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Sizing Up Sci Fi's Long, Long Shot

Taken, the Sci Fi Channel's upcoming $35 million miniseries, is about alien abduction, but it may be the network's ticket back to Earth—if it can persuade viewers to tune in nearly every night for two weeks.

Co-produced with Steven Spielberg, Taken,
which will air on 10 straight weeknights starting Dec. 2, is the centerpiece of Sci Fi's strategy to appeal to both science-fiction fanatics and regular folks.

Part of Vivendi's Universal Television Group, Sci Fi already boasts a loyal following and ranks as one of the highest-rated niche networks, with prime time marks that often match those of Discovery Channel and A&E, which are designed for broader audiences.

Epic quality

Still, many viewers shy away from its spacey shows. To grow into a cable power, Sci Fi needs to reach viewers that now gravitate toward general-entertainment networks, like its sister channel USA Network.

is going to reach out to every demographic," says Sci Fi President and CEO Bonnie Hammer. "It has great storytelling, and it has the epic quality of [Spielberg's] films."

But it's a risky scheduling proposition. Taken
is a 20-hour "maxi-miniseries," as Hammer calls it, comprising 10 two-hour movies that will air over two weeks—and that's a new scheduling twist, even for cable. Viewers can catch up with weekend marathons.

The scheduling may look unconventional, Hammer explains, but some high-quality miniseries, like HBO's Band of Brothers
and From Earth to the Moon,
petered out over a protracted run.

"The ratings softened over time, and people lose interest. We wanted high risk and, potentially, high impact." Roots
became a ratings phenomenon—even discos closed—when it aired for eight straight nights on ABC. But that was 1977, when the 500 channel universe was about 497 short.

It's tough to predict how it will affect Taken's Nielsen marks. Weekly series often grow an audience over time, and cable networks are known for sticking with slow-building shows. Taken
doesn't have either luxury; it needs to start big.

"Having people stay home over 10 nights is unlikely. They're going to have a lot of tune in and tune out," said Brad Adgate, Horizon Media's SVP for broadcast research.

Sci Fi's ratings benchmark is last December's hit miniseries Dune, which averaged a stellar 4.4 over three nights. Posting numbers like that for 10 nights is clearly more difficult.

So Sci Fi is lavishing a multi-million-dollar promotional campaign on Taken,
its biggest marketing push ever. The marketing was so important that Spielberg and Vivendi Universal Entertainment chief Barry Diller signed off on much of the materials.

The premiere gets the most hype, and Hammer admits, "If they don't come to night one, it's hard to get them after that."

Advertisers have already bought in. Taken's avails are sold out, and several first-time advertisers are on board.

Spielberg opens doors

"The Spielberg name has opened doors and provided a comfort level that you wouldn't receive with other producers," says Universal Television's President of Ad Sales Jeff Lucas.

Sci Fi's deal with Spielberg is other-worldly, too. Sci Fi is paying for production costs and gets unlimited domestic plays. Spielberg gets the international rights and will distribute the series abroad.

Sci Fi is not letting up after Taken. Next year, the network will follow up Dune
with a Children of Dune
miniseries. Also planned is a daytime strip dream-analysis show, The Dream Team, a companion show for Sci Fi's hit Crossing Over With John Edward, and a new original series, Tremors, adapted from a 1990s Universal Studios hit movie. Taken
viewers will be treated to promos for these shows and more.

"Once you have viewers inside, you push heavily," Hammer says. "That means new eyeballs to come see our new shows."

Now, all she has to find out is if getting that nightly audience for Taken
will be a fact or fiction.