Playback’s Channel of the Year: Space

Bitten - FanExpo 203 - courtesy Space

When Space: The Imagination Station launched in 1997, it seemed, if you’ll excuse the pun, a bit out there. The explosion of super-niche specialty channels was in its infancy and this new entry seemed to take the prize for superfluous programming. Did we really need a whole channel for Trekkies?

The channel in those years was a much different species than it is today: the programming was fringe, catering to the X-Files crowd with sci-fi dramas, “B” movies and cool doc-style interstitials with an educational bent.

Today, Space is a leaner, meaner alt-culture machine, tapping into an audience that may have once been fringe but now is simply seen to demonstrate two of the most coveted traits in TV: loyalty and engagement. And as sci-fi -influenced series see more mainstream audience pickup, the channel in 2013 seems to have landed a formula that is clicking with Canadians: Trekkies and Twi-hards alike.

This year saw the first season of its original primetime drama, Orphan Black, achieve both high ratings and critical acclaim, earning its lead actor Tatiana Maslany a Critics’ Choice Television Award and Television Critics Association Award for her performance. The series, which is produced by Temple Street Productions in association with Bell Media and BBC America, went on an encore run on CTV and is currently in production on a second season.

The channel also underwent a rebrand, moving away from its galactic origins and toward a softer, arguably more female-friendly look. Gone are the stars, the galaxy and overt allusions to the strange. In their place, a plain blue circle and a clever and decidedly broader tagline “Space: it’s all around you.”

Given the fierce and unrelenting competition for viewers, it was clear to channel owners Bell Media that the formula for Space success needed to be tweaked, says Rachel Goldstein-Couto, director of specialty programming, Bell Media.

“I think that there was something in our previous branding that kept people [away] who were going to see The Avengers or Twilight, and watching Heroes. [They were] doing all that kind of stuff, but not identifying with sci-fi culture,” she says. “So we were sort of excluding ourselves.”

What was needed, she says, was a fresh approach, both in marketing and programming the channel.

“We needed to re-evaluate our strategy and – without abandoning our core viewers – start introducing programming that was going to appeal to a broader audience,” she says. “And so we did that carefully and with a lot of thought.”

Armed with a makeover, globally successful series such as Doctor Who and a hot new show in Orphan Black, Space spent the first half of 2013 courting its new audience – successfully.

According to Michael Neale, chief investment officer at media buying agency MediaCom (Canada), Space passed the “stress test” for audience growth year-over-year, from January to September, outperforming against audience trends in Canadian specialty as a whole.

Space beat the stress test in nine out of 10 audience segments, he notes, growing in every key adult demo except Men 25-54. (Those demos include: Adults 2+, A18-34,A18-49, A25-54; Women 18-34, W18-49, W25-54 and Men 18-34 and M18-49.)

The channel earned 821,000 new weekly viewers in those core advertiser demos, and weekly, reached over 20% of all key adult, male and female buying audiences. In additionto reaching 5.7 million people each week – including 2.8 million adults in the key 18-49 advertiser demo – the average viewer spent 24 minutes per week on Space, up from 18 year-over-year.

Clearly, Space was onto something. And so it kept going.

In April, it went into production on Bitten, a werewolf drama it greenlit in the fall of 2012 and is set to air mid-season in winter 2014. Produced by No Equal Entertainment, Hoodwink Entertainment, and eOne in association with Space and Bell Media, Bitten was picked up in September by Space’s U.S. counterpart, Syfy.

And at MIPCOM in October, it announced a greenlight for Killjoys , another original scripted sci-fi drama from Temple Street Productions, this time helmed by showrunner Michelle Lovretta, the creator of successful Showcase drama Lost Girl.

Both series echo elements that helped make Orphan Black a success – strong writing and showrunning being key, notes Corrie Coe, SVP, independent production, CTV – and it’s a recipe that seems to dock perfectly with the new audience Space is cultivating.

“I actually think that Space has one of the most loyal time-spent audiences in all of specialty,” says Catherine MacLeod, SVP, specialty channels, Bell Media. “It speaks to the nature of the loyal sci-fi fans and also the [new audience] we’ve brought on board – in the sense that they’re getting into something and immediately immersed in it. The type of programming that’s there, you go into this different world and you stick with it.”