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Fear and Loathing Over the SyFy Rebranding

SyFy isn’t common Polish slang for an STD. But not for lack of trying. Recently, NBCU announced it was rebranding its 17-year-old Sci Fi Channel as SyFy. To be pronounced … Sci Fi. And it’ll come with a new tagline: “Imagine Greater.” You have to admire NBCU’s cojones for voluntarily pissing off entertainment’s most passionate, […]

SyFy isn’t common Polish slang for an STD. But not for lack of trying.

Recently, NBCU announced it was rebranding its 17-year-old Sci Fi Channel as SyFy. To be pronounced … Sci Fi. And it’ll come with a new tagline: “Imagine Greater.”

You have to admire NBCU’s cojones for voluntarily pissing off entertainment’s most passionate, opinionated and incestuous fan base. The announcement’s been greeted with endless anger and ridicule. Someone even launched a viral campaign urging the name be dumped, claiming it means “syphilis” in Polish. Which turned out to have a grain of truth: It’s minor, obscure slang there for the STD, akin to calling it “pox” in this country.

And apparently the Poles also occasionally use SyFy to refer to “zits,” “warts,” “garbage” and “a dirty apartment.” Not to mention as an abbreviated reference to “science fiction,” too.

But “garbage” might be the most apt translation here.

NBCU’s press release offered quintessential corporate-speak. It declared that SyFy — as opposed to Sci Fi — “broadens perceptions and embraces a wider and more diverse range of imagination-based entertainment including fantasy, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure as well as science fiction.”

It’s amazing that all that can be achieved through a simple name which, the release helpfully reminds us, “remains phonetically identical.”

But everyone keeps asking: If it walks like a duck, why do it? In a subsequent interview, an NBCU executive cut to the chase. “We couldn’t own (the name) Sci Fi, it’s a genre,” she said. “But we can own SyFy.” So the decision really has less to do with a creative vision than a business one: By owning the trademark, NBCU can generate new revenue streams through all kinds of SyFy international TV networks, SyFy videogames, SyFy movies, SyFy downloads and other SyFy brand extensions that, well, require a brand to extend.

There’s been lots of speculation (and hope) that the backlash will make NBCU reverse its decision. Pundits are comparing it to PepsiCo’s recent mea culpa over its $38 million Tropicana rebranding debacle. That seems unlikely. The Sci Fi Channel isn’t as beloved or distinct an icon as the big, juicy Tropicana orange that vanished in that ill-conceived campaign.

Also, NBCU appears to be far along in this effort, with a rollout starting soon, at least four creative agencies onboard and a price tag easily north of $50 million. A mid-course directional change wouldn’t be received too well.

But the main reason is that beyond all their bluster, NBC knows the audience will ultimately accept this. The days of hiding the business of television behind the art of it are long gone. The public’s well-aware that for media companies, a network is no longer a creative destination but, instead, a jumping-off point for branded DVDs, games, international versions, events and other money-makers.

Their griping isn’t so much about a name change or the reason but that the effort behind it and this end result feel so lazy. They just wanted NBCU to Imagine Greater.

So in July, it’ll be SyFy everywhere. Except in Poland. Buried in a promotional interview with the network chief on its website was the news that its Sci Fi Channel that airs there will remain as is.

Because NBCU can try to spin the fans and critics, but they just can’t beat the pox.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.