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Sci Fi Channels Roll Is Far from Fiction

8/08/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

As far as TV critics go, The Washington Post'sTom
Shales is as tough as they come. And he recently gave Sci Fi Channel's original series, Farscape,
a rave review.

Shales described Farscape -- which Sci Fi just
renewed for a second season -- as "an adventurous, whimsical and spectacular space
series." In fact, he said, "In its own modest way," Farscape is
"really more satisfying" than George Lucas' Star Wars prequel, Star
Wars Episode I:
The Phantom Menace.

Needless to say, Bonnie Hammer, senior vice president of
Sci Fi Channel programming and USA Original Productions, was thrilled by Shales' praise of
Farscape, from The Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment.

Not only has the show gotten critical acclaim, but it's
also drawing the largest audience of any Sci Fi series and "spectacular"
demographics as one of the cornerstones of the "Sci Fi Prime" Friday-night
block, she said.

"It's a beautiful show and a big show," Hammer
added. "It has a feature-film quality -- the kind of sets you'd go to a theater to
see."

Sci Fi is really on a roll, and Farscape'ssuccessisjust part of it. In July, the network generated a 0.8 primetime rating, up
14 percent from 0.7 a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In June and July, its Friday-night block of originals saw
an 88 percent jump in the delivery of the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic, to
542,000 from 288,000.

And in a swift and smart move, Sci Fi found a way to tie
into and capitalize on the surprise box-office sensation of the summer, indie theatrical The
Blair Witch Project
.

The network aired a one-hour special, Curse of the Blair
Witch
, a mock documentary that earned a 1.8 rating during its July 12 premiere -- more
than triple the time period's average, making it the highest-rated special in the
network's history. Its replays also did well.

"That was a coup," Hammer said. "Some of our
people saw The Blair Witch Project at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie was
well done and fun, and we wanted to be in on it. We wanted to do something original and
exclusive to Sci Fi."

Sci Fi has been under the wing of Stephen Chao, USA
Networks Inc.'s president of programming and marketing, for more than one year now.

A year ago, after the departure of then-Sci Fi vice
president of programming Barry Schulman, Chao put Hammer in charge of the network's
programming.

In March, Sci Fi underwent an overhaul of its on-air look,
making it much slicker and less gothic than it had been in the past, at the same time
launching its new Friday-night original lineup -- a Chao initiative.

Chao has a development slate for the network that will
start hitting the air next year, with projects that include Steven Spielberg's 20-hour
miniseries, Taken,set to debut next July.

In addition to Spielberg, Sci Fi has attracted the marquee
talent of Francis Ford Coppola, who is the executive producer of First Wave. The
network made the bold move of ordering 66 episodes of that show.

At last month's Television Critics Association tour, Chao
told writers, "Sci Fi has undergone a major facelift and, as you are about to learn,
we're charting exciting new territory and some of the biggest names in the business are
gravitating toward this rising star."

Hammer has a mission in terms of what she wants Sci Fi's
programming to stand for.

"I want it to be the definitive place for science
fiction, and not just spaceships and other galaxies," Hammer said. "It should be
a mix of classic science fiction and the future, but not just by the old definition of
aliens and spaceships."

In addition, Hammer said, Sci Fi needs to have humor, as
well as being what Chao describes as "populist smart, like Men in Black."

This fall, Sci Fi has some unusual schedule changes in the
works. "We are going to be taking a vertical approach," Hammer said, as opposed
to the traditional horizontal stripping of shows.

For example, starting Oct. 4, Sci Fi will air four episodes
of The Outer Limits back to back from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., which will continue each
Monday thereafter. Tuesday's primetime block will be back-to-back episodes of The
Sentinel
, Wednesday's episodes of Sliders and Thursday's "Scinema
Event"movies. The block of originals will continue on Fridays, including Poltergeist:
The Legacy
, Farscape, Sliders and First Wave.

"We looked at how people stripped shows horizontally
and we just wanted to try something different," Hammer said. "We want to be able
to take some chances."

Along that line, Chao canceled what had been a Sci Fi
staple, Mystery Science Theater 3000, with its final episode airing this past
Sunday (Aug. 8).

In the first quarter of next year, Sci Fi will start airing
the "Sci Fi Short Film Series,"which will showcase the work of
up-and-coming filmmakers from across the country.

"We're looking for new, hot, young talent -- the next
Spielberg or Lucas," Hammer said.

And there are other shows in the works. Production is
slated to start Aug. 16 on a two-hour pilot for Invisible Man,an
action-comedy series and irreverent take on H.G. Wells' classic that will be shot in San
Diego. The show is scheduled to premiere next year as part of Sci Fi's Friday-night block.

Sci Fi also has two half-hour video-vérité shows in
development: Metropolis,in which two beat cops patrol a supernatural town;
and Stormwatch, about two cops patrolling a post-global-warming, weather-ravaged
Los Angeles of 2025.

Hammer said if those shows are green-lighted, they will
most likely be aired back to back. "They're complementary," she added. Steven de
Sousa, the screenwriter for Die Hard and 48 Hours, is writing Stormwatch.

In terms of distribution, Sci Fi also has a pretty nice
tale to tell. The network -- which has been paying upfront cash launch fees -- has gained
more than 7 million subscribers in the past 12 months, taking it to 56.8 million.
Officials projected that the channel will reach 60 million homes by year's end.

With that bump up in distribution, Sci Fi can now afford to
invest more on programming. "They've done a lot to improve the original
programming," Prime Cable corporate director of marketing and programming Pam Burton
said, "and with the new leadership, it can only get better."

Still, some MSOs aren't impressed. Galaxy Cablevision vice
president of marketing and programming Doug Montandon said, "Galaxy has never been a
big proponent of the Sci Fi Channel. We think there's more sizzle than steak with
it."

But the channel has found some proponents among media
buyers. "The relaunch is going quite well," said Kathleen Haesele, senior vice
president and executive director of broadcast for Advanswers Media Inc., a unit of Omnicom
Inc.

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