syfy-logoThe New York Times today reports that the Sci Fi Channel has changed its name–or more accurately, its spelling.

The successful cable network will now be known as Syfy, pronounced exactly the same as its previous incarnation.

Why the shapeshift? True, there are trademark issues–as a generic term, “sci fi” can’t be protected. But the impetus to twiddle with the spelling goes beyond ownership.

In an effort to broaden its audience, the Sci Fi Channel has in recent years expanded its programming to include action/adventure, fantasy, paranormal, mystery, reality shows and even wrestling.

And apparently, the network is a tad embarrassed by its own core audience. Tim Brooks, who helped launch Sci Fi Channel in 1992, told TVWeek, “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.”

So how’s Syfy working out so far? Sci Fi Channel President, Dave Howe sounds practically giddy:

“When we tested this new name, the thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it,” Mr. Howe said. “It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip, which was kind of bang-on what we wanted to achieve communication-wise.”

… [Bonnie Hammer, the former president of Sci Fi] acknowledged that although “there’s always a little bit of risk” in change, Sci Fi executives are experienced in responding to outspoken viewers.

“With ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ we had such resistance from the fan base to changing it,” Ms. Hammer said of a series Sci Fi introduced in 2003, based on an ABC show from 1978-9.

“The upshot was, we ultimately won them over,” she added, and the series, scheduled to end on Friday, became one of the most successful on Sci Fi. It has inspired a spin-off, “Caprica,” to begin on Syfy in 2010.

There’s just so much wrong here. Where to begin?

First, the invented spelling is simply that. The sound of the name has not changed. It’s still “sci fi” to the ear. So the idea —and thus perception–of “science fiction” remains.  The network is attempting to have it both ways here–to keep the idea of science fiction but shed its geeky image–but it’s not working. Does making the name “textable” change the brand? Probably not in the way the network intends. Seems to me that it dumbs it down, which is exactly the wrong thing to do for this audience.

And speaking of audience, I question the network’s strategy of broadening its programming. Adding fantasy to the line-up is probably not an issue, as there’s a great deal of crossover for this audience. Fantasy and science fiction share the same shelves in bookstores, after all.  But action/adventure? Mysteries? Wrestling?

Thirdly, “Syfy” is no “Battlestar Galactica.” The Sci Fi Channel won over the show’s original fans by offering a magnificently produced, intelligently written reimagining. None of these descriptors can be aptly applied to the network’s rebranding effort.

Lastly, the tagline: “Imagine Greater.”  I’m imagining better grammar. Can I buy a direct object?

This brand’s dumbed-down spelling and nonsensical tagline contradict the intelligence of the network’s core audience. But they’re also a loyal sort–no other network provides as much fantasy and science fiction programming–so I doubt that the rebranding will turn off viewers enough to make them turn the channel.

But insulting one’s core customer is never a good move. Nor is expanding a brand so much that its essence is lost. Syfy is flying perilously close to the edge of that wormhole.