Saturday, July 09, 2005



"ATTACK OF THE SABRETOOTH." "Bloodsuckers." "The Man With the Screaming Brain." And, most indelible of all, "Mansquito."

A combination of outrageous genre concepts, low-budget filmmaking and sensationalized titles like the roll call above are all part of the Sci Fi Channel's attempt to establish a presence on Saturday nights, when a good number of potential viewers are out, asleep or watching reruns. The programming strategy has been a major success, with numbers that far exceed anyone's expectations.
"Alien Apocalypse," Sci Fi's biggest Saturday hit, attracted 2.7 million viewers in March. That may be a pittance for CBS or NBC, but it constitutes a major audience for a niche network. And besides, said Steve Sternberg, a television analyst at MagnaGlobal USA, "Friday and Saturday have become very weak nights for the broadcast networks," which, he explained, "have not been able to draw enough viewers with original entertainment series. Cable networks can flourish with much smaller audiences. Original horror and sci-fi movies seem like the perfect programming for Saturday night."

"They're good at the 'D' word, demographics," said Bruce Campbell, a star of B movies who also wrote, directed and starred in the "Screaming Brain" film, to be shown in September. "I think they're micromarketing," he said, "which in this fragmented world makes sense. They're saying, 'Who's at home on Saturday night?' "

The answer might be surprising. Nearly half of Sci Fi's audience is female, and in the highly sought-after 25-to-54-year-old demographic category, Sci Fi is the No. 4 basic cable network on Saturdays, behind TNT, USA and TBS.

Sci Fi's foray into Saturday night mayhem began in 2002, when network executives realized that cheap, independently made genre pictures, an important element of their programming mix, were hardly being produced any more. So, said Tom Vitale, the Sci Fi Channel's senior vice president for original movies "We had a choice of recycling older movies or going out and trying to create original movies ourselves. We went back to these producers who made genre movies, and asked them if they wanted to make them with us."

People like Ken Badish jumped at the chance. Mr. Badish's company, Active Entertainment, will have produced nine Sci Fi movies by the end of 2005, high-concept features like "Mansquito" (experiment gone awry creates man-mosquito hybrid!), and "Alien Lockdown" (government science produces horrific slime thing!).

Shot on budgets ranging from $1 million to $2 million, Sci Fi's movies are made in money-saving locales like Bulgaria, Romania and Missouri. They're cast with B-list celebrities like Luke Perry and Stephen Baldwin, with the occasional big-picture actors - Sean Astin and John Rhys-Davies of "Lord of the Rings" - making an appearance. The network pays $750,000 for domestic TV rights, and the producers make their money back through international and DVD sales.