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Syfy seeks hits with new dramas in the mold of 'Battlestar Galactica'

Syfy has made a big original series push
Syfy hopes upcoming space opera 'Ascension' and thriller 'The Expanse' catch on with viewers
Syfy has formed a 'geek club' to comb through novels and comic books that could yield inspiration for shows

The cable network Syfy, like the imperiled humans of "Battlestar Galactica," is voyaging into deep space in search of a future.

Since the award-winning space drama went off the air five years ago, Syfy has broadened its portfolio, dabbling in paranormal reality shows and the campy TV movie "Sharknado."

Now, with its biggest original series push in years, the channel is returning to geek-friendly serial dramas in the "Battlestar" mold.

The network is touting a full-blown space opera titled "Ascension" for November, followed by "The Expanse," a 10-episode thriller set two centuries in the future. The post-apocalyptic supernatural series "Dominion" and the arctic-set thriller "Helix" have debuted in the last year.

"It's been the vision of the network for a long time," said Bill McGoldrick, executive vice president of programming for Syfy. "Everybody's rooting for us to get back to that stuff and get you watching shows like 'Battlestar' live and not having to go years into the past."

A critical and commercial hit, "Battlestar" averaged 2.9 million viewers an episode in its first season in 2005. Throughout its full run, it averaged 2.4 million viewers and has since built its following through binge-watching online and on DVD. Syfy previously tried to play off the enthusiasm around that show with the prequel spinoff "Caprica," but that lasted only one season.

Syfy's effort to reclaim the science fiction and fantasy area arrives amid a rush of science fiction programming from major networks and cable channels.

The genre has gone more mainstream, producing big hits like AMC's zombie thriller "The Walking Dead" and HBO's "Game of Thrones." Major broadcast networks have entered the game, too. Fox had a fall hit with the quirky Ichabod Crane drama "Sleepy Hollow," ABC has "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and CBS will debut "Extant," starring Halle Berry as an astronaut returned to Earth, in July.

And they are getting big numbers: "The Walking Dead" brought in a whopping 15.7 million viewers with its most recent season finale.

Although typical network fare about cops, doctors and lawyers continues to get strong ratings, the surge in niche programming reflects viewers' desires for thoughtful shows that put strong characters in extreme situations.

"The audience wants something different," said Darcy Bowe, a vice president at the advertising buying firm Starcom.

Syfy executives are counting on that.

McGoldrick and Syfy President Dave Howe have assembled an informal team — what McGoldrick calls a "geek club" — to comb through an enormous expanse of novels and comic books that could yield inspiration for shows.

Executives said the network is hoping to find material that the bigger channels might pass over, delivering new programs in limited runs rather than betting on 22-episode seasons.

The approach has been a boon to writers and producers looking to break into the industry, as well as film veterans keen on new, provocative ideas. One of the relative newcomers is "Dominion" creator Vaun Wilmott, whose previous writing credits include an episode of FX's "Sons of Anarchy."

"I knew they were thinking of getting back into the great scripted dramas, like 'Battlestar,'" Wilmott said of Syfy. "It's kind of their sweet spot."

The network wants to improve its ratings, especially among young adults, who are coveted by advertisers.

Its average rating among 18- to 49-year-old viewers is down 2% so far this year compared with the same period last year, though that decline is not as steep as the 5% drop, on average, posted by the top 20 entertainment cable networks.

Analysts said original serialized dramas are key for a cable channel hoping to improve its fortunes. Syfy ranks as the No. 12 entertainment cable network in terms of total viewership and No. 16 in the 18-to-49 demographic.

"There's always a lot of room to grow," said Amy Yong, an analyst at Macquarie Capital. "You only need two or three really high-profile hits to turn that name around."

This isn't the first time the network has tried to tweak its image. When "Battlestar" was still on the air, the channel was known as "Sci Fi." It changed its name to Syfy in 2009 to reach a broader audience and has added reality programs including "Paranormal Witness."

The name change allowed the network to step outside its niche, but it has since found it does better catering to its core audience, Starcom's Bowe said.

To rekindle earlier glory, the network plans to focus on social media, which helped generate a surprise hit with "Sharknado," a TV movie that featured waterspouts depositing sharks in Los Angeles. That effort has spawned sequels and licensing deals, but the network knows it needs fresh new programming, Bowe said.

"They don't want to be known for just flying sharks," Bowe said.

Some of the newer dramas have gained traction. "Defiance," which premiered last year, averaged 3.2 million viewers a week when counting people who watched live or caught up within a week through DVRs and video on demand. But that effort also involved a big investment in a video game tie-in that received mixed reviews.

"Helix" averaged a softer 2.2 million viewers, including delayed viewing.

"Dominion" averaged 2 million people watching on the day-of-air for its premiere June 19, the same as the second-season debut of "Defiance."

Other upcoming projects include a 12-episode series of "12 Monkeys" based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, set to premiere next year.

But "Ascension," on its surface, most clearly resembles something out of Syfy's past. The upcoming series, which chronicles a mission launched in 1963 to find a new home for the human race, was created by "Smallville" co-producer Philip Levens and is in preproduction.

The network bills it as a cross between "Battlestar" and "Downton Abbey." Tricia Helfer, who played the seductive Cylon in "Battlestar," returns as the ship captain's wife in "Ascension."

"I wanted to go out and play a bunch of different roles and not be type-cast," Helfer said. "But when I read 'Ascension,' I said, 'This is great, I want to know what happens.' It is like coming home."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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