Howe Takes Sci Fi Into the Future
Growing up in Britain in the late 1960s, Dave Howe was always a casual fan of science fiction. He remembers getting his first glimpse of color TV from watching Star Trek, even though that appreciation never crossed over into fanatical obsession. “I’ve never been to a convention,” he says, “nor did I buy the Spock ears or any of the other paraphernalia that goes with it.”
Of course, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to connect with the kinds of hardcore aficionados who favor such excesses. As executive VP/general manager of Sci Fi Channel, Howe has led the NBC Universal-owned cable network in reaching out to sci-fi fans. By responding to their desire for genre programming beyond Vulcans and Klingons, he has helped the channel to outgrow its niche origins and become one of the top cable networks among young viewers.
Born in Wolverhampton, in the British Midlands, and partially raised in London, Howe grew up with the constant presence of TV cameras filming his father, soccer legend Don Howe. Although his three brothers were riveted and amazed by their father’s profession, Howe was “bored rigid” by it.
BRANDING THE BBC
A classically trained pianist and oboist, Howe studied French and German in school. But after he graduated in 1985, his familiarity with television led him to the BBC, where he started in a trainee program and went on to a variety of production jobs, including directing and producing for radio and live TV.
Among many colorful jobs that Howe took on at the company was a stint as a sound-effects man for radio dramas, a role that once required him to don a leather hide for a scene in which one of the actors pats a cow.
In 1995, Howe became the creative director of New Services at a time when the BBC was beginning to expand from two terrestrial broadcast networks into 17 channels in the UK and abroad. Promoted to president of Creative Services two years later, he managed a team of 200 people as they named, branded and aired new channels on everything from news to style to food.
Howe came to enjoy the excitement of startups, so he was on board when a headhunter called in 2001 about a marketing job for Sci Fi Channel, then owned by Barry Diller’s USA Networks. The tiny network was about to take on the ambitious task of launching the $45 million Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Taken and needed someone to spearhead the campaign.
A FRESH LOOK FOR SCI FI
Although he had “a general affinity” for the U.S. and a lot of American friends, Howe had never considered moving. However, Sci Fi chief Bonnie Hammer, who would go on to become a mentor and friend, won him over and persuaded him to make the big move.
“I had met probably every candidate stateside, from here to wherever,” recalls Hammer, who now leads both Sci Fi and USA. “Although there were a lot of talented people, they all felt the same, and I was just kind of bored. Dave came into the office, and it was instant chemistry. He was somebody who just had a fresh look at things.”
That fresh look helped Taken become a breakout hit for Sci Fi, with an average of nearly 5 million viewers, and kicked off an effort to remake the channel into a blockbuster itself.
In his first six months at the network, Howe drew on his BBC experience and commissioned deep-dive studies to better understand Sci Fi’s ultra-committed viewers. He found that the network’s take on sci-fi programming—heavy on techie fare and galaxy exploration—was out of touch with what young viewers wanted from the genre: what Howe calls “relevant, relatable programming” they could see themselves in.
After NBC merged with Universal Television in 2004, Howe became Sci Fi’s executive VP/general manager. First on his list, Howe incorporated a programming shift “away from the trappings of sci-fi” toward fun, terrestrial-oriented shows, such as reality series Who Wants To Be a Superhero and programs that focused on the supernatural and paranormal.
The new focus has brought Sci Fi up 16% year-to-year in total primetime viewing, and the network typically ranks among the top 10 cable networks with viewers 18-49. This summer will bring a second season of supernatural drama Eureka, a re-imagined Flash Gordon drama, and reality shows including Destination Truth and Mind Control.
“BIGGER, BETTER AND BOLDER”
Howe wants Sci Fi to be a “category killer” that traverses feature films, videogames, theme parks, and licensing and merchandising. The network recently announced plans for a late-night anime block and a line of comic books in partnership with Virgin Comics.
“Everything we do creatively, we have to stop thinking about a TV show and start thinking about a bigger idea that could extend,” Howe says.
In the end, he adds, it all comes down to staying true to those committed sci-fi fans.
“Because we’re called Sci Fi,” he says, “we have to be doing the most forward-thinking stuff. We have to be out there and bigger, better and bolder and taking more risks. Our audience knows the genre inside and out, and they won’t let us get away with anything mediocre.”
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below.