SyFy’s bold bet on Sci-Fi

Move over, Sharktopus: The SyFy network wants to put out better stuff. In announcing several new original series and mini-series, the network is going back to its roots as a destination for science fiction and fantasy, rather than the campy send-ups like Sharknado 7: Shark Harder.

In other words, Syfy is betting on quality. In a world of peak TV, they’re betting that being the same as everyone else isn’t sufficient, that they have to have a distinct brand in order to be sought out.

What a dangerous idea.

Normally, striving for excellence is a good thing. For SyFy, though, their corner of the cultural landscape has plenty of squatters. The sci-fi/fantasy audience has plenty of content to choose from elsewhere, from HBO’s Game of Thrones to AMC’s The Walking Dead. The two biggest comic book universes, DC and Marvel, both have superhero/sci-fi themed shows all over network programming (and Marvel has some on Netflix, too).

And these are well-produced shows, too. The days of Captain Kirk fighting the beast with a zipper up its back on the planet of styrofoam rocks are long gone.

That puts SyFy’s “making good television” strategy especially difficult. Suddenly, they have to compete with all those other outlets – not only for eyeballs, but also for talent. Sci-fi media – from comic books to pulp fiction paperbacks – once provided limited avenues for those seeking to reach a niche audience. That genre is now mainstream, and the exclusivity is gone now. A good sci-fi producer or writer can now find a job on a weekly network television or premium cable series. Why settle for a basic cable channel which targets a very narrow audience?

Making good, quality content is going to cost SyFy much more to produce than the cheesy effects and purposeful camp of Sharknado-style movies. It will likely result in better television. But will SyFy be able to find an audience – and make money – following what so many other outlets are already doing?



MySpace makes a “top five” list. From this year. That’s not a typo.

Brandkeys released their annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index – a ranking of companies by brand identity in a number of categories.  In the social networking group, the ubiquitous Facebook was unsurprisingly first.  But media observers are scratching their heads over MySpace’s runner-up status and Twitter’s fifth-place finish – not to mention the fact that Groupon, Foursquare, and other fast-risers in the social networking space didn’t even place.

They shouldn’t be.  Despite MySpace’s current state of limbo, it does have a very distinct niche – as do LinkedIn and Flickr, numbers three and four on the list.  Despite a large user base, Twitter suffers from the curse of one-time users – people who try it once and leave because they really aren’t sure how the Twitter works, and/or don’t care to learn.  Foursquare is going through a similar growth movement as Twitter did – folks are signing up, but aren’t sure for what.  Groupon and other community shopping sites are utilities more than networks.

Being on the list doesn’t make MySpace’s future any brighter, nor any clearer.  But it shows the erstwhile leader in connecting people online did something right.

W: Redemption through revolution

The George W. Bush Presidential Institute will host a conference on online dissidents next week.  For a President who left office after two terms with enemies on both the right and left, this is a possible preview of how Dubya plans to brand his time in office.

President Bush’s eight years were defined by September 11; Bush responded to those attacks by advancing the idea of expanding liberty throughout the world. But with the Iraq War grinding along with no end in sight on January 19, 2009, critics on both sides of the aisle viewed Bush as one of the least competent two-term Presidents in history.

Faced with this, Bush made a smart post-Presidential decision and stayed out of the public eye (save for his humanitarian efforts in Haiti and a pretty good ceremonial first pitch on the Texas Rangers’ opening day).  During his radio silence, the Iran election protests and the China/Google flap demonstrated that freedom-loving people around the world were fighting freedom-hating regimes.

Suddenly, the conversation on world affairs was ripe for W to dip a toe back into the water.  Tech President pointed out that this is a good fit for Bush:

While “George W. Bush” might not be the first person that pops into your head when you think about cyber dissidence, there’s some sense to it. For one thing, you can see this approach mesh well with the sort of hand-on democracy promotion he leaned towards at times during his terms.

Along with a good cause, Bush’s post-Presidential messaging has another smart element: activities like this cyber dissident conference are forward-thinking rather than retrospective.  It doesn’t tell the story of Bush’s foreign policy, it adds to it in order to create the recurring theme of extending freedom.

Bush himself might say, “Even if you don’t agree with me,you know what I believe and where I stand.”  Last time he used that line, it worked out ok for him.

When the Superbowl isn’t the Superbowl

A few years back, the late Mark McCormack – a key figure in the sports marketing industry and, by some accounts, the basis for the character Jerry Maguire – wrote an excellent business book, Never Wrestle With a Pig.  It outlines various rules for succeeding in a professional career, one of which is to prepare for what McCormack calls “your Superbowl” – a key event which puts your talents on display.  For a campaign, that’s Election Day, for a conservative organization looking to make a splash, it might be CPAC.  In the big brand advertising world, the “Superbowl” was, well, the Superbowl for decades.

In what is a telling sign of the evolving media landscape, big brands like Pepsi and GM are sitting out the Superbowl this year.  Even as ad prices tick downward slightly, Pepsi chose to invest $20 million in a social media campaign instead.

In many ways, corporate advertising is becoming more like a political campaign.  Successful political operations use broad-based communication – like TV and radio ads – to raise name recognition, but as election day nears they focus on contact with individual voters with targeted messages (those solidly in a candidate’s camp are reminded to get to the polls on election day, while those identified as being on the fence are coaxed onto one side or the other).

Pepsi is the second-best selling soft drink in America.  That’s a great spot to be in – it means selling an awful lot of soda.  But it also means that there are plenty of people who, no matter what, aren’t going to buy your product.  Pepsi could get in front of millions upon millions of pairs of eyeballs with a Super Bowl ad, but would those eyeballs be attached to tongues which desire Pepsi?  Or would their entertaining commercials be laughed at and talked about by people who, at halftime, would still reach for a Coke?

Pepsi first claimed to be the choice of a new generation in commercials which approximately one generation ago, but more recent branding has labeled Pepsi as “forever young.” Their advertising strategy has evolved, too (though they surely hope the comparison of to Bob Dylan isn’t congruent to the comparison of their new strategy to their old one).

Sine we’re all wondering, there’s still no word yet on how all this affects Bud Bowl…


Barack Obama is expected to announce his Vice Presidential pick any day now, and John McCain won’t be far behind. And, as usual, the discussion turns to which member of each candidate’s short list best complements the ticket best by shoring up the top candidate’s weaknesses. But is that the best strategy? I’m not so sure.

In 1992, Bill Clinton – a younger, southern politician – tapped then-Senator Al Gore – a younger southern politician – as his running mate. Despite questions about experience (particularly in international affairs) and regional appeal, Clinton picked Gore instead of balancing out a ticket with an “elder statesman” figure.

It worked because Gore helped establish the tickets political brand identity – the youthful Clinton was the first “Baby Boomer” president, coming into office with promises of change. Both Obama and McCain would be wise to keep this example in mind.

A “safe” pick for Obama might look good on paper, but if the junior Senator from Illinois is serious about selling “new politics” then the Democrats’ usual suspects may not help. A “safe” Vice Presidential nominee concedes that Obama’s inexperience makes him an unsafe Presidential nominee. An offbeat, non-traditional, or historic pick underscores the message of change Obama and his campaign have been parroting since the primaries.

John McCain must also consider his brand and that of his party and pick someone off-beat and historic. The GOP torch McCain carries has dimmed since its brightest days in the elections of 2002 and 2004. Win or lose, the Democrat’s rhetoric of change threatens to reverberate beyond this election and position both parties for 2010 and 2012. A young, vibrant and/or historic Republican Vice Presidential pick would establish revolutionary politics as a force without party or ideology. More importantly, it would give grassroots Republican activists a new and exciting face to rally behind.

If I was advising the candidates, I’d suggest two women Governors: Democrat Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Republican Sarah Palin of Alaska. They may not help electorally (neither Kansas nor Alaska figures to be in play), but they would eachfoster excitement among the core activists each candidate will need for victory in November.