Will SyFy's Comic Book TV Show Gambit Pay Off?

NBCUniversal's SyFy network recently announced a total of four comic book adaptations that are in the works. Is the network just trying to see what will stick with comic audiences, or is there a plan in place?

May 14, 2014 at 8:48AM

Comics are all the rage in Hollywood. In addition to big-budget comic adaptations from companies like Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) Warner Bros., and Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) dominating the box office, small-screen heroes and comic adaptations are becoming much more common. While the majority of these have been based on properties from Disney's Marvel Comics and Time Warner's DC Comics, the success of "The Walking Dead" reminds us that an adaptation doesn't have to be based on DC or Marvel properties to be popular.

Hoping to take advantage of this, Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) SyFy network has announced plans for comic adaptations of its own. However, unlike other networks such as ABC and the CW, which are using a more organic spin-off model to gradually add more shows, SyFy is jumping right into the fray with four adaptations announced right off the bat.


Clone no. 6
Source: Image Comics

SyFy's comic slate
The first adaptation announced by SyFy is "Pax Romana." The adaptation will be based on a four-issue Image Comics limited series that sees the Vatican sending modern weapons and enhanced soldiers to ancient Rome in an attempt to prevent a world war and secure its future. Things go wrong, of course, because travelling through time to fix the future and bring about your own version of peace seldom goes well.

In addition to "Pax Romana," there were three additional comic adaptations announced: Frank Miller's limited series "Ronin," "Clone" from Robert Kirkman's Skybound imprint, and "Letter 44" from Oni Press. "Ronin" and "Pax Romana" will be broadcast as miniseries events, while "Clone" and "Letter 44" will receive the full series treatment. 

Part of the new trend
SyFy isn't the only network placing bets on comic adaptations. Comcast's NBC network recently unveiled the trailer for "Constantine," based on DC Comics' "Hellblazer" comics, while Twenty-First Century Fox is taking its "Batman" prequel series "Gotham" direct to series. Disney's ABC renewed Marvel Studios' "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" and ordered a first season of the "Agent Carter" limited series.

Meanwhile, Time Warner's The CW network has ordered season three of "Arrow," a first season of "The Flash," and a first season of its adaptation of DC Comics' "iZombie." Comics are hot properties, and these adaptations attempt to cash in on the popularity of big-screen superhero films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2013's Man of Steel.


Frank Miller's Ronin
Source: DC Comics

Why so many?
The big question is why SyFy is launching so many adaptations now instead of easing into them with only one or two titles. When you stop and think about it, though, that's essentially what it is doing. Since "Pax Romana" and "Ronin" will use a miniseries format, they'll air as one-time events over the course of a few nights and won't have any further impact on the network's viewership. While they may bring in a number of viewers and possibly score decent ratings, it's "Clone" and "Letter 44" that will carry the weight of being longer-term adaptations.

Splitting its adaptations across different genres as well as different series formats allows SyFy to leverage its programming, casting a wide net to draw in viewers. This allows the network to throw multiple comic properties at the audience and see what sticks, potentially fueling either repeat viewership for the two series or eventual DVD/Blu-ray/digital sales for the two miniseries. Being able to use names like "Kirkman" (who will also help produce "Clone") and "Miller" may also help to draw in viewers who are fans of the comic creators' works.

Will it pay off?
When a lot of people think of SyFy, low-budget B-movies like Sharknado come to mind. The network has had a number of successful TV shows and miniseries events, though, including "Battlestar Galactica," "Eureka," and "Dune." Unfortunately, it also finds itself short on major hits with growth potential at the moment. Branching out into comic adaptations might help to change that.

Moreover, this could indicate a shift in the network's programming plans to draw a little closer to its science fiction roots than some of its past programming offerings. All four of the adaptations will deal with science fiction concepts in some way, and this will fit in well with other recent shows such as "Dominion" and "Z-Nation" that the network has ordered.

Of course, there's always the possibility that none of the shows will hit very big.

This is another area where offering two of the adaptations as miniseries events pays off -- if they aren't popular, SyFy won't have to try and find a new property to take the place of the shorter events. While the two other adaptations will have to entice audiences, the source material (a man discovering that he has been cloned and a president informing his successor about a looming alien invasion) offers the potential for at least a solid season of each if not a chance for larger franchises.

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John Casteele has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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