Inside Syfy’s ‘Fewer, Bigger, Better’ Transformation

“We want something that is going to deliver a robust, long-term audience for us,” network president Dave Howe tells TheWrap

With a new “Star Wars film set to shatter box-office records and AMC zombie thriller “The Walking Dead” ruling as television’s most-watched show, science fiction is dominating entertainment. Now the TV network named after the genre wants a bigger piece of the action.

With the premieres this week of “The Expanse,” “Childhood’s End” and “The Magicians” Syfy has come a long way from its campy, low-budget genre roots, moving towards prestige projects based on beloved properties with high profile filmmakers behind the camera.

“This is our strategy going forward,” network president Dave Howe told TheWrap. “We looked at the explosion of competition in terms of genre shows, we looked at our track record over the last few years. We want something that is going to deliver a robust, long-term audience for us. In order to differentiate, in order to compete, we have to be seen to be doing the biggest, most ambitious, provocative sci-fi storytelling we can.” The best way to do that “is to work with great talent, and secure as many great IPs as we possibly can.”

Perhaps in preparation for this makeover, Syfy recently handed down cancellations to several shows, including the long-running “Haven,” biblical post-apocalyptic fantasy “Dominion” and futuristic sci-fi drama “Defiance.” Meanwhile, the network-acquired werewolf romantic drama “Bitten” was also canceled.

“I think the fewer, bigger, better approach is a really smart thing for Syfy,” NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Chief Content Officer and Universal Cable Productions President Jeff Wachtel told TheWrap. “They’re not just talking the talk, we’re really trying to walk the walk. Shows like ‘The Expanse’ are a huge effort, and could really move the needle of pop culture as well as the network. ‘Childhood’s End’ is a wonderful example of recreating the bond and connection with the genre superfan.”

Wachtel oversees development and production of properties for all of NBCU’s networks, like Bravo and USA, in addition to Syfy.

He oversaw UCP’s “12 Monkeys,” the series based on the 1995 film of the same name, which premiered in 2015. Howe sees that show as a turning point for the network.

“That was the show we greenlit first,” he said. “Obviously it was based on an iconic movie. In terms of the writing, production values, the casting, etc. it really does put a stamp on us in terms of the quality, premium ambition behind it.”

Despite disappointing ratings “12 Monkeys” — the first season averaged a 0.25 Nielsen rating among adults 18-49 — was renewed for a second season to premiere in 2016, even as ratings disappointed.

“Quality was the bar on ’12 Monkeys,’ and the only reason it got picked up for a second season was because it was one of the best shows we had all worked on,” said Wachtel. “The pure ratings, not as much. The linear ratings, not really a bragging point about it, but we know it has a dedicated audience and we know that audience is going to grow because of the quality of the show. In terms of the show being a turning point, it was, ‘Literally and figuratively, let’s aim for the stars and create the best stuff on TV.’”

Among the projects in the pipeline for the new Syfy, adaptations of such sci-fi classics as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” from Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin TV, Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” and Wes Craven film “The People Under the Stairs.”

But more immediately, the network is preparing to introduce high profile projects like “The Magicians,” based on Lev Grossman’s bestselling series, along with the aforementioned “Childhood’s End,” based on the Arthur C. Clarke classic, and “The Expanse,” based on the series of novels by James S. A. Corey.

The network hopes that “The Expanse” or “The Magicians” could turn out to be Syfy’s answers to “The Walking Dead” or HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“I think ‘The Expanse’ is absolutely that sort of franchise,” Howe said. “‘The Expanse’ is based on a book series, and the intention in success is for each book to become a season. The writers want to get to at least 7 books. So there’s plenty of ammunition there. ‘The Magicians’ has a hugely passionate, young, millennial audience looking for the next ‘Harry Potter.’ There’s a big landscape and a big runway for us to play with that.”

It all comes down to the often-discussed “content bubble,” where overflowing content output has seemingly made it harder than ever for networks to produce programming that stands out.

“This all speaks to the world we live in. We’re all playing a long game,” said Howe. “We’re all figuring out how to cut through the noise and buzz and attract the critical acclaim and social media energy and become a bigger franchise over time.”

“Childhood’s End” ends Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on Syfy;  “The Expanse” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET; “The Magicians” premiere will have a preview Wednesday at 10 p.m. and then premiere in its regular time slot on Jan 25.