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SciFriday: Don’t Blame Mark Stern For ‘Caprica,’ SGU

Airlock Alpha’s headline said it correctly … promotion was well-deserved


Mark Stern finds himself in a very unique position. I can’t think of any other network or cable channel where fans pretty much know the head of original programming.

Think about it. Who does original programming for CBS? For FX? How about TNT?

Programming chief is one of those positions that’s usually deep in the background. Whether you succeed or fail is something that makes it not much further than the front office, and that’s about it.

But Mark is someone fans know very well at Syfy. Either he’s heavily praised, or he’s heavily attacked. Yet, anyone who pays attention to what Syfy is airing and what it isn’t knows all about Mark Stern.

Thursday, NBC Universal — Syfy’s parent — announced that Mark was being promoted from executive vice president of programming to president of programming. What does that mean necessarily? Maybe a small payraise, and a nicer addition to his resume on the surface. But looking at the big picture, it means that NBCU is very proud of the work Mark has done, and that Comcast Corp. — when they complete their purchase of NBCU — plans on keeping him around.

And yes, that’s a good thing.

It’s funny, when you look at “Caprica” and “Stargate: Universe,” there seems to be dislike for Mark no matter which side you’re on. If you were a fan of either show, you blame him for their cancellation. If you weren’t a fan of either show, you blame him for developing them in the first place.

But let’s be clear. Mark Stern doesn’t handle scheduling on the network. He helps develop new programming. I’ve never asked him if he was unhappy about moving these two shows to Tuesdays, but I bet if he were to give a straight answer, he wouldn’t be. It was just an ill-advised move, maybe almost bone-headed. But it wasn’t Mark’s move.

Mark also is not the person who put wrestling on Syfy. That’s the job of others. Remember, Mark’s title involves “original programming.” That means shows Syfy actually produces. And when you look at his track record, it’s pretty darn amazing.

Mark joined Syfy in 2002. At the time, “Stargate SG-1” was doing well, and “Farscape” was still on the air. Both were solid shows for the then SciFi Channel, but for the most part, this part of cable was mostly forgotten by the average person.

But Mark has put Syfy on the map. One of his earliest moves was to commission “Battlestar Galactica” after Fox passed on the project. He brought in Ronald D. Moore to try a reimagination rather than a continuation. It was a highly controversial move at the time, but ended up being an historical move.

“Battlestar Galactica” put Syfy on the map. It proved that not only can television science-fiction be as deep and meaningful as it once was in the 1960s, but that Syfy itself can produce it.

It’s one thing to push smart programming. But it’s another to get shows that viewers want to see. Mark did that as well. Look at the summertime schedule of shows like “Eureka” and “Warehouse 13.” They don’t have the darker tones and critical acclaim of a BSG, but they have a large audience base, and the shows are fun and interesting.

And Mark is not afraid to take chances. Amanda Tapping was part of a web series that was gaining a sizable following. Mark recognized the potential, and picked up “Sanctuary” as a series, and it’s now a very popular show for the network, now in the middle of its third season.

Were there bumps in the road? Of course. No one can predict every hit, or what will resonate with fans. “Flash Gordon” was a disaster. We could’ve done without “Painkiller Jane.” And what exactly was “Mad Mad House”?

But Mark Stern is a human. And he’s very passionate about science-fiction. Very passionate.

Right after Syfy rebranded, I was in Vancouver for the cable channel’s annual press tour. I almost didn’t go because I was going as a reporter, and was afraid too much attention might be focused on me because the whole “Syfy” naming thing was still fresh in a lot of people’s heads.

At the welcoming dinner with the network president and a lot of the various executives of Syfy, I found a spot away from most, doing everything I could to stay in the background. Up until a couple months before, I had been in a rather messy public relations battle with Syfy over its incessant need to claim they created the name, when it was obvious that I did. I didn’t know how some of the executives were feeling about me at the time.

But then Mark came right over to where I was sitting, sat down across from me, and spent a good 30 minutes excitedly talking to me about what was coming up on Syfy. Mark and I had never really talked that much before, and I never realized how passionate he was for the channel, for the genre and for the fans.

Mark is a fan of the fans. And from that moment on, I was a fan of Mark’s.

Comcast had made it clear that when they take over, they’re cleaning house. But not at Syfy. And that’s good.

We might not agree with everything they are doing, but we can agree on this: They do have the fans in mind at Syfy, and as long as Mark Stern is there guiding the original programming ship, we can expect some great entertainment to come.

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