The consumer discord hasn't risen to the level of New Coke, but Dave Howe, president of the Sci Fi Channel, has spent months trying to ease the consternation regarding his network's rebrand, which
will take effect July 7.
After considering a range of new monikers - everything from the "Orb Network" to the "Beyond Channel" - the NBC Universal-owned cable outlet announced a new name
during its upfront presentation in March that sounded the same but looked different: Syfy.
"What we like about the new name is that it bridges the past and the future," Howe says. "Most
important, it gives us a brand name that's inclusive. It's not held back by the narrowness of the genre .... We're a brand that's human and relatable, and that has a sense of humor."
Indeed, cable networks rebrand themselves all the time to step out of their niche and cast a wider net, with TLC (formerly The Learning Channel), Bio (Biography) and GSN (Game Show Network)
providing recent examples.
But Sci Fi has been publicly eviscerated for the change. The two ad agencies assigned to the project have deflected blame, calling it an internal NBC decision, and the
TV trade press and fan blogs went nuts with funny names of their own.
Even NPR, the most sober of news outlets, called it "the goofiest rebranding in quite some time." And of course, more
than a few pundits have mentioned that SyFy reminds them of a certain ill-begotten microbial illness.
"But when you take people through the rationale, and really explain why we're doing this,
they get it," Howe says.
Given all the ridicule the network has received, that's what seems to be missing - a full appreciation of the channel's reasons for doing this. The move has been
generally perceived as Sci Fi's attempt to ditch its comic-book-guy niche and expand.
And that's true. But for a channel called Sci Fi, there are also legit trademark issues that come with
the territory, especially when you're trying to expand into foreign territories. By the end of next year, Syfy will tally 50 international channels, up from its current count of 15.
the moment, the term 'sci-fi' is not trademarkable anywhere on the planet," Howe notes. "We simply could not continue having a generic brand name. It would be a little like Coca-Cola calling itself
'Soda,' or ESPN calling itself 'Sports.'"
There's also the issue of the channel's expansion across the broadband universe - not only is a proprietary name like Syfy easier to trademark as
the programming disperses across platforms, it's easier to target with a search engine.
"When this channel was launched 16 years ago, it was a different world," Howe says. "Now we're in a
nonlinear world of media that travels across platforms, and we needed a brand name that allows us to own our content and differentiate our content from any other science fiction book or property out
Howe believes that in a year's time, the controversy will have completely blown over, and the channel will be universally accepted as Syfy. He bristles at criticism that the name
change was a hackneyed choice made too quickly by TV programmers not versed well enough in the complexities of brand marketing. He says the network did a "thorough" job of focus-group testing the new
moniker - and was fully prepared to deal with accusations that, on paper, Syfy reminds some people of the word syphilis.
"We knew that for a year and a half," he says. "That's why we keep
[the name] out of Poland."