How Much Longer Can Syfy Remain Viable as a Cable Network?

    The regular season is over and I am now in the process of my annual look back at the prior year to see how sci fi TV shows are faring these days. And of course, that involves a look at Syfy, the channel that is supposedly dedicated to sci fi and fantasy television. We have come a long way from the days when the Sci Fi Channel was airing beloved franchises like Farscape, Battlestar: Galactica, and Stargate. We have even come a long way from 2015, the point at which the rebranded Syfy claimed they would be going back to their science fiction roots (after half a decade of “sci fi lite” shows). That got off to somewhat of a promising start with Dark Matter, Killjoys, The Expanse, and the Childhood’s End mini-series. But much has changed since then and Syfy has become a pale shadow of what it once was.

    The network has actually been on a downward spiral for a while, though that has accelerated the last few years. When it rebranded as Syfy in 2009, it had some success with shows like Warehouse 13, Sanctuary, and Being Human. But that was shortlived and the ratings declines really started to pick up in the middle of the 2010’s. The science fiction community was not happy with the network’s turn away from the space-based franchises it was known for when it rebranded (adding wrestling to the lineup didn’t help either). So even when Syfy tried to reach back out to that audience with shows like Dark Matter and The Expanse, viewers were hesitant to tune in and those shows pulled mediocre at best ratings.

    The number of scripted shows the network has to offer each year has been on a steady decline, with the current season having the lowest number of originals in a long time. Looking back over the past six years, Syfy reached a peak of thirteen scripted shows (though some were Canadian imports) in the 2015-16 season when it had thirteen total on the schedule. That has dropped each year since then and plummeted this season so far to just three (one more might get added to the list if Wynonna Earp airs its fourth season in Summer). Four out of six of those years, supernatural drama The Magicians was the highest-rated show on the network. Only one of those years had a scripted science fiction offering topping the list which was 2015’s Childhood’s End mini-series.

    Season Series Count Network Rtgs Avg % Chg from Prior Highest Rated Series
    2014-15 11 0.24 0.0% Z Nation
    2015-16 13 0.18 -24.4% Childhood’s End
    2016-17 12 0.18 -0.6% The Magicians
    2017-18 11 0.15 -16.3% The Magicians
    2018-19 9 0.12 -21.1% The Magicians
    2019-20 3 0.09 -27.9% The Magicians

    That promised returned to science fiction programming for the network is pretty much a thing of the past. Shows like Krypton, Nightflyers, and Killjoys disappeared from the schedule last season and Vagrant Queen is the only thing that counts as close to science fiction this year. Apart from that, the network has tried supernatural, horror, and comics-based shows, but nothing has really stuck. In fact, Syfy seems to have lost any sort of clear direction as it continues its spaghetti-against-the-wall approach to try and find the next Game of Thrones or Walking Dead.

    The current season pretty much counts as a bust for the network as its ratings have slipped to all-time lows, and all three of this year’s shows from this year are pretty much done. The Magicians was cancelled after its fifth season and Van Helsing was renewed for a fifth and final season to air next year (reinforcing Syfy’s five-year wall). Vagrant Queen appears almost certainly headed to cancellation and perenially low-rated Wynonna Earp can at best hope for a final season renewal (allegedly it was already renewed for a fifth season, but the financial struggles of its production company may put the kibosh that).

    As far as current development, Resident Alien–based on the Dark Horse comic series and starring Alan Tudyk–is the only thing of interest to science fiction fans (originally scheduled for a Summer 2020 premiere, but it may be impacted by the production delays). Apart from that, Syfy has a Chucky series in the works (based on the Child’s Play film franchise) as well as a Nightbreed series (based on the Clive Barker horror film) and a Night Gallery reboot. That latter series may be of interest for its Rod Serling connection, but most of the network’s planned originals seem to be focused on horror and supernatural themes.

    One potential bright spot is Syfy’s TZGZ late-night animation block which appears to be competing for the Adult Swim audience. It first debuted with little fanfare in November 2019 (the network is notorious about not promoting its own shows) and is looking to expand when it returns in Summer or Fall. Several new shows have been ordered to go along with the Futurama repeats that anchor the animated segment. Syfy could find some success with that, but I can’t say for certain how much that appeals to the science fiction community.

    The cable networks in general seem to be backing away from scripted programming as they are finding it harder and harder to compete with the high-dollar productions from the streaming services. Syfy has definitely cut back on its scripted originals and the few shows it has in development will do little to bring the network back to its roots. And with most of the shows it is airing failing to find much of an audience, the future looks bleak. Does Syfy become another cable network airing mostly repeats of movies and TV shows, or does it shutter its doors altogether as Chiller (also owned by NBCUniversal) did in 2017? The Peak TV crunch is taking its toll on the cable networks, and Syfy continues to look vulnerable based on where it currently stands.

    Are you still watching the Syfy originals and do any of the shows currently in development interest you? Chime in with your comments below.

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