Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Word Nerd Wonders: Is rebranding like an STD?

Last week was long and stressful, so I spent much of yesterday doing odds and ends, surfing the internet and cleaning up more of my office.* I was browsing through some agent blogs when I came across this on the Swivet: cable's "Sci Fi Channel" is changing their name. To Syfy.

According to the network's president, they didn't want their name to imply that they limit themselves to just one genre. The new name, which is pronounced the same as "Sci Fi," is "a broader, more open and accessible and relatable and human-friendly brand." (To hell with the cyborg audience!) "It gives us a unique word and it gives us the opportunities to imbue it with the values and the perception that we want it to have," he said.

Well, you do your best to imbue it, Mr. Network Chief, but the switch is going communicate certain values and perceptions. First, that you think television viewers are scared by a name that contains abbreviations for Science—oh no! I might have to think!—and Fiction—that's like literature! save me! (On the other hand, that might explain their increasing reliance on pro wrestling and paranormal "reality" shows in their programming, while Battlestar Galactica, one of the best and deepest shows on TV, is coming to an end.) Second, that "Sci Fi" has too much of a niche audience to be successful. I particularly enjoyed this quote from a former Sci Fi executive:

“The name Sci Fi has been associated with geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements with video games and stuff like that, as opposed to the general public and the female audience in particular,” said TV historian Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel when he worked at USA Network.

Mr. Brooks said that when people who say they don’t like science fiction enjoy a film like “Star Wars,” they don’t think it’s science fiction; they think it’s a good movie.
Gee, thanks for the stereotypes! I love sci fi, and yet I'm female, socially functional, and don't live in a basement. (Okay, I admit I'm a nerd, and maybe even a geek, but still....) And about that second statement ... let's just consider the top 10 all-time US box office films: Titanic; The Dark Knight; Star Wars; Shrek 2; ET; Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest; Spider-Man: Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith; and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Of those top 10 films, only one (Titanic) does not have any sci fi, fantasy, or comic book elements. It doesn't seem to me like general audiences are afraid of sci fi. Maybe he hit it on the head with the "good movie" requirement, though. When most of your original programming consists of gems like Mansquito, you probably do need a good rebranding.

Whatever. But I think a worse, second problem awaits your new name. You obviously didn't consider the dictionary when you picked your creative spelling. If you look at the nine columns in Webster's of words that start with the letters "sy-," you'll notice all but a couple obscure ones** are pronounced with a short i. Sycamore. Syllable. Sympathy. Syncopate. Synonym. System. And my favorite (because I'm a science nerd), syzygy.***

So, Mr. Television Honcho, what is going to happen when all those new viewers you want to attract see your new name? They're going to think it sounds like "siffy." Will they think of the one word that begins with s-i-f, sift? No, my bet is they're going to think of the one word that begins with s-y-f-sound. That's right. Your shiny new network name is going to make people think of syphilis.

Well, they do say that p0rn does well during an economic downturn. Good luck with your new shows, like Battlestar Erotica, Stargate-S&M1, and co-ed p0rn wrestling. But I won't be coming out of my basement to watch.

*I mean to finish today or tomorrow, really I do.
**these include sycee, an ancient Chinese coin; sycosis, a crusty inflammation of hair follicles (ew!); and syenite, an igneous rock mainly made of feldspar.
***syzygy: the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies in a gravitational system, like our sun, moon, and the Earth during an eclipse.


  1. Now send your rant, er, blog, to the #xx*@## head honcho of Scifi and let him know he needs to reconsider. I doubt he has thought out the change as thoroughly as you have.

  2. There's actually an educational school of thought which suggests that language spellings will shift again because of text messages. Some fairly well received English teachers feel that it's important to let language shift as the culture shifts-- thus something odd like your syfy. The other thing that's interesting (only personally for me) is that out of all of those movies, the one I saw and *didn't* like was Titanic. (Loved Kate Winslet's makeup, though.) I definitely wouldn't consider myself a science fiction fan, either, although my husband likes the genre and is particularly fond of humorous/quirky writers like Jim Butcher.

  3. Mom: if I thought television executives actually cared what viewers think, I would. But...

    Dinah: thanks for stopping by the Blathering. I agree, it's pointless to fight certain spelling shifts, like lite, cuz, and others that make sense for phonetic reasons. I try not to get too outraged about those. "Syfy," however, makes no sense, and I believe my phonetic prediction will come true ... and I will avoid the channel like the plague, er, "Napoleonic disease."

  4. Syfy is just dumb, unlike syzygy, which is the coolest word ever. A Syzygy channel I would watch.

  5. Sharon BlankenshipMarch 18, 2009 at 10:17 AM

    Sure, language grows and morphs. But have you honestly read some of the IMs? It's almost like shorthand and can contain multiple meanings for many clusters of letters.
    I love the preciseness of finding just the right word. So if we lost that, will we lose our preciseness in thinking? Go from exact to general?
    Don't know the answer, but it would be interesting.