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Thomas Vitale - Interview with a SciFi Programming Executive
Conducted on 27th March 2002

From:

The "Ask Ben" {Browder} interview, we did purely for our own evil pleasure of wanting to interview Ben Browder. This one however was, admittedly, inspired by fan outcry. The speculative debate among the US Scapers about this season's US schedule changes got involved at best, downright bloody at worst. "SciFi hates us ... it was the contract negotiations ... there was no reason ... they don't know what they're doing ... they must know what they're doing ... the September 11th attacks must have been involved ... they couldn't have been involved ... who do these people sleep with to get their jobs ... it's all about the ratings ... I think it involved alien anal probes ..." Oh, ok. To the best of my knowledge, no one suggested the alien anal probe thing, but since we are talking science fiction here it seemed to fit. And, given the outrageousness of some of the arguments, I just know that someone was thinking it. Anyway, after being on the front lines of that speculative debate for so long, I smacked myself on the head last week and thought, "Duh! Why not go to the source?" My apologies for not having tried that sooner. Could have saved some of us a lot of time! Time: March 27, 2002, 1500 GMT. Interviewer: Mary Wood. Assistant Webmaster for FarscapeWorld.com. Interviewee: Thomas Vitale, SciFi Channel's Senior Vice President of Acquisitions, Scheduling, and Program Planning (and reportedly, the person with "like the longest title of anybody here"). Mr. Vitale was extremely kind and warm and instantly made me feel like I was just shooting the breeze with a friend. Which is good, because this was all arranged very suddenly and I was a nervous wreck by the time the phone rang well before my normal wake-up hour. We wound up going a little over the "10 or 15 minutes" I'd been told as the timeline he was expecting. I felt a little bad about that - knowing he probably has things to do, like run a cable network or something. But Mr. Vitale didn't seem put out in the least - didn't charge me for extra minutes or anything! But enough window dressing. You came here to read the meat of the interview. Or in this case, the entire conversation - sans some dry, un-interviewish "Did you get the spelling of my name? / You're welcome to lurk on our forums" type stuff. I'm in italics, Mr. Vitale is in real-font. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

{Phone rings, Mary pauses a moment, not wanting to sound too eager by answering it 1/8 of the way through the first ring} Hello?

Hello Mary!

Hello, this would be Tom ... Vitale? I hope I'm pronouncing your name right?

Yes, absolutely.

Oh yay, first try!

Thank you, it's early there {8:00am}.

That's ok! Thank you so much. This was kind of unexpected. I was expecting at best maybe a little form reply from somebody's secretary or something.

We could accommodate that if you want!

Oh, that's ok, I think this will do!

Alright, well I thank you for your interest in the show first of all. I think it's great that there are so many fan sites. I'm a fan myself and I appreciate the enthusiasm and the commitment to shows such as this. So thank you, seriously.

Well, we always say that our only paycheck is the fact that people will visit our site and say "Yay, you're doing good things."

That's one of the great things about working in science fiction. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be in the entertainment business, but very few genres in entertainment have people who actually care about what you do as opposed to certain genres that are more disposable. Certain shows, people watch it and then they forget about it. I think science fiction and maybe a couple of other genres, people really care about passionately and the passion of the fans is one of the things I love about the genre.

Farscape fans have certainly been pretty passionate. Especially this season with all the changes and shuffling around.

Well you can let your readers know that most of the people who work at programming and marketing and press relations, media relations and the channel, are fans. That's one of the things we ask about when we interview people. We all grew up as hard core genre fans, going to conventions and cruising these websites and all that before we started working here.

Right. I remember you saying that at the New York convention.

Right, being pulled up on stage by David {Kemper}. "Oh my god! I'm standing in front of a thousand people!"

That had to be scary! A thousand rabid people!

Yes it was!

So one of the first things we were wondering was about the contract negotiations. We know it was kind of unusual to do two seasons instead of one season. How unusual was that and how involved was that?

It's unusual. Not unprecedented, but unusual. You've gotta remember, we did three seasons of First Wave right from the beginning. With Farscape, we had always wanted to do more than one season at a time and there were certain business reasons why we were doing one season at a time. And this year we had the opportunity to do two seasons and to really lock the show in. And everyone on both sides wanted to do that. We wanted to know that we'd continue to have the show for two more years, they wanted to know that they could continue to make the show for two years. So when both sides of the negotiations have the same goal, it makes the negotiation easier.

So would that have had anything to do with the Season Four production delay?

That had a little bit to do with it, just working that out and getting the details straightened out. There's two things. That's a piece of it but that's not the only piece of it. We could have thrown the {final} four episodes on in January, but Season Four wasn't going to be ready to air until June. Usually we go January and then March. Since Season Four wasn't going to be ready until June because of locking up two seasons and the negotiations, the question for us as programmers was, "Do we still come back with the final four in January like we've done for two years, or do we hold the final four of Season Three until April, run some repeats in May and come back with originals in June?" So you as a viewer, you as a fan, would you rather see the final four in January and then have to wait all the way until June for the new season, or would you rather go April then June?

Well having seen the final four now, I'm kind of mad that I saw it a little bit early because now I do have to wait!

See? Yeah, how did you see the final four?

A friend of mine in the UK sent me his copy.

Going forward into Seasons 4 and 5, we're airing the episodes before the UK. Seasons 1, 2, and 3, they got to go first, then we get to go first, which we at SciFi are very excited about. The goal is really to sync it up so everybody sees it at roughly the same time to be fair to the fans worldwide and to be fair to the production itself. It's good that in the seasons to come we'll be more synched up in terms of worldwide schedules.

So having {the episodes} closer to being back-to-back was really the primary reason for delaying the final four?

When you have a TV show that's so popular, but you're on a small cable channel it's hard to get a lot of attention when you're on SciFi channel. SciFi needs to invest a lot of effort into bringing viewers to our channel, bringing new viewers to Farscape and reminding casual viewers and all the fans that the show's coming back on the air. So if we were to do the final four in January, we'd have to put a big marketing push on for January, and then a second marketing push in the Spring for June. By holding the final four until April then coming back with Season 4 in June, we're able to do a little bit more of a concentrated burst of marketing. We can do a little marketing in April and then more in June. It's more concentrated, keeps it more top-of-mind. The whole goal is to get more people to watch the show, and a more concentrated burst of marketing and media efforts - it makes sense if the episodes air more closely together so that we can go after and get the Farscape message and then keep the Farscape message going. So we go April with the final four, and then May we've got some great repeats on and we've got a marathon on, and then June we come back with originals and it's very concentrated as opposed to waiting. It keeps Farscape top-of-mind in viewers' heads and on viewers' mental TV schedules. It keeps the show popular, it keeps the ratings up, opportunity to attract new viewers who may not know how good the show is and who may not have heard about it. It's much better than having a very spread-out message, a very diluted message. Much better than a diluted push to have a more concentrated push for the show.

That's the main thinking on it. The second thing is that we definitely wanted to have the Farscape final four in April and we wanted to take May off with repeats versus going right from the final four into the new season for two reasons. One is, as a small cable network, you don't want to go up against the May sweeps. You're not going to get attention from the press, you're not going to get attention from the viewers either, because all the networks have their season finales in May, all their mini-series, and all their big events. So you don't want originals on in May. The second reason is - you saw the last episode. It's a great cliffhanger at the end of the final four. You can't pay that cliffhanger off the following week. You need to let it sit there for at least six weeks, that's what makes a cliffhanger fun. Going back to when this kind of "cliffhanger television" started, I guess it goes way back to "Who shot J.R.?" You didn't really want to know who shot J.R. the following week, you wanted to wait those few months, to really...

Spend the Summer discussing and debating...

Exactly. So it makes it more interesting. So with this cliffhanger, give the fans six weeks to discuss, debate, to chat about it and enjoy it. As a fan I kind of wish I didn't know how it paid off because I wanted to debate and think about it, but obviously at the channel we find out right away. But that's a key to the fun of it. Let the cliffhanger get out there and age nicely ... like a fine wine!

There you go! Now you mentioned not wanting to compete with May sweeps. So I guess it's going to become a real traditional tactic to do the "Summer of SciFi" and kind of try and schedule your new episodes while other networks are known to be in reruns. Is that working out for you guys?

It's a cable strategy and we've really in some ways been one of the channels that has taken the most advantage of the Summer months. Other channels do it too, we're not going to stand here and say we're the only ones who do it, but we have over last three or four Summers really taken advantage of loading up with originals. The other original we have this Summer is Stargate. We are doing originals of Stargate. It's no longer original on Showtime, it comes to us originally. Plus we've got some big original movies in the Summer and some specials. All sorts of cool things going on.

Unfortunately, the only downfall to that is then you're playing 18 episodes of Farscape all together. There's 22 episodes in a year and 52 Fridays. Do the math on it and I guess it's probably the one big downfall, isn't it?

Yeah, it's a problem. But if you look at the way the networks do it, they stretch their 22 out, but then they have so many more repeats. We don't go so many repeats, we save the repeats and do stunts and marathons. As cable, we're able to have more flexibility. "Friends" - a big, popular show, just as an example - they'll have 22 weeks of originals and 30 weeks of repeats. So you get a lot of repeats in there and they'll put on some originals, then some repeats, then some originals, then some repeats, and then repeats all summer long. We're just going to go concentrated with originals, then we'll do repeats in special stunts and marathons and things of that nature that the broadcast networks can't do. That's one of the fun things about cable we can do. Like the marathon we have coming up in prime; we're going to have "Farscape's sexiest episodes." In the past we've done "viewer's favorites" episodes, we've done episodes chosen by the cast, David Kemper's episodes, we've done episodes where David Kemper and Rockne O'Bannon have done commentary, we've done all sorts of cool things in our marathons and stunts. Things that broadcast networks won't do. So it's a trade-off. We'll go concentrated all Summer long and I think we're doing 11 in a row this Summer of originals.

If you look at all the cable networks - basic cable/advertiser supported cable, I'm not talking about HBO which is a different business plan - their best times for original programming is the Summer. December's good because networks don't put originals on in December. January's good, March and April are good, these are the good months of cable and then the broadcast networks kind of start up big time in late September, and October and November are their big months, February and May, those are their big months.

Because those are their sweeps.

Yeah, sweeps in November, February and May are the big sweeps, and obviously the Fall, September and October are also big. But we have big events. In December, with the big "Taken" mini-series that we're doing. It's a 20-hour mini-series from Steven Spielberg. It's 10 2-hour movies basically. 10 nights, and that will be on in December of this year. And December's a good time again for cable, that's when we aired "Dune," 2 Decembers ago, when we weren't competing against all the originals that the networks have on. You gotta be careful, you don't want to go up against the Olympics, or the Super Bowl, or the final episode of X-Files or the final episode of ER for the season, or the "Friends" who's-getting-married finale/cliffhanger/whatever happens on those shows. You want to avoid that kind of stuff.

I know some of the network schedules were shuffled around this season also. Did that have anything to do with it or you just want to avoid those months anyway?

A little bit this season, between what happened in September and then the Winter Olympics came up and you've got to avoid all that too. Think back to when you were a kid and there was never anything to watch during the Summer and never anything to watch in the non-sweep months. As a viewer, I'm a TV addict. I love this stuff. I'm glad that I have viewing choices all year long. You gotta go to different channels for different choices. I would hate it if the SciFi Channel and all the other basic cable networks that have cool stuff on put their stuff on at the exact same time as the broadcast networks. It's great that it's all spread out, so as a viewer I get a chance to watch different types of programs at different times of the year.

Right, while this show is in reruns I can watch new episodes of that show and vice-versa.

Absolutely.

So speaking of the repeats, there was also a lot of fan outcry - from the die-hards at least - about the repeats on Friday nights, Season 1 all the way up. You only cycled it once and then took it off and there were a lot of people concerned about why you didn't repeat them again.

Instead of doing it on the Friday time period where we're trying to build Friday night as a place for original series, you noticed in the Fall we cycle through the repeats on a Monday through Thursday basis...

Oh right, that was it, the Monday through Thursday. Not Friday repeats. My bad!

We'll do that again at some point. That's called a "strip," when you run it 4 or 5 days a week in the same time period. And we'll do a strip of Farscape again, probably at the end of the 4th or 5th season, we'll do all the episodes in a strip again. You don't want people to get tired of it either. You want to have it, and you gotta watch your ratings and make sure they stay strong, and give people a chance to see it. Then you pull it off and bring it back at another time when the demand is there for it again.

You also have to remember from a business point of view, we only have the contractual rights to run every episode a set number of times. So you can't keep it on constantly in strip. That's just a business reality.

That's definitely understandable. I guess finally, there was also a lot of concern among the die-hard fans - well, you were there in New York. We kind of tend to think we are the end all/beat all and we're the only fans out there. But when the schedules did change, when the January schedule changed to April, there was a lot of concern that SciFi wasn't communicating enough to us as to why there was a schedule change. Did you get a lot of that kind of feedback?

A little bit, but we posted on our website, we have the information out there. We don't hold the information back. I hope that the fan sites check in closely with SciFi.com and then repost the information. Because we realize that not everybody goes to SciFi.com, so we try to reach out to different fan sites to get the information out there. Besides having promos on air that talk about our schedules and posting stuff on our website, we don't really have another way to get the information out. So you can't go out and buy advertising in January that says "Farscape's not coming back until June." You just don't buy ads like that. You've gotta buy ads talking about what's on now.

So that's why we're just now starting to see aggressive advertising for Farscape on other channels?

Yup. You're starting to see that, plus our press department did an absolutely magnificent job getting us press. They've done a magnificent job getting us the positive press that the show deserves. Did you see ... who's on the cover of the TV guide?

Oh I haven't run out and bought it yet. I only found out about it last night and I haven't been to the store yet!

It's fabulous, and it shows all the stuff that you haven't seen yet! It's got Season 4 information in there, some of the new characters that are coming on. Now I'm not going to tell you what's going to happen in Season 4, but I've seen some of the episodes and read a whole bunch of the scripts now ... Season 4 is incredible!

Ahh! I can't wait! I can't wait!

"Incredible" is an understatement!

Well after all the talk on the BBoards about how "SciFi is ignoring us and they won't tell us why they changed the schedules!" Well, it was so nice of you to do this little interview with me.

You know, if you have questions or if the BBoard heats up with that kind of sentiment being expressed, first check SciFi.com and see if you can get the information there via post. But if you're still not satisfied, feel free to call and connect with the other websites. Feel free to call here, we're very open to this.

Well that was very nice of you, thank you so much! Yeah, I just kind of went to the FAQ on SciFi.com just about scheduling in general, that if anything is moved, it's in this timeslot because of ratings, ratings, ratings.

We're trying to reach out to even more fans now and I do a chat on the website about once a quarter where I'll do a live chat now with the fans. I do a column for the SciFi Channel magazine, it's the back page of the magazine, where I try to explain kind of the business side of programming so the fans understand more. So I'm really trying to reach out more to the fan community, even more than we did before. We did a lot in the past and we're trying to reach out even more to the fan community. Just to give them a window into your thinking so that they understand the business reasons behind the decisions that I make. And myself, sometimes I get annoyed when something happens to my favorite shows, so I want everyone to understand it more. So encourage your readers to pick up or subscribe to the SciFi Channel magazine and to visit our website and all.

Then we get more of a broad, generalized answer that kind of reaches everybody.

Absolutely.

Well thank you again, it was nice talking to you!

Bye-bye!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As I gave the dog treats out of sheer joy that she slept through the whole conversation (apparently, holding a telephone to one's ear is dog-language for "please go into a series of loud, unprovoked barking sprees"), the phone rang a second time. It was Lana Kim, the kind-yet-with-a-sly-cruel-streak woman at SciFi who initially contacted me and helped arrange the interview. She wanted to know how it went, if I had Mr. Vitale's extremely long title correct, and why I had wimped out on my opportunity to see "Panic Room" at 1:00 this morning, a few days before it was to open to the public (and report back to her a mini-review of the movie). As I too kicked my own rear-end for having wimped out on the movie (who needs sleep anyway?), Ms. Kim relayed a last little tidbit of information:

In addition to this week's TV Guide Farscape coverage, TV Guide will be doing yet another Farscape spread this June when the new season starts. (Can I get a "Hell Yeah?!?"). Ms. Kim and I briefly discussed the utter coolness of this and how TV Guide really does seem to favor the little-seen-but-way-cool shows like Farscape. Sounds like Farscape will be getting their share of the press after all!

A huge, huge thank-you again to Thomas Vitale for taking time out to speak with me and connect with the Farscape fans in this manner. Another huge thank-you to Lana Kim for all her help and for only teasing me a little bit about form letters. (I'll give you a sneak-peak review of the next good movie I get to pre-screen. Promise!). And, thank you to the rest of the "crazy group" over at SciFi!

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