Tribute: Space’s next frontier

At 20, the sci-fi channel's expanding appeal has brought the specialty more viewers and homegrown hits.

Space? Niche? Not according to owner Bell Media, which believes the specialty channel has evolved past that stereotype since debuting 20 years ago.

“Space programs along the sci-fi spectrum,” says Mike Cosentino, the Bell Media SVP, content and programming, who assumed oversight of the station last August. “‘Space’ can refer to outer space [or] inner space. It’s the space of imagination and that allows us to lead a channel about phenomena of any kind. The world has changed with franchises like Harry Potter. Now sci-fi is mainstream, but Space has remained its home and centre.”

He adds the channel has gone from skewing male to one with a 49% female audience in the last broadcast year, and suggests The Big Bang Theory, the top-rated series about sci-fi nerds that airs on Space and sister network CTV, has made it okay for everybody to pursue their inner geek.

The CRTC granted the Space licence in 1996 after two application attempts by CHUM. Originally known as Space: The Imagination Station, it went to air on October 17 the following year along with a half-dozen other English channels that comprised specialty’s next wave.

In the first few months, the cornerstones of the channel’s schedule included feature films along with series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files and the universe-jumping Sliders. All were Hollywood imports, though the latter two shot for several seasons in Vancouver.

The shows were strip-programmed, and if that didn’t provide enough Deep Space Nine to satisfy Trekkies, Space soon added every series of the franchise to its schedule, earning it the nickname “the Star Trek channel.”

“By our fourth season, it was the Star Treks driving our ratings,” says Paul Gratton, the former CHUM VP of entertainment specialty channels who managed Space from 1999 until the CTVglobemedia takeover in 2007. “Star Trek series and movies have always been disproportionately popular in Canada.”

Little has changed: in spring 2017, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. was blocked off Monday to Thursday for episodes of the original 1960’s series as well as Enterprise, The Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine. And that will undoubtedly help build anticipation for the upcoming Toronto-shot Star Trek: Discovery (pictured), a pickup from CBS that rolls out in the fall. Bell Media will leverage its suite of outlets for maximum impact: the premiere will get the largest-possible launch pad by bowing on CTV, while subsequent episodes will air on Space before being available on the CraveTV SVOD service.

The Discovery deal was a top priority for Bell Media, says Cosentino. “Part of the reason we’re doubling down on franchise programming and brand-defining acquisitions like Star Trek: Discovery is our recognition that pick-and-pay and competition is real and more than ever we need to bring programming into the mix that is exclusive and must-have.”

In the cord-cutting world, the channel has been steadily losing subscribers (to 6.1 million in 2015 from 6.9 million in 2011, according to CRTC data), and it’s too early to gauge the additional effect of channel unbundling.

But Space’s situation is hardly dire. Despite a drop in subscriber revenue, pre-tax profits nearly doubled in 2015 over 2014, jumping to $23.4 million from $12.2 million, thanks partly to a 20% increase in ad revenue to $31.8 million from $26.5 million. At first blush, fewer subscribers and more ad dollars seem contradictory.

“The part of our subscriber base that left the [subscription] system was never watching Space,” Cosentino posits. “They weren’t part of the mix in viewership and ratings, which have increased due to the strength of the schedule, the popularity of the programs and our viewer engagement.”

According to Numeris, in the past five years the channel’s P2+ average minute audience has risen 6% to 61,900, good for ninth spot among English commercial entertainment specialties, and viewers in the key 25-to-54 demographic spend on average two hours per week on the channel, ranking fourth.

The biggest draw is BBC import Dr. Who, which returned for its 10th season in April after averaging 696,500 P2+ AMA viewers in the 2015-16 broadcast year.

The number-two show is Dark Matter, developed with Toronto’s Prodigy Pictures, which follows an amnesiac starship crew engaged in intergalactic adventures. Heading into its third season, the series, which airs on Syfy in the U.S., had an average viewership of 430,000 viewers in 2015-16.

Show creators Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie have a long history with Space, having served as executive producers and writers on the Stargate franchise, which early on demonstrated the value of homegrown material. Initial series Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007), an adaptation of the feature film about U.S. soldiers traversing the universe through a wormhole, was produced in Vancouver by MGM and commissioned by Showtime and later Sci-Fi Channel (as Syfy was then known).

But Space’s involvement on the CAVCO-certified 6/10 series was also substantial, as the channel’s broadcast licence triggered the production’s tax credits.

Stargate SG-1 was a phenomenon, often generating our highest ratings,” recalls Gratton, currently director of programming for the Whistler Film Festival. “We positioned it in the best of spots – 8 p.m. EST – orbiting all our other shows around it. That it happened to be Cancon made the exercise all the more gratifying.”

The series’ success led to a boom in Canadian-shot sci-fi and supernatural series that filled Space’s lineup throughout the ensuing decade, including First Wave (1998-2001), The Collector (2004-2006), Sanctuary (2008-2011), Defying Gravity (2009), the sequel Stargate Universe (2009-2011), and Todd and the Book of Pure Evil (2010-2012).

“Because of the genre’s budget requirements, most of our Cancon was presold to U.S. broadcasters and made in B.C.,” Gratton notes.

The ’00s also saw a ramp-up in non-scripted programs including Shadow Hunter (2005-06), a doc series about the paranormal, and InnerSpace, the channel’s flagship daily entertainment talk show that went through several re-brandings before launching under that title in 2009.

Killjoys and Orphan Black, both produced by Toronto’s Temple Street, comprise Space’s current returning Canuck heavy-hitters. The channel initially passed on the serialized Orphan Black and Rogers spent time developing it before dropping out. Temple Street, with buy-in from BBC America, re-approached Space, and this time, Corrie Coe, Bell Media’s SVP original programming, jumped at the series, which has a per-episode price tag of more than $3 million.

Ratings for Orphan Black, heading into its fifth and final season in June, have been solid if unspectacular, averaging 231,500 viewers in the past broadcast year. But it has sold into 181 territories and won three dozen Canadian Screen Awards and a Primetime Emmy for Tatiana Maslany for her multiple roles as a woman who discovers she has clones.
So, Space was happy to extend this partnership with Killjoys, a drama created by Michelle Lovretta about interplanetary bounty hunters. The series, which also airs on Syfy, returns on Canada Day for its third season. The past season saw average ratings of 372,000.

Ivan Schneeberg, co-president of Temple Street parent Boat Rocker Studios, notes the Bell Media execs’ approach jives well with their own. “We’ve never had any material conflicts,” he says. “They’re very good at expressing their notes and ensuring the show is right for their channel, but in a way that is sufficiently collaborative to ensure the U.S. partners and, ultimately, the showrunners feel they’re getting what they want out of the show.”

Another property Space picked up on the second go-round is Wynonna Earp, a comic book adap starring Melanie Scrofano in the title role as a woman who uses skills inherited from her great-great-grandfather Wyatt Earp to fight supernatural foes. The first season, produced in Calgary by SEVEN24 Films, went to Hamilton indie CHCH, but Space came aboard after the inaugural season punched above its weight on Syfy. As Orphan Black fades to black, Wynonna Earp may prove a worthy successor.

In these uncertain times, Space is being proactive in technology as well as content. It planned a spring rollout for the Space Go app – surprising, perhaps, that it has taken this long – allowing subscribers to access full-season episodes on their mobile devices. And as more viewers migrate from broadcast to SVOD, Space will play a bigger role in feeding the CraveTV beast.

“We have loyal viewers with expectations for the Space brand, and we’re going to continue to deliver genre-defining programming through acquisition and development,” Cosentino says. “We need to present and promote our programming in multiple spaces. We have to keep our promotional megaphone on the channel. Our strategy is to go bigger on what’s working.”