There’s something pleasing about the news that last night’s Syfy triple bill of Eureka, Warehouse 13 and Alphas was the most-watched Monday night of programming on the channel for ten years – But is there also something to learn from it?
I’ve said it before, but I am a sucker for Syfy’s summer shows, which balance comedy, the unknown and a little bit of drama – but not too much – to create something wonderfully entertaining, if not exactly too hard on the brain. And, it seems, I’m not alone: Alphas debuted last night to 2.5 million total viewers, with the season premieres of Warehouse 13 and Eureka coming in just slightly lower, with 2.3 and 2 million viewers apiece, giving Syfyits most successful Monday night for scripted series in over a decade. Is it just that audiences wanted good popcorn television last night, or is this something that the network – and others – can learn from?
If You Build It, They Might Come
It’s tempting to say “Oh, well of course audiences on Syfy watch this kind of program,” but it’s not the case: Consider the cancelations over the last year of both Caprica and Stargate Universe; launching new series successfully on the channel isn’t as much of a gimme as you’d expect, and Syfy smartly hooked the launch of Alphas to the return of two fan-favorite shows – Warehouse 13 is still, I believe, the most successful scripted launch in the network history – and a rebranding of the evening into the (admittedly, nonsensical) “Powerful Mondays” block. Did the pairing – well, tripling – of the shows make Alphas the success that it was? Who knows – but it definitely made it more of a success than it would’ve been otherwise, allowing the channel to offer the (somewhat hidden) message “Hey, like those shows? You’ll probably like this one, too.” So, lesson learned: Remind your audience that they already trust your product, and make it easier for them to tune in to see the new stuff.
Summer’s Here, And The Time Is Right
Never underestimate the fact that summer means that network shows are in re-runs or offering original programming that no-one really wants to watch. That isn’t to say that any of the three shows from last night wouldn’t be a success otherwise – Eureka‘s had enough success in enough timeslots to disprove that theory, I think – but it definitely makes it easier to convince people to check out the shows when there’s less competition (Look at the difference in viewership between Syfy’s summer programming and their fall programming). Lesson learned? Stay on target – and stay out of the way of your competition if you can possibly help it.
Nice And Easy Does It
There’s something to be said about how easily the Syfy summer shows go down – It’s sounds like an insult to say that it’s entertainment for the mass audience (That feels so close to saying “lowest common denominator TV” to me, and that really sounds like an insult), but it’s not meant to be: These are shows that are smartly put together with wit, charm and not a little humor to help whatever exposition go down very smoothly indeed, and doing that well is a skill that many don’t possess. There are those who look down their noses at the idea of “lowbrow” sci-fi, or anything that isn’t hard sci-fi with “Big Ideas” at every turn, I know, but many of the shows that attempt that formula forget that most audiences need to believe in the characters in order to stay involved enough to think through those ideas – This is where Fringe succeeds, to use a non-Syfy show for a second; the soap opera between Peter, Olivia and Walter is strong enough to pull the audience through the ropiest, most outre science fiction that can be thrown at them – and that is where the Syfy summer shows excel (and where things like, for example, Caprica faltered): Concentrating on character, and putting everything in human terms at all times, making it easy for everyone to understand what’s going on. Lesson learned: Remember what people care about, and write towards that.
It’d be nice to think that these steps, applied everywhere on Syfy’s drama slate, would produce all manner of hits, but the most important rule with anything like this is always William Goldman’s: Nobody knows anything. Which is to say: Sure, there are patterns, but none of them are absolute laws. Syfy should enjoy its success last night; it deserves it. But it shouldn’t rest on any laurels, because there are thirteen-odd weeks left where ratings battles need to be fought, just for these shows alone.