Widercasting: Cable Networks Abandon the Niche

Curator's Note

This week’s posts examined niching in the past (1980s children’s television), present (bronies’ and My Little Pony, exploiting fanboys) and future (the new YouTube). I posit that the primacy of the niche is decreasing in today’s splintered, digitized marketplace. Scholars, such as Turow (2008), argue that in an era of increased audience fragmentation, niche groups are highly valued, and media companies strategize to separate consumers into isolated clusters. However, I maintain that the cable television industry is undergoing several shifts that move it away from narrowcasting and towards creating a broad, general entertainment audience. 

This shift, which I call “widercasting,” is not occurring because new media technologies make it possible to consume more television, but because viewers actually are – by the millions – and it is in the networks’ economic interest to provide content that attracts a wider segment of the audience. Viewers have hundreds of channels to choose from and increasingly watch television in nontraditional ways. To succeed in a highly competitive environment, it’s necessary to target more than one narrow demographic.

General entertainment networks, such as USA or TNT, boast higher profit margins than their broadcast counterparts due to the combination of low costs, high ratings and subscriber fees. It’s no wonder that smaller, niche networks struggling with ratings are modifying their strategies to imitate that model.

Take the case of SyFy’s recent rebranding initiative. In 2009, the network announced a name change from Sci-Fi to SyFy along with a plan to feature broader programming. Executives admitted a desire to distance Syfy from "the stereotypical aliens-and-outer-space niche" while cashing in on the mass popularity of fantasy-leaning films, such as Twilight, that are taking the genre into the mainstream.

The difference can be seen in the promotions alone. Sci-Fi ads in the 1990s featured video clips that seemed like scenes taken directly from science fiction films, such as a planet rising up over a house and a mannequin coming to life – all clear attempts at attracting a niche audience. The latest tagline, “Imagine Greater,” and accompanying advertising campaign have mass appeal and apply to a wide spectrum of programming, not necessarily in the traditional science fiction genre.

So far, the bet has paid off as SyFy’s ratings and ad rates have increased since the rebrand. I assert it is but one of many examples of widercasting’s value to niche cable networks in the post-network era.


Has the programming become more diverse or is this just a way for Syfy to say, "we are embracing the recent wave of sci/fantasy fandom"? It seems to me that sci-fi and fantasy has become a more popular genre in the past 10 years and Syfy's rebranding is an effort to mirror that trend. ICould the rebranding be less about trying to reach a more diverse audience and more about welcoming the sci-fi audience that has grown over that 10 year span by creating a cable home for that content. The rebranding is a change in tone, "sci-fi is cool now" as opposed to an effort to bring in those that are not interested in sci-fi. What do you think?


Good questions. I agree that SyFy’s rebranding was motivated by a desire to move the programming more mainstream as the genre did and to capitalize on that audience. However, the language of SyFy executives when describing the move signals reveals that it’s about more than just refreshing the brand.  For example, Syfy president Dave Howe said in an interview with Ad Age, “We don’t want to be in the niche space; we want to be in general entertainment.”

Also, when you take a look at the data before and after the shift, it indicates that with the niche strategy, ratings and revenue were struggling. With widercasting, 2011 had the highest ratings for SyFy ever – up 14% in adults 18-34 from 2010, which was already up 10% from 2009.  In addition, SyFy saw a 6.6% boost in ad sales in the first year of the rebrand. The media industry's economic imperatives are forcing networks to seek broad, not narrow, audiences. 

Moreover, it's not just SyFy. That's just one case in an overarching trend in cable television. History expanded its programming from being known as “the World War II channel” to hit shows like “Swamp People,” “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers.” Lifetime’s been trying to do the same thing since they acquired “Project Runway” from Bravo. They want to stay within the female demographic, but broaden the niche to include women with variant interests. Instead of focusing on women-in-jeopardy films, they’ve had great success with made-for-TV movies with mainstream appeal like the recent “Will and Kate” biopic. 

Widercasting is a prevalent strategy because narrowcasting is no longer economically viable. Niche television audiences are simply too small a piece of the pie to be profitable in the current media environment.  

While I can see the appeal of reaching larger audiences, I would think most networks will still have to walk a tightrope between catering to a niche audience and trying to increase their ratings.  First, it must be said that trying to become a general network is not necessarily an ironclad strategy.  I’m under the impression that while general networks like TNT and USA reach relatively large audiences, they do not exactly garner strong loyalty.  Thus, if these networks push their subscription fees too high, it’s not going to cause a viewer revolt if the cable companies eventually wanted to drop them.  I would assume this is part of the reason why TNT has been increasingly venturing into the world of sports and arranging big deals to broadcast things like the NBA and the NCAA tournament.  Whether or not TNT knows drama, few viewers love TNT the way that faithful Maddow viewers love MSNBC.  Therefore, the network must find other ways to become undroppable.

Moving on to the rest of cable, I actually think The History Channel is an example of the continued allure of narrowcasting.  While it may seem that the addition of shows like Ax Men and Ice Road Truckers signals a new direction for the channel, the network may just be finding new ways to chase after the same demographic that loved Hitler and the Occult.  A Wall Street Journal article from 2010 makes it clear that shows like Ax Men are not intended for everyone -- the channel is aiming pretty squarely for a certain type of upper middle class men.  So, while the overall audience for The History Channel may have grown in recent years, it is not necessarily because the channel is trying to reach a wider segment of the population.  Here I should also point out that The History Channel’s continued cultivation of this specific audience has ensured strong brand loyalty -- much stronger than general networks.  Furthermore, the example of The History Channel also makes me wonder if Ethan has a point and if SyFy’s rebranding is more about shifting tone rather than trying to reach a more diverse audience.

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