Bill McGoldrick is the head of original programming at Syfy. He was brought in two years ago to oversee a major overhaul in the network’s lineup, which is designed to lure hardcore science fiction fans back to the channel with smart, ambitious shows. The new lineup includes adaptations of many classic fantasy and science fiction novels, including works by Arthur C. Clarke, Aldous Huxley, and Frederick Pohl, as well as books by newer writers such as Dan Simmons, John Scalzi, James S. A. Corey, and Lev Grossman.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
First of all, tell us a bit about how you first got interested in science fiction.
Well, I was the kid that liked to read a lot of everything, but then, you know, in those teenage years, probably like most of your listeners, I was very attracted to science fiction because I found it more interesting and more challenging than the books that were being jammed down your throat in school. It was probably through books, probably through comic books, probably through TV shows and things like that where I just developed the appetite for it.
What were some of those books that you were reading that you thought were challenging and interesting?
The great part about my job is some of them are airing very soon. Childhood’s End and Arthur C. Clarke were an early influence on me. Asimov, like everybody else. I was looking for short stories back then. I was a big DC Comics guy. A big Batman fan. So anything that was either the original or derivatives of Batman, I was very into when I was really young. The gamut, you know? As I got a little bit older, I would watch The Twilight Zone with my dad. We would watch it in repeats and stuff like that. I would get interested in those kinds of stories too. There was no kind of one moment where the bell rang, or one book where I said, “Okay, now I’m an SF fan.” But, I’m in my early forties, so I was just as influenced by Star Wars as everybody else. As you’d read the background about movies like that, I’d want to read more about the sources that Lucas was influenced by and stuff like that.
You told me that you were an aspiring writer at one point.
Yeah, when I came to USC I wanted to try writing, and I learned early on that I’d be much better off reading scripts rather than writing them. That was early in my college career. I took all of those courses in college where you write little short films, and then you have the class read it back to you, and I remember those days kind of in horror right now. But it did help me develop an empathy for writers and a real respect for anyone who tries that and anyone who really makes a career of it
You studied film or TV or something like that?
I actually minored in film. I could never get in the USC film school. No matter how many times I tried. So, I ended up minoring in film and majoring in business when I was at USC.
Then what did you do after graduation? How did you become a TV executive?
I was kind of bartending all through college, and kicking around, and trying to break into the industry and passing out my resume wherever I could, and it found its way to a guy named Stephen Chao, who was at that time a producer. He had made his career as a reality executive. He was the guy that greenlit Cops and America’s Most Wanted and kind of rose through the ranks through Fox. Then sort of through a lucky break, he was named USA and the Sci Fi Channel president, and then I came to this company in the late ’90s, and that’s where I met Bonnie Hammer, who was just shortly thereafter named general manager and then president of the Sci Fi Channel. At that time we were small enough that we were doing development for both USA Network and Sci Fi, and I was kind of the guy that would crossover from both channels, and everybody knew I had an interest in science fiction, so they would throw me all the SF projects.
One of my very first shows that I worked on was called The Invisible Man, and then there was a show on USA at the time called G vs. E that had some SF, and we did some things like 4400 and Dead Zone and those shows. That’s kind of where I cut my teeth on science fiction shows. It kind of ran the gamut. I worked on shows like Monk, and Psych, and the gamut of the USA shows, but always had a very special interest and ambition for SF programming.
I didn’t realize that your history with Syfy* went back that far. That’s really interesting.
Yeah, it went back to the very, very early days. It’s been a long road. I know a lot of people. I’ve kind of grown up with a lot of people. It’s very much home here.
How was science fiction seen in the TV industry? Did you encounter resistance to doing science fiction shows that you wanted to do?
It’s so funny how it’s evolved. Every time you brought in an SF pitch in the late ’90s, or heard one and kind of got excited about it, the resistance you would face is people would say, “It’s too SF. It’s not relatable.” I think that’s why you would see in those days so much watered down science fiction. It was too SF for an audience that was maybe not into science fiction but not SF enough for the people that are probably listening to this broadcast right now. But, that’s changed dramatically over the last few years. I think shows like Battlestar Galactica, I think was a bit ahead of its time in changing that perception, and now when you think of Game of Thrones, and you think of Walking Dead, and you think of the shows we have on our network, 12 Monkeys and hopefully The Expanse and Childhood’s End, which are going to be on next week, that you do not have to apologize anymore for being SF. And I do not at all, not here, not from Bonnie Hammer or Dave Howe or anybody here, feel a pressure here to water it down in any way, which is nice.
Do you think that if Game of Thrones or Walking Dead had come out five or ten years before they actually did that the audience just wasn’t ready for it?
I think the audience was probably ready for it. I don’t know that the industry was ready to execute it the way those shows have executed it.
Tell us about how you ended up back at the Syfy channel.
Well, it was one of those things where we had a change of ownership. Comcast owns the corporation, and they recognized very early on, probably behind the scenes Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe were really persuading them to recognize this, that there’s a lot of opportunity in this channel if we just had the investment. So, it was clear to probably Bonnie and Dave that there was going to be a big investment in the channel, and they were looking to really sort of beef it up, and they approached me about coming over kind of right before that investment started. So, I had a great job before, but again, I knew that I liked this stuff, and I saw the opportunity just as they did and was very excited to join a couple of years ago.
Right. Your job title is “Executive Vice President, Original Content”; what exactly does that involve?
I oversee all of the original content that’s generated out here in Los Angeles. That’s all of the scripted shows you see and all of the reality shows that come out of this coast. We do have a very active group that does acquired originals, which are acquisitions that we sort of guide. There’s lots of programming, but I oversee the bulk of the original programming. It also includes alternative reality type shows too. The Face Offs, the 12 Monkeys, the shows that you know that are on our air, I have oversight over and oversight over the executives who work day to day on those shows.
You mentioned that Comcast is making a much bigger investment in the channel now, so what are you planning to do with that bigger investment?
I think you’re going to see the results . . . by the time this podcast airs, you will have seen the results of two big things we’ve done with that investment: The Expanse and Childhood’s End. It was a priority to get back in the event mini-series space. This network has had a long history of event mini-series around the Christmas season, around the fourth quarter. Now that we have the investment, we feel like we can really take on some big titles, like Childhood’s End. So that’s one thing we’ve done with it. The Expanse is another. Past that, you’re going to see The Magicians early next year, so we’ve invested very much in that. We’ve invested kind of all across the network when you look at the amount of original programming we’ve had. We’ve just tried to beef up the amount, but also be in a position where we could take strategic big bets on properties or shows that we’re passionate about.
Right, so you mentioned that Childhood’s End was one of your favorite books growing up. Was it your idea to bring that to Syfy?
No, I was very lucky in that it was in development here when I arrived. It did not have a script. It had producers Mike De Luca, Akiva Goldsman, as well as a really smart writer named Matthew Graham. But, very early stages of development, so one of the first things I did was re-read the book. I re-read a few books in that first month, and I’m not going to mention the other ones because some of them, you remember from your childhood in a certain way, and then they don’t hold up when you get to be an adult, but what’s so impressive about Childhood’s End is it not only held up, I think I like it more and understand it more at this stage than I did when I was a teenager. That was very exciting for me. With these big event mini-series, you really have to be a year and a half to two years ahead from when you greenlight, because the effects get so complicated, and the time to build effects properly is so long that you have to go quickly in order to make your date. In short order, we got that one going, and like I said, now you’re going to see the result of it.
How involved are you on a creative level with something like Childhood’s End? Are you giving suggestions and things like that?
Yeah, it took a village on that one because it was such a big undertaking. So, the studio, UCP Studio, Jeff Wachtel, Dawn Olmstead and her team, Bryan Crow in particular over there, and then my team, which was Paul Shapiro and Eli Kirschner. We were all in on that one. There were lots of conversations about how to adapt it. There was lots of back and forth between us and the producers. It was very collaborative. We all just wanted to honor the book and honor the book in a way that we feel like will give [Clarke] the recognition for being ahead of his time and really being the novelist who started it all. That’s what I’m most proud about. I think that people are going to really like it, and I think it’ll sort of later cause them to be interested in him and what he did and really give him the recognition that he was prescient because all of the themes and all of the things he was writing about are so valid today.
It does seem like a challenging book to adapt because there are a lot of characters, and it takes place over a long span of time—it was set originally in 1953—so the world has changed a lot. Could you talk about what some of the big challenges were with bringing it to television?
The book is written sort of in episodes, in a way. So, there’s main characters . . . Maybe not in episodes, in portions, so there’s main characters in the book that die of natural causes which don’t really lead you to the most dramatic mini-series or movie telling of the book. Probably the biggest change we did is sort of thread characters throughout the entire six-hours, where they weren’t threaded throughout the entire book, because the span of the book was a bit longer. We condensed time, and in condensing time, you had to make other changes, too. That was probably the most difficult one, trying to figure out how to make that narrative work in a way that the Arthur C. Clarke book didn’t really have to. There’s also the challenge of, and this isn’t a spoiler, but there’s a significant portion of the book that deals with utopia, and the whole point of utopia is that there’s not a lot of drama and not a lot of conflict, so we had to find ways during that section to bring some of the conflict from the end of the book up and do some inventing, but I just think Matthew and Akiva and Mike and that whole team did a great job of making sure the invention didn’t cut against the spirit of what the book wanted to accomplish.
One thing that’s really striking about Childhood’s End, even though it was written in 1953, is that it still is provocative today. Was there any nervousness about presenting this story today?
No, I think you hit the nail on the head. We’re sitting there looking at the book, and we’re like, well, there was a cold war brewing between Russia and the United States. There were lots of fears about where the world would go, and would this nuclear race lead to our own extinction? If you’re going down a checklist, it was like, “Still relevant today. Still very relevant today. Still on the front page of all the newspapers today.” So, I don’t think we had to change as many of those themes as we anticipated going in. And that made me happy, I think that made all of us happy, because that’s overall what we’re trying to do with the science fiction we’re putting on our air, not just to do big adventure action shows and things like that, but we really want people to walk away thinking about the episode, or the mini-series, or the pilot, or whatever you watch on our channel in a way that makes you a little more informed about your world or reflect on where we are. I know those are lofty goals, but that’s what great science fiction does, so that’s our goal in our programming.
Without going into any spoilers, one of the most striking things about this story is the appearance of the aliens. Nobody was leery about that at all?
Oh, we were very leery about that. I mean, there was probably eighteen months from pressing go to the shot mini-series, and I want to say we probably spent a whole month just on that. On how to do it, whether we do CG or prosthetics or some combination of both, can we cast a person who can pull that off? It’s a very important part of the book, and it’s a very important part of our show. We did not take that lightly. So, leery, fearful, paranoid, all of those adjectives apply to our state of mind over that one issue.
I think it’s just so exciting that you guys are doing book adaptations like this, and it seems like you have a really heavy slate of book adaptations coming up. Could you talk about why you decided to move so heavily into adaptations of existing novels?
Well, there’s sort of the pragmatic TV executive reason, which is it always helps to have a piece of intellectual property that’s got a following, that people are passionate about. It helps that you’re not starting from zero. People know what you’ve got. You’ve got your core fan base that’s anxious to see the adaptation. So there’s that, but there’s also the other reason, that these novels do give you a good indication of the world you’re creating, and creating a world is so important in SF programming, it’s nice to have, essentially, a bible, which are either one novel like for Childhood’s End or a series of novels like for The Expanse or The Magicians, because you know where you’re going and you can get ahead of it and plan for it in a way that you can’t always do when a script that’s not based on anything comes in. But, that’s not to say we’re going to be exclusively based on novels, because I wouldn’t ever close myself out, or the network out, to that great script that sneaks its way through.
I did want to talk about what some of these books were, though, because some of my favorite novels are on this list. The ones I wanted to mention in particular: You have another Arthur C. Clarke book, 3001: The Final Odyssey. You mentioned The Expanse and The Magicians. And then also coming up, I wanted to mention Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Daniel Gregory’s We are All Completely Fine. That’s just really exciting.
That’s a big slate when I hear you rattle them off like that. I’m like, yeah, we actually have a big slate of books coming as well, and you’ve keyed on the ones we’re most passionate about.
How did those particular books come to your attention in the first place?
Well, you know, all of them are probably represented by someone in the organization who was a fan of it. Brave New World, and I hope I’m not outing her on this one, but Bonnie Hammer, our chairman, is a big fan of and always has been. 3001, an executive named Eli Kirschner was pushing that one really hard, and I think we all got more interested in 3001 as we dove into Childhood’s End and kind of fell back in love with Arthur C. Clarke. Hyperion, it feels like the entire city of Hollywood and Los Angeles comes up to me and tells me about that book everywhere I go, so I credit the entire industry. I could go on and on. Every one of the books . . . you know, there’s an executive named Bryan Crow who talked a lot about some of these. Everybody is pushing on a certain level inside the company.
Childhood’s End, The Expanse, and The Magicians are either out now or will be out within a month or so. Which of those is coming up soonest?
The order is Childhood’s End and The Expanse at the same time and then Magicians will follow those two early next year. There is also a show called Hunters, which Gale Anne Hurd of The Walking Dead is executive producing, along with a real superstar named Natalie Chaidez, which we went straight to series on; that will be in that same section. We have 12 Monkeys season two as well. We’re figuring out kind of the rest of the year right now as we speak.
One thing we were talking about in our last episode is that we think that Game of Thrones and The Expanse turned out so well because the authors were involved with the TV shows. Do you have plans to involve authors with some of these other TV shows?
Yeah, we’ve done it on every show. The authors who are alive are very involved in the show. Lev Grossman has been all over The Magicians, the show runners John McNamara and Sera Gamble are talking to him all the time. The Expanse guys are on the show as writers. They’ve written scripts even in the first season. That’s how I would very much prefer to do it, always. When we can, that’s how we’re going to do it here, because we want to honor that core fan base that is passionate about the material; otherwise, why are you doing it? If you haven’t gotten it already by our conversations and the stuff we’ve greenlit, we are really trying to focus on that core audience, and I think the way to do that is to respect the stuff they really liked in the first place.
If Hyperion is so admired in LA, how come it’s taken so long for it to come to television?
Well, any of your fans who have read the book know that it’s not the most obvious adaptation. There’s different points of view, there’s different stories, and it needs development, and you need to make a lot of choices in terms of the narrative, and where you’re going to start the story, and who you’re going to focus on. There’s just so many different great avenues you can pursue in that book. Those are always the most challenging. It’s kind of for the reasons I just talked about, because you do want to honor that fan base, but at a certain point you have to have a TV show that’s intelligible, that people are going to understand. It’s taken us a while on that one, but for all of the right reasons.
I guess if people don’t know, Hyperion is structured like The Canterbury Tales, where there are seven or so characters who tell their stories. Can you say anything about how you’ve decided to adapt it?
No, because we haven’t made those decisions yet. We’ve heard takes, we’ve looked at some storylines, all of that stuff, but we haven’t hit on the one we like. So, I would love to tell you that we’re very close, and we’ve got it nailed, but we just haven’t done it yet. But it is a priority, and it is something we want to figure out sooner rather than later.
Then another thing I really wanted to ask you about is—Syfy has something of a mixed reputation among hardcore science fiction fans. I’m sure you’re aware of this. Do you want to give your take on that?
Hardcore science fiction fans are a very discerning, very passionate group. I was at Comic-Con one time, and I got into a long discussion slash argument, before I was with the channel, and there was a group of guys there that felt that science fiction only takes place in space. It was kind of a fascinating argument. So, anything Earth-based, they didn’t think was science fiction. So, some of it is just what we love about our audience, their passion and their opinions—I think to a certain level you’re never really going to be able to satisfy everybody, right? I think another part of it might have been before we were properly funded thanks to the work Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe have done with the channel and with our new owners, you weren’t able to do hardcore science fiction like the stuff we have coming, particularly The Expanse, because you just simply didn’t have the budget. And if you don’t have the budget to go up into space, and to try to make that feel authentic, you might have to do some things that don’t play to the core as much as SF fans would like. We are sensitive to that, and we’re trying to appeal to that audience. That’s why I’m so excited to be on your podcast today, because I think you speak to the audience that is going to be excited about this stuff, and we’re trying to bring them back to our channel on a more consistent basis. But I’m happy that I can talk directly to that audience on podcasts like this and tell them sincerely that we get it, and that’s what’s motivating all of these greenlights, and all of these books that you mentioned, and a lot of our development.
It was kind of striking to me that just in preparation for this interview, I went back and looked through all of our old episodes, and I don’t think we have ever really talked about Syfy channel shows on this podcast since we launched it in 2010, and it’s not because we’re like boycotting the channel or something, it’s just the shows have not been what my friends and I were talking about, and certainly the things that you have coming up are things that we’re going to be talking about, so I definitely see a change in our posture toward the Syfy channel going forward.
Yeah, I get it. You might not have been watching us, but we’re all watching you, and our press people are fans of this show, and fans of all of the outlets where we can reach that, and we’re trying to be sensitive to that. I’m really happy to hear you say that.
I had a couple of questions from listeners I wanted to ask you. Megan Smith asks, “Are any female SF writers going to be having their works adapted by Syfy?”
Yes, we are actively pursuing one book in particular that I’m not going to mention because when I do, the option price will go up. But that is a priority of ours. And, there are so many great female authors out there today who don’t get the credit they deserve really, and I think if we can just get one of those shows on the air, or even in development, that people will really take note.
On our Facebook page in this discussion, Carrie Vaughn posted that she’d like to see adaptations of Nancy Kress, Zenna Henderson, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and Lois McMaster Bujold. And then Megan says she’d like to see Sheri S. Tepper. And I’ll just throw in myself Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. Those were both guests on our show in the past year or two, and I really thought those books were terrific.
That’s great. Well, I can tell you that within that list you just rattled off is the book I’m chasing right now. That we’re chasing. That we’re trying to get. So, is it Megan who asked that question?
Yeah, Megan Smith.
Megan is going to be very happy if we figure this out. And here’s the thing, even if we don’t get it, it’s a competitive situation. It will end up on another network. I hope it will end up on ours, but she’ll see . . . I think within the next three or four months there will be an announcement about the network that gets this particular novel. And the author is included in that list.
Okay, excellent. Then Anthony James says, “I’ve heard that you were ‘derebranding’; can you clarify what this means and whether you will be discarding the Syfy s-y-f-y name.”
Derebranding. You know, I’m the programming guy, so I’m not the brand guy, and my general take on that sort of stuff, when you look at other channels around the dial, whether they be FX or AMC or something like that, I’m a believer in, and probably any programming guy will say this, that the programming dictates the brand. I mean, who knew what AMC even stood for or what they were about until those shows came. So, I don’t really get into the branding, marketing part of the gig. There are other people here who do that. I’m just trying to make the shows speak loudly for who we are and what we want to be.
Right, yeah, because I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes, but certainly among my friends, there was the perception that the channel was attempting to distance themselves from science fiction fans, and I don’t know how big a deal the name change is, but there were things that would happen, like on Battlestar Galactica, different actors would say, “Oh no, this show isn’t science fiction because it’s good.” That kind of thing like really rubs fans the wrong way. What I would love to see, for once in my life, is an actor on a show like Battlestar Galactica who would say, “No, this show is science fiction, and it’s one of the best shows you’ve ever seen, and this is an example of how good science fiction can be when it’s done right. Watch it and see for yourself.”
Yeah, all of that stuff has been said by other people, and all I can really speak to is the last two years since I’ve been here. In the last two years, it’s certainly has not been that. I’ve never been told to apologize for being SF, or say this isn’t really SF, or any of that stuff. In fact, I’ve been told just the opposite. Again, I think the programs we put on the air will reflect that, and hopefully convert all of those people.
All right, cool. So, John Joseph Adams asks, and you probably can’t answer this, “I’d like to know how much those Childhood’s End and Magicians promo packages cost. The Childhood’s End one has a freaking videoscreen in it that autoplays a full-length trailer when you open it up. And the Magicians one was full of Brakebills swag: scarf, notebook, hat, etc.” I know you can’t say how much they cost, but do you want to just talk about . . .
You know, the truth is, I don’t even know how much they cost, but I like them just as much as he does. We do like to do that stuff. This network has had a long history of that, but it’s really, again, in the last couple of years . . . really in even the last few months, those kits have astounded me. We have a new press team. We have some people who have ascended up the marketing ranks who have just taken it to a level . . . I almost want to sell them to people because they’re so spectacular. But, no, I can’t really speak to the cost.
I just got on this list for these things, so I just started getting them, so I don’t know what kind of things the channel has been sending out in prior years, but this stuff is really impressive. Actually, the scarf I got, it’s a Brakebills scarf, which is the Hogwarts-like school in The Magicians. I was like, “This is a pretty nice scarf.” I’ve actually been wearing it around. My girlfriend says, “I think you’re the only person who would actually wear the stuff they sent you.”
You know what, keep wearing it. Keep wearing it until that show premieres. One of the fun [experiences] I had is I happened to be in New York when we showed that to Lev Grossman, and he flipped out for it. He just completely flipped out for it, because he is a flag-waving fantasy fan, and he just felt that that captured exactly what he tried to do with the show, and it was a really nice moment to see an author get to experience what you did.
Then Rory Carol says, “Are TV shows like theirs still working on the ‘appointment to view’ model, or are modern shows gearing more toward the binge watching trend we’ve seen with box sets and video-on-demand?”
Well, look, the answer is both. We’re all big TV fans here. I am. I have an almost three-year-old son. A lot of the viewing I do at home, because of that little three-year-old, can’t be live, so we’re aware of that. There’s a big percentage of our audience that still watches these things live, but we know, it’s not just live or DVR. It’s VOD, it’s pre-linear, it’s online in various sources. We’ve loosened the rules in terms of how we get these shows out there, because we want to get them out across every digital platform we can. Anywhere you would consume television or entertainment, we want to put it there, and ultimately, of course, we would love people to be watching them live, and stuff like that, but it’s a changing marketplace, and we’re just trying to be ahead of those changes. So, we recognize that. I mean, a gigantic portion of the 12 Monkeys audience came to the show after it’s live airing on all of these various platforms, so the measurement is getting better. It’s not where it needs to be, the way to monetize that is not where it needs to be yet, but we certainly recognize that.
Right, for example, you put out the pilot for The Expanse just as a downloadable file, and I think you’re doing the same thing with The Magicians?
Yeah, and we know what’s so great about the SF audience is through these message boards, through the io9’s of the world, AV Clubs, your show, we know where a lot of these people live. We know where they are. We know what’s important to them. And this is the first time in my career, with The Expanse, that I’ve ever been a part of one of these pre-linear releases, where we release it online before its airdate. So I’ve been trolling these message boards in a way that I never have before because I find it so fascinating. You get kind of a direct feedback, and I’m very happy with what people are saying, because I’ve been on those message boards for shows before that they’re not into, and that’s not fun. It’s really fascinating to see it, to have kind of that direct relationship with the viewers in that way.
I would really recommend people check out these pilots, because I think a lot of people have the idea of the production values of a Syfy channel show, and these new shows completely blow that out of the water. I mean, Childhood’s End, The Expanse in particular, they look as good as anything on television.
Or at the movie theater, honestly. There’s certain sequences in The Expanse, and I will tell your viewers throughout the duration of The Expanse and Childhood’s End, I very much agree with you. I think the effects are great. But, there’s one episode in particular, episode four of The Expanse, that we did some real heavy-duty effects. And it was one of those episodes that I read, and I loved, and I was just sort of looking at, and I’m like, “Are we really going to be able to pull this off?” And I was very happy with it. I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s the goal. That’s the goal with this investment is to really show people that we’re serious. Obviously you can’t do that every time, you can’t spend that kind of money on every show, but when we feel appropriate, we can go there in our company, and I have to keep saying it, because I think if they hear it they’ll keep investing, but Comcast, Bonnie Hammer, Dave Howe, are all very . . . the wallet will open for the right show, and that’s what makes it so exciting to have this job right now.
In all this time that you’ve spent kind of trolling through message boards, do any interactions that you’ve had stick out in your mind?
I did get into a sort of conversation with like eight people, obviously they had no idea who I was, and it was sort of around space operas. It was very informative for me because they were very specific on what they wanted, and what shows they loved, and it was a lot about Battlestar Galactica, and it was just a great forum for me to ask questions without them knowing who I was that we could then take back to our development.
What were some of the kind of things that they wanted to see in a space opera show?
There was one woman in particular, and it was really interesting because the conversation was about the amount of combat and the amount of war you’d want in a space opera. Does that come with the expectation as your exploring, as you’re out there in space? Is part of the quid pro quo of a space opera, “Okay, I want to see some heavy-duty battle.” And this one woman in particular didn’t like that piece of it. She was much more into the anthropology of exploration and learning about new places and new cultures and culture clashes and stuff like that, whereas three other people vehemently disagreed. So, it was an interesting point of view on it, and that’s what’s so great about these message boards and what’s so great about this job, is you can get really granular, and you can really geek out. But still, it informs how you approach something like The Expanse or some of our other shows.
There’s a thing that sticks in my mind toward the end of The Next Generation feature films. Jonathan Frakes was quoted as saying, “I think that Star Trek fans really want these to be action movies.” And I saw a video online totally disagreeing with that, and I think that expresses the views of myself and a lot of fans. That we don’t particularly want Star Trek or shows like it to be action movies. We want them to be smart. Basically, the smarter the better.
Yeah, I 1000% agree with you. When you’re doing action, I think you want to do it right, and I think you want to be inventive. And there’s certainly a lot of action in The Expanse and there’s some action sequences in Childhood’s End, but Childhood’s End in particular and the Arthur C. Clarke novel in particular didn’t go for the easy sort of set piece action sequence. I hate to say this, but some of Childhood’s End, some of the movies and things like that that ripped it off, went that route, in a way that I thought made those things less interesting than they could have been.
Absolutely. One thing I wanted to ask you about is, from your perspective as a TV executive, these shows that get cancelled, Farscape and Firefly in particular, that everybody I know loves, and I recognize that my friends are not representative of the general public—
Sure they are.
—I just have trouble understanding how shows that so many people that I know love so much end up getting cancelled. Can you explain that to me?
Just in a general sense?
Yeah, just in a general sense. But for space opera shows in particular.
We get a lot of grief for this that I think is kind of undeserved because we do more original programming than I think people realize. So, when you’re doing more original programming, the odds are you’re not going to be able to continue to renew all of them.
I will tell you that the worst day you can have in this job is the day you do that. Not just when you have to deliver the awful news to the producers and writers that you’ve spent years with and really feel a very personal connection with, but then the aftermath of the fan base who inevitably finds your email or something, or lights up those message boards. It’s a real horrible thing, and it’s something we try to avoid as much as we can, but just the practical parts of the job and the shows that kind of run their course and things like that take over, and you just have to do it.
I think the SF fans, because they’re probably more passionate than the average fan, take it a little harder, so I get it. And I’m one of those people. I’m certainly one of those people. There’s nothing I hate more than when a show I’ve invested this time into leaves after a year or two, and particularly when they leave me with some unanswered questions, because it’s just like, “Well, that’s terrible.” Because I wanted to find that out, or I wanted to live with these people longer.
With every cancellation, I think that people feel like we’re in here just sort of knee jerking, “Let’s cancel this. Let’s pick up that.” A lot of behind-the-scenes thought, a lot of ideas go into it, a lot of ways to honor the audience that has been there. I know it doesn’t feel like that all the time, but that is the truth.
I can definitely understand if a show is not getting great ratings that you cancel it. That this is a business, but it seems like, because the science fiction fans are so passionate, it seems like they have a potential more so than what the numbers by themselves would suggest. I mean, if you look at Star Trek: The Original Series, there were probably tons and tons of shows at that time that had much better ratings than that that are completely forgotten today, whereas Star Trek has grown into this multi-billion-dollar franchise.
Yeah, and look, that’s part of the gig. That’s part of my job and our job as a network. I am proud to say that 12 Monkeys, just to use that as an example, did well for us; the ratings didn’t make it such an obvious no-brainer to go into a second season of that show, but by the time we saw three or four episodes, we recognized the quality, and we said, “You know what? That’s not how we’re going to make this decision.” We just think it’s a good show that’s getting better and better every week, and season two, I’ve seen most of, and it’s better than season one, even. When we can, we do that. I don’t think people notice it until they cancel it sometimes, but we have. And why I like working here, why I like working for this corporation and this channel in particular, is we are willing to make those bets on quality.
It would seem like kind of a no-brainer to me to bring back shows like Farscape and Firefly that have such passionate fan bases, but maybe I don’t know all the factors. Why do networks take risks on completely new shows that no one has ever heard of when there are these really popular shows that have been cancelled sitting around that could be brought back?
You know, look, some of it could just be sort of the ego of these jobs, maybe like, “That was their show, I want to do something that’s wholly my own,” and if it lives somewhere else it really is not . . . There is a “sitting with a writer from the very beginning” kind of connection that you have working on a pilot, working through a show, that’s hard to get when you take a show that lives for three seasons or two seasons on another network. I mean, I think you’re seeing it happening. I think some cable channels have done it. I think some of the Netflixes and Amazons of the world have picked up shows that lived somewhere else, so I do think the world is changing that way, and I think it may continue to, because, you know, in a show like 12 Monkeys, just to use an example, while it didn’t get the linear rating out of the gate that we wanted, had we cancelled it, we’d be kicking ourselves right now because the VOD numbers were so spectacular. So, we saw a big audience come to it that way. I think you’re probably going to see more and more of that, and you may see a show cancelled prematurely and then a network reconsider because of the viewers finding it on another platform.
Okay, so you mentioned that growing up you would watch The Twilight Zone with your dad, and I really love those sorts of anthology shows. I don’t know if you’ve seen Black Mirror, but that was one of the things we loved the most on this show.
I not only saw Black Mirror, but we chased that show about as hard as you possibly could. I thought it was phenomenal. I got to know the creators really well. I adore that show. It’s the closest thing that I’ve seen to The Twilight Zone, so that was one of those things . . . kind of the one that got away, but I very much agree with you. I think that’s an amazing show.
You’ll definitely try to grab an anthology show like that if another one comes along?
Well, I think the bar is so high in anthology that you’ve got to be choosy now. There’s a show called Channel Zero: Candle Cove that we have greenlit that’s going to be anthology by installments, so six-episode installments each year, which is sort of like an anthology, but extended. It’s not going to be a weekly anthology like a Twilight Zone or a Black Mirror or something like that, but I love that. The Twilight Zone is my favorite science fiction show of all time. I’ve gotten into deep, intense arguments with Star Trek fans over this, but for me, it’s Twilight Zone, for better or for worse, that’s my thing. I would love that, but I think you also have to acknowledge if you’re going to do that, you really need the Rod Serling. You really need the person behind the camera who can create those kinds of stories each week, because a bad anthology is really bad.
Yeah, but I think one of the reasons The Twilight Zone and Star Trek were so good is because they brought in science fiction authors. I mean, you’re doing this now, but they brought in science fiction novelists to write for them. And it just seems natural to me because John and I, who started this show, are so involved with short stories, it just seems natural to me to just take all the best short stories of the past ten years and turn it into an anthology show.
Yeah, there are practical reasons why it’s hard to. Sometimes those short stories have different owners, so there’s ownership complications there. Then it’s sometimes they’re so diverse that it becomes impractical to be able to produce them on anything that resembles a timely television schedule, but those walls are starting to break down, and I think that’s an interesting idea. It’s also kind of about finding the stories that thread together thematically, and that’s what’s so brilliant about The Twilight Zone. Even though they were very diverse kinds of stories, they all felt that they were of the same mind, certainly because of Rod Serling, but also the same sort of themes, the same sort of ideas, because you do need to have some sort of thread. You mentioned Black Mirror, and that’s sort of the perils of technology and that’s the title: Black Mirror. They’ve done a brilliant job at that. Until you find that, I think it’s a tough thing to just jump into.
When the Sci Fi Channel first launched when I was in middle school, sort of what I imagined in my head, what I dreamed it would be, is they would have talk shows where they would interview my favorite authors. And part of the reason I do this podcast, obviously, is because I’m interested in that sort of thing, but there’s never really been stuff like that. I mean, there’s Prisoners of Gravity in Canada, that went for a while, and Sword and Laser was on YouTube for a while. Could you talk about what factors are involved in launching a science fiction talk show like that on a TV network?
I think a show like that would be challenging today because I can cobble together a lot of the interviews with my favorite film directors, or whatever, just online, and I think it’s just so much easier online to do stuff like that for the geeks like you and I who can’t get enough of that than to really, in my opinion, launch a television show that’s going to generate enough interest, week to week, among enough of an audience to keep it going. Some of these things . . . magazine shows are hard for the same reason. When you can just click your way out to your favorite author and find Arthur C. Clarke essays or old Arthur C. Clarke interviews or whatever and just do that online, it’s hard for me to imagine a show that would feel urgent enough or relevant enough to get an audience there on enough of a week-to-week basis to do it. But I could be wrong. Somebody may prove me wrong. I mean, I watch Charlie Rose every night. My wife is like, “What are you, an 80-year-old man?” So I am very into that, and I have a lot of patience for that, and if I don’t watch it that night, I’ll watch it the next morning. So I hear what you’re saying, I just don’t know if, given the choices you have with original programming, you’d want to spend it there.
That makes sense. We’re almost out of time, so I guess the last thing I wanted to ask you is, it’s so frustrating for science fiction fans to love these shows so much and just have them go off the air, and what I’ve heard is that by the time you hear that the show is going off the air, it’s really too late for you as a fan to do anything. That decision has already been made. So, obviously with all of these shows based on some of my favorite books coming out, I just want to know: What can I and what can our listeners do now, or in the days to come, to make sure that these shows don’t disappear on us?
Watch them. Tell their friends to watch them. Tweet about them. Facebook post about them. Fill up the comment boards about stuff you like. Because, like I said, we’re watching that stuff. All of it. Buzz in the day and age of this many great programs becomes a reason to pick up a show in a way, this year in particular, in a way that it’s never been before in this business. So don’t underestimate your ability as a viewer and as a passionate fan to really get out there. You have the forums now. There’s Syfy.com, there’s Facebook, there’s Twitter, there’s all that stuff. You can simply tell all of your friends to watch it, and somehow, some way, you’ll probably end up getting to Nielsen box owners. But, I really do mean, I think the power is in the hand of the consumer in a way it hasn’t been, but the earlier the better. Really, the earlier the better. I think there is some truth to, “Man, if those fans would have come out and mobilized after a cancellation during a run, in some form, it would have been a lot easier.” And a guy like me, who has bosses, and my bosses have bosses, we need to build a case about why to pick up a show. If we have these things we can point to, it makes our job a lot easier.
Right. Do you want to remind people, what are the things again that they should watch now or in the next month or so?
The first three biggies are the Childhood’s End mini-series, The Expanse series, followed by The Magicians. Then there is going to be a couple of things. Hunters will come after that; 12 Monkeys season two shortly after that. I mean, I could go on and on. I could name our whole schedule, but that feels sort of rude. I will say, because I haven’t talked about it, and I’ve got a whole crew of people who work hard on these things, that we have an alternative show that I kind of think your audience is going to dig called The Internet Ruined My Life.
Oh yeah, I looked at that.
It’s really fun and provocative and deals with this digital world and how one wrong tweet, one wrong Facebook post, can really impact your life. I just think it’s great. That one is also going to be coming. That one, along with these big, scripted shows, are the ones I’d love your viewers to prioritize.
I interviewed Jon Ronson earlier this year, and he had a book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, and that show was kind of looking like the TV version of that book.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really fun show, and oddly I think it fits our network because of all of the stuff we do around technology and how tech savvy we know our audience base is. I think they’re going to dig it, and I think your podcast fans should dig it. But, thanks for having me. This was really fun.
Great! We’ve been speaking with Bill McGoldrick. Thank you so much for joining us.
You got it.
* Syfy’s network name was previously “Sci Fi Channel,” but changed to “Syfy” in 2009. Since Bill McGoldrick’s time at the network began before the name change, we’ve attempted to use the proper network designation in each instance it appears in the interview, thus our usage of both “Syfy” and “Sci Fi.” -eds.
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