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Sci Fi: It's Not Just Aliens Anymore

Sci Fi Channel hopes to broaden its audience by broadening its programming to capitalize on the enormous popularity of fare like The Sixth Sense, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix
and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

"We need to change the perception that Sci Fi is a narrow niche only driven by aliens and technology," network president Bonnie Hammer said at an upfront presentation for the press last week.

In unveiling Sci Fi Channel's slate, Hammer said the network's programming strategy and an upcoming rebranding effort will reflect audience research that shows viewers want "sci-fi plus." That means more Earth-bound science fiction that also incorporates elements from other genres, such as action-adventure, the thriller, humor and drama.

"It has to be more than just the [sci-fi] genre itself," she said.

Sci Fi Channel's new roster includes four new miniseries, a primetime block of original "alternative reality" shows, its first animated series and a ramped-up slate of original movies.

"We're making a very aggressive investment in original programming," Hammer said, declining to say how much more Sci Fi will spend this year than last.


Hammer also revealed that Sci Fi Channel is about to close deals to acquire two off-network series, The X-Files
and Roswell.
There are 62 episodes of Roswell,
a series with a cult following that debuted on The WB and moved over to UPN.

Sci Fi Channel is teaming up with Turner Network Television to license reruns of The X-Files,
which were airing on FX. Sci Fi and TNT will reportedly ante up nearly $600,000 per episode for the 202 hours of the show, with Sci Fi retaining the right to air it in primetime.

The pending deal is unusual in that two networks with different owners have pooled their resources to buy the rights.

According to the ratings, Sci Fi needs to expand its viewership. Its first-quarter numbers were earthbound. In primetime it posted a 0.8, flat compared with the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The miniseries Sci Fi has in development include one based on the series Battlestar Galactica,
another based on the computer game Myst ,
as well as two based on books, The Forever War
and The Chronicles of Amber.
The network's six-hour sequel to its hit miniseries Dune — Frank Herbert's Children of Dune —
is slated to air next year. And Sci Fi is also trying to turn its recent Stephen King miniseries, Firestarter: Rekindled, into a franchise by spinning an original series out of it, titled Rekindled
Hammer said Sci Fi is planning to stage one big event each quarter, starting with Taken,
the $40 million 20-hour miniseries from Steven Spielberg slotted for December.

Early next year, the network plans to launch a second full night of original shows, in addition to its "Sci Fi Fridays." Four programs will offer the network's own twisted take on reality.

One of them,
The Belzer Connection,
will be hosted by actor Richard Belzer.

The other three reality shows in development are Scare Tactics ,
or Sci Fi's own version of Candid Camera; Dream Team with Annabelle and Michael ,
a daily late-night strip; and Starport Authority,
a send-up of reality series.


Sci Fi Channel's first "alternative reality" series, Crossing Over with John Edwards,
brought a horde of new female viewers to the network, noted Hammer.

The network will also produce eight "boy-action movies" this year. Most will be produced in-house by taking advantage of the coming merger of Sci Fi parent USA Networks with Vivendi Universal Entertainment, Hammer said.

Sci Fi plans to double its original movie production to 12 in 2003 and 24 in 2004, according to Hammer.

The network's primetime animated series, Tripping the Rift,
is based on an award-winning short film. "It will be our South Park," she said.

Sci Fi's rebranding will include a new on-air look that will reflect the channel's effort to offer "more humor and relatable" shows that "are not all space bound," according to Hammer.