came along)

“Maintaining our gender balance goes back almost a decade. There is a perception that we’re a very male-skewing network but that’s never really been the reality. On average, we’ve been around 55 [percent] male, 45 female, but as we’ve moved more to unscripted series like Face Off and Ghost Hunters and a bunch of new shows we’ll be bringing up for this year, these shows have been very helpful in not making us even more gender-balanced. A lot of our paranormal shows skew more female than they do male. Any show involving a psychic tends to skew more female. Horror skews more female as well. So if you look at a network like Chiller, which is part of our family, it has a very consistent female audience, and if you look at Hollywood box office, horror movies are very young and very female, which is surprising to a lot of people.”

Build in diversity behind the scenes

“I think the easiest way to balance it is actually to ensure that the production teams are represented in terms of our diversity. So on a scripted drama, we’re always keen to make sure that we have the female writers in there as well as male. It’s not always easy, but I think if you start from that position the more likely it is that you won’t have to work too hard on [appealing to diverse audiences]. Some shows conceptually will appeal to one gender more than another; you just need to be aware of that and then basically skew the story lines, skew the way that you market and present some of these shows to offset some of those imbalances.”

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Don’t forget the guys, though

Being Human was loved by women and then we managed to bring the guys back a bit this year. It’s a kind of balancing act and you just need to make sure in terms of story line with the way that you promote and market these shows that you’re keeping both genders interested in order to maximize your ad revenue in terms of that 18 to 49 adult and 25 to 54 adult.”

Make the hard decisions, like canceling Eureka and Caprica

“Every decision you make has a pro and a con. Eureka’s been a very successful show for us. Scripted series are very expensive and become more expensive the longer they run. What we look at in the end of every season of every show is how is it doing in terms of the audience? Is it growing? Is it maintaining its audience? Does it have the potential to grow further? Creatively, does it have more energy, more life to it? Does the writing team or the exec producers really feel they’re on a roll and want to continue? You have to factor in a lot of those indicators, alongside, If we weren’t doing this show, what could we be doing instead? Battlestar Galactica came to a natural conclusion because the writers and producers felt that they told the story and that there weren’t a lot of other angles that they wanted to explore. Caprica was a show that we believed in and were very proud of, but it didn’t find the audience that we had hoped. We had hoped to attract the Battlestar Galactica audience, but we didn’t attract it, which surprised us. I think it was a little more cerebral than Battlestar was.”

Listen–and talk back– to viewers, even when (especially when) they don’t like something

“Our audience is very loyal and very passionate and very vocal and very active in some of the social media. So they’re going to let us have it, irrespective of how we position it. And I’m hoping for that. I think it is very gratifying to have an audience that not only cares but cares enough to pick up a keyboard and let you know. And I get a lot of emails every day [about] who we cancelled three or four years ago. We have a very active and proactive PR team, in terms of Twitter and our head of digital, Craig Engler, is on Twitter. He’s constantly talking to people and letting people know about decisions and the backgrounds of those decisions. We try and be as open and honest as we possibly can. I think we’ve explained to all of our audience the challenges of running a creative business. There are things that we’d all love to get to do more of but they’re too expensive or just not viable in terms of our business model. And those are things that most audiences don’t really care about, but actually when you talk about them openly and honestly over a period of time, your audience does get it. And they express that in the emails that I get; they know [Eureka‘s] an expensive show, they talk about how difficult it is to modify these shows when you know people are not watching live or not watching the ads, etc. They kind of get it, and they’re smart enough to get it.”

Capitalize on unforeseen advantages

“S-Y-F-Y skewed considerably younger than we anticipated that it would, and that’s because in the kind of social media texting world you misspell the word sci-fi constantly. And what we got back in the focus group testing was, That’s exactly how I would spell it if I’m texting it because it’s easier to text, and quicker to say than S-C-I-F-I. So it just made sense to them.”

Extend the brand

Syfy did this by sponsoring last year’s blockbuster traveling Tim Burton museum exhibit–the kind of thing the channel is looking to replicate. “That’s an initiative for us,” says Howe. “We are always looking for somebody who embodies and epitomizes our brand, and Tim Burton is a classic example. He has this innate ability to imagine and create incredible characters and stories and has done it consistently throughout his career. The alignment of Syfy and Tim Burton was terrific for us and we’re now looking at the other Tim Burtons out there, you know, the other business gurus, at the forefront of innovation, whether it’s technical, whether it’s creative, whether it’s business, and these people for us are the people that we want to align this brand with. And in terms of our Igniter campaign, I was looking at everybody from Lady Gaga to Steven Spielberg. That is our audience.”

Wait, Lady Gaga?

“Absolutely. She could not be a better example of an incredibly talented, creative person that reimagines, reinvents herself, becomes the very thing that she does. She’s very active in social media, she’s very, very in touch with her fan base. She’s a terrific example of an Igniter. And we know she’s a fan of our Syfy Saturday movie. So at some point we will absolutely cast her in one of our Saturday movies.”

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About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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