With Childhood’s End, Syfy Bets Big on Sci-Fi Classics
This past week Syfy premiered Childhood’s End, a six-hour adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic first contact novel. The show is part of an ambitious new slate of book-to-TV adaptations being overseen by Bill McGoldrick, Syfy’s new head of original programming. And while Hollywood is known for misguided rewrites of sci-fi classics, McGoldrick was determined to create a faithful adaptation of Clarke’s novel.
“We all just wanted to honor the book,” McGoldrick says in Episode 181 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And really give him the recognition that he was just so prescient, because all of the themes and all of the things he was writing about are so valid today.”
For years Syfy has tried to broaden their appeal beyond science fiction fans, populating the channel with ghost hunters, pro wrestlers, and low-budget creature features like Sharknado and Mansquito. And while that did pull in new viewers, it also alienated sci-fi fans. McGoldrick was brought in with a clear mandate: lure the fans back with smart, ambitious shows. Adapting classic books is part of that plan.
“We want to honor that core fan base that is passionate about the material,” says McGoldrick. “We’re 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 you don’t have the budget to go up into space and try to make that feel authentic, you might have to do some things that don’t play to the core as much as sci-fi fans would like,” McGoldrick says.
But things have changed. The success of core genre shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’s The Walking Dead have persuaded Syfy’s parent company, Comcast, to invest big in the channel. That means new Syfy shows like Childhood’s End and The Expanse are full of gorgeous visuals and jaw-dropping special effects. McGoldrick promises that future book adaptations, which include classic works by Aldous Huxley, Frederik Pohl, and Dan Simmons, will have a similar focus on quality.
“The wallet will open for the right show, and that’s what makes it so exciting to have this job right now,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with Bill McGoldrick in Episode 181 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Bill McGoldrick on sci-fi TV:
“It’s so funny how it’s evolved. Every time you brought in a sci-fi pitch in the late 90s, or heard one and got excited about it, the resistance you would face is people would say, ‘It’s too sci-fi. It’s not relatable.’ And I think that’s why you would see in those days so much watered-down science fiction, that was too sci-fi maybe for an audience that was not into science fiction but not sci-fi enough for the people that are probably listening to this broadcast right now. But that’s changed dramatically over the last few years. … You do not have to apologize any more for being sci-fi, and I do not at all—not here, not from Bonnie Hammer or Dave Howe or anybody here—feel a pressure to water it down in any way.”
Bill McGoldrick on canceling shows:
“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 with the fan base, who inevitably finds your email or something, or lights up the message boards. It’s a really horrible thing. … I think that people feel like we’re in here just sort of knee-jerking, ‘let’s cancel this, pick up that.’ A lot of behind-the-scenes thought goes into it, a lot of ideas, 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.”
Bill McGoldrick on ratings:
“12 Monkeys, just to use that as an example, did well for us, but the ratings didn’t make it such an obvious no-brainer to go to the 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, [the ratings] are not how we’re going to make this decision.’ … While [the show] didn’t get the linear rating out of the gate that we wanted, had we canceled it, we’d be kicking ourselves right now, because the VOD numbers were so spectacular. … I think you’re probably going to see more and more of that, and you may see a show canceled prematurely, and then a network reconsider because of viewers finding it on another platform.”
Bill McGoldrick on supporting your favorite shows:
“Watch them, tell your friends to watch them, tweet about them, Facebook post about them, fill up the comment boards about things 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. … The earlier the better. I think there is some truth to, ‘Man, if those fans would have come out and mobilized the way they do after a cancelation 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, and if we have these things we can point to, it makes our job a lot easier.”
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