Monday, March 23, 2009

On the popular pastime of reinvention and its inherent pitfalls

As a rule, if one is embarrassed or upset by the group one is a member of, it is inherently easier to change the name of the group than it is to change the group. Trekkies made enough of a hue and cry about the term that the more acceptable (to them) "trekkers" of "trekfen" were coined. (Fanzine writer and Big Name Fan Arthur Hlavaty commonly "corrects" the spelling to "terkkies".) The common rule of thumb is, if you care enough about the term "trekkie" to be offended by it, you're a trekkie.

Comic book and other sci-fi fen are regularly called "geeks" by the general populace, as in the popular phrase "Geek Chic". And the rule still applies - if you care enough to be offended by the term "geek" to attempt to correct it, please get in line for your too-short-for-your-ample-tummy stiped shirt and propeller beanie.

Nine times out of fourteen, you can tell from a person's tone whether they're actively trying to offend you, as oppsed to just being witty (successful or not) or accidentally using a word they "thought it was okay to use now". That applies for just about all slurs, save for the one unspeakable word, the Queen Mary of offensive slurs, which no one who is not one is ever allowed to use. That word of course is "Liberal-Democrat".

Usually when one chooses to reinvent oneself, either by simple semantics or radical surgery, it suggests a dissatisfaction with oneself, or at least of how things are going for you. America is the land of reinvention - I believe we invented it, or were at least the first to file paperwork. Before we patented the process and trademarked the term, it was known as "giving up and trying again".

If one reinvents oneself slowly, over the course of years, you can get away with no one noticing. But if you get the dyejob, the liposuction and demand that your friends and family henceforth refer to you as "Meredith", it's going to get Talk started. Usually along the vein of "what brought THIS on?" It's impossible to just forget what a person was and go with what they now want to be. Just ask wrestling fans when a guy shows up one week as a blonde goodguy and reappears the very next week with black hair and a goatee, a new heel name and the announcers look at him as if he's this total stranger (e.g. the Oz --> Vinnie Vegas transformation of Kevin Nash)

The Science Fiction Channel, colloquially known as "The Sci-Fi Channel", or more summarily "Sci-Fi" has announced that it will be changing its name to "SyFy". Talking heads have theorized a multitude of "real" reasons the change is happening, not the least of which being that "Sci-Fi" cannot be trademarked, and "SyFy" can. There's that whole "can does not equal should" thing going there, but whatever. I see it as a logical progression in the channel's slow move to become more than just a channel that shows science fiction. The problem is, is there a real benefit to showing more than "just" science fiction?

One of the big promising things about cable when it first came out was the idea that channels dedicated just to one genre or type of show could arise. There's the Game Show channel. the Soap network, the Food Network, and a plethora of others. As they started to appear, the programmers began to notice something they hadn't considered - channels that only show one kind of show only appeal to people that like that one kind of show. For a lot of people, this goes against the American desire to eat one's cake and have not only it, but all other cakes in the vicinity as well.

So using the same marketing strategy that gave us new Coke, these mavens said, "Let's dilute what we do well by doing some things we don't do well". MTV started doing it first - putting more actual programming on its channel, as opposed to videos. It's now at the point where they had to start whole other channels to do what the main channel used to do -play music videos.

So we started seeing reality shows on Sci-Fi, and live-action movies on Cartoon Network. And on the whole, they did not succeed because...Well, I've said it for a long time - you don't go to IHOP for a steak.

Sci-Fi bucked that tradition by carrying shows that already had a core following, like Crossing Over With John Edward (the irony of that show running on the Science-Fiction Channel will bring a smile to my face to my dying day) and its currently most-watched show, ECW Wrestling. It was hilarious when that first started running - they thought it might cushion the blow by putting more "Science fictiony" wrestlers on the show, so we got jobbers like "The Zombie" and other sources of shame and derision. Sci-Fi got a taste of of what real ratings are like, and wanted more. But they felt hobbled by the obviously pigeonholing name.

Their solution? A name that's pronounced exactly the same, but is SPELLED differently. Also, they (claim they) do not plan to change their basic dedication to science fiction. So we're back to "why change the name then?" again.

Let me ask you this - if BET changed its name to "Bold Entertainment Television", or the WWE to "World Wide Entertainment", do you think its followers would sit back and think, "Oh, well, it's goo to know they're not planning to change what they're currently doing"?

Sci-Fi, like so many others, are trying to find a way of extending its grasp, only realize that in order to do so, one must lose one's grip on what one now has. And that's then you start dropping things.

I've long said that one of the best things Sci-Fi can do is to go backwards. I watched a whole lot more of the channel when all it ran was reruns of classic sci-fi shows. But where ar those shows now? Stuff like Lost in Space, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants are now on that hidden treasure of a channel The American Life Network. They've had exactly one hit in all the attempts at original programming - the new Battlestar Galactica. I find it hard to believe that any of their "Sci-fi originals" drew better ratings than any episode of The Immortal. They spent truckloads of cash trying to be more than they needed to be.

Like the trekkie, they care too muh about what they are called. odds are if they just resigned themselves to their image and embraed it, they'd probably be allowed to do more than if they try harder and harder to disguise and deny what they are.

Look at William Shatner.


  1. Loved this entry, especially since the prospect of reinvention has always amused me. Hey, America is the capital of reinvention and fresh starts, including Angelina Jolie, Madonna, etc. I especially liked this passage: "As they started to appear, the programmers began to notice something they hadn't considered -- channels that only show one kind of show only appeal to people that like that one kind of show. For a lot of people, this goes against the American desire to eat one's cake and have not only it, but all other cakes in the vicinity as well.” Great job!

  2. Mr. Vincent I cannot fault your analysis, or your conclusions. I have long wondered if the suits running the "soon to no longer be Sci-Fi Channel" possessed any sort of sincere familiarity with the genre. Their actions and the channel's programming have continually argued against it. This latest bit of flummery only concludes it. They may as well change their name, and with the blessings of the science-fiction fan community. The good Lord knows they haven't been responsive to its needs.