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Howe Takes Sci Fi Reins

7/18/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Bonnie Hammer needed help after the Sci Fi Channel president added USA Network president to her titles. So she’s tapped marketing maven Dave Howe to chart the science-fiction network’s course as general manager.

The move lets Hammer devote more time to the USA Network presidency, to which she ascended after the NBC Universal merger closed in May.

Howe, the former executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy, assumes day-to-day operational control at Sci Fi, which is enjoying a strong ratings run this summer.

After recording an 11% jump in the second quarter to a 1.0 household mark in primetime, the momentum continued with a 1.02 average mark through July 15, up from a 0.95 from the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Fueling the recent performance: the takeoff of franchise show Stargate SG-1’s eighth season. The two-part episode New Order on July 9 earned a 2.4 household rating and was seen by 3.22 million viewers, making it the most-watched episode in the show’s history.

The Stargate opener ranked second for the day in all of basic cable among adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 and fourth among total viewers. It drew more viewers among the 18-49 and 25-54 demographics than any other episode of an original series the network has ever had.

It also acted as a prelude to the July 16 debut of a spin-off, Stargate Atlantis.

Hammer hailed Howe, who spent 15 years at the British Broadcasting Corp. prior to joining Sci Fi in 2001, for Sci Fi’s evolution from a network for science-fiction geeks, replete with old series acquisitions, to a more broad-based channel with quality originals.

Howe also gets credit for the network’s new, slicker on-air look and logo.

“It wasn’t until Dave came in that we really started taking giant steps in terms of change and getting the brand really on course into a singular vision,” Hammer said. “He is clearly the right person for this gig.”

Added Howe: “We needed to challenge the narrow perception of the genre. We owned the space-opera genre, but we needed to redefine the genre because it has become more mainstream and popular.”

Howe said he will continue to push for more of the original series and miniseries, such as Stargate and Steven Spielberg Presents Taken, which have enhanced the network’s profile and viewership.

“In the past, we focused on miniseries and I think we always need to do that because that what our audience expects,” Howe said. “We have to have the weekly successful franchise shows that keep people in contact with us regularly and enable us to continue to grow along with the events.”

In particular the network will look at developing more reality-based series to bring in younger audiences.

Thus far, the network’s genre efforts have been a mixed bag: the Shannen Doherty-produced Scare Tactics is generating decent ratings, but the network will not bring back Mad, Mad House, which produced sub-par numbers.

“It was really fun and good, but I don’t think we’ll repeat Mad, Mad House,” Hammer said. “We’ll keep trying different things to find out what the parameters are, but it will be an arena we’ll be focusing on.”

Another area the network will look to explore is the popular superhero comic-book and fantasy arena made popular by such theatricals as Spider-Man 2, the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings franchises, although Howe would not reveal specifics.

“I’ll still be involved in Sci Fi,” Hammer said. “But from my point of view, I need to take a step back and hand the reins to someone that I totally trust in creatively and conceptually, as well as a manager, so I can take over more at USA.”

She said she hasn’t decided yet whether or not to name a No. 2 at USA. “Right now, what I need most is to be as close as possible and understand its workings and not hand it over to someone.”

Like Sci Fi, USA Network is on a ratings roll.

It led basic cable the week of July 5 through July 11, bolstered by the premiere of The 4400, which set a ratings record for a cable original series with a 5.7 household mark.

Hammer credited the two-hour July 11 premiere’s success to heavy marketing and promotion — including numerous plugs on NBC.

“We knew it was good and we expected a good and competitive number, but I don’t think anyone expected the number that we ended up with,” she said. “I think the cross-promotion on NBC gave it a level of awareness that we could have never generated on our own.”

Hammer said USA and Sci Fi programming will continue to benefit from ads on NBC in the future, and may even end up on the broadcast network’s schedule in a reverse-repurposing situation.

“There’s absolutely a possibility on either of the networks,” she said. “The advantage of the synergies between the two companies is that anything and everything is possible. Nothing will be force fed — if it’s the right decision for the entities, it will happen.”

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