EXCLUSIVE: Syfy has given a 12-episode order to Alien News Desk, a weekly half-hour topical animated series starring Will Forte and Heidi Gardner. The show, which will debut in early 2019, marks Syfy’s first original late-night animated series.
Alien News Desk has a strong Saturday Night Live pedigree. In addition to current SNL cast member Gardner and former star Forte voicing the two leads, SNL boss Lorne Michaels executive produces alongside SNL producer Erik Kenward as well as SNL: Weekend Update head writer Dennis McNicholas, who serves as showrunner.
Alien News Desk is set in an extra-terrestrial newsroom that covers up-to-the-minute news and commentary about the universe’s most baffling species – the inscrutable Humans of Planet Earth. Hosted by animated is the universe’s real news – give or take a few intergalactic translation errors.
Forte will voice news anchor Drexx Drudlarr alongside co-anchor Tuva Van Void (Gardner) in Alien News Desk, described as a Weekend Update from the point of view of animated aliens.
Michaels’ Broadway Video is producing alongside animation studio Bento Box Entertainment (Bob’s Burgers) whose Joel Kuwahara and Scott Greenberg also executive produce. For Broadway Video, Andrew Singer exec produces and Katy Jenson co-executive produces. Additionally, Scott Gairdner, creator of the Comedy Central animated series Moonbeam City, which also starred Forte, is co-executive producer.
Alien News Desk is slated to air at 11 PM as a companion to Syfy’s acquired animated series Futurama. The network pursued aggressively the rights to Matt Groening’s futuristic comedy when they became available. The reruns have been a success, boosting Syfy’s late-night ratings by 13% in the adults 18-34 demographic and bringing new audiences, with 69% of its viewers new to the network (3Q18). That encouraged Syfy brass to use Futurama as a platform for launching a foray into original adult animation series.
“I think this is a real opportunity for Syfy to open up a new area of business for us, which is late-night original animation,” said Chris McCumber, President, Entertainment Networks for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, who oversees USA Network and Syfy.
Heather Olander, SVP, Alternative Development & Production for USA & Syfy, tracked down Alien News Desk, which at one point had been in development at MTV, and brought it to Syfy where topicality is already part of the brand via Syfy Wire, which has grown into the #2 genre site.
“We loved it because it was a way for us to do topical animation and doing a take on what’s happening in real life from an alien point of view, which we think is a really fun way to do it,” McCumber said. “Politics, current events are covered ad nauseam. People do it way better than SyFy can but what we can do is bring a point of view that’s completely different, completely unique and something that’s not there in the marketplace right now.”
To accomplish that, Alien News Desk will have a relatively quick turnaround in the vein of South Park. While it won’t air the same week, it will be fast enough for the program to feel current referencing ongoing and recent events. While topical, the bulk of the show will have evergreen material so episodes could be rerun months later and not feel out of date.
As it prepares to launch Alien News Desk, its second original animated series ever, Syfy is already in development on others.
“We look at this as a late-night playground for us,” McCumber said. “In the world of genre animation, we want to open it up to experimental indie projects,” regardless of the length. “If there is a series of five-minute shorts that is really out there, really fun animation, we would figure out a way to get it on the air.”
Syfy’s animation push comes amidst an unprecedented boom of adult animation fare, with more than a dozen new series ordered over the past year across Fox, TBS, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, CBS All Access, Apple and DC Universe.
Adult Swim was a pioneer in putting edgy adult animation original series in late night as an alternative to off-network sitcoms and dramas that traditionally had occupied the time period on basic cable networks. The block, led by flagship series Rick and Morty, has enjoyed a tremendous ratings success in the young demographics, with other networks taking notice.
“If you look at the top 30 shows every day in cable, you see a lot of unscripted and a lot of animation. It’s mostly, at this point, one network and we think there’s an opportunity there. Why should Adult Swim have all the fun?,” McCumber said. ” My favorite show on TV right now is Rick and Morty. I think it’s brilliant, I think the writing is amazing. It’s a show that when I watch it, I’m exceedingly jealous of, I will say that. I think that to me it is the high bar as far as the type of animation that SyFy would want to do.”
Alien News Desk is part of Syfy’s brand evolution. Over the past couple of years, following the blockbuster success of The Magicians, the network scaled back on unscripted fare, instead making a major investment in premium scripted content with a focus on edgy, younger-skewing shows with offbeat, quirky, off-kilter sensibility, including adaptations of comic/graphic novels, breakout hit Happy!, the upcoming Deadly Class and the Resident Alien pilot.
Both The Magicians and Happy! bring new and younger viewers to Syfy, which also caters to its existing fanbases with series based on well known IP and auspices, like Krypton and Nightflyers.
“You’ve got big, high-end scripted swings — Magicians, Deadly Class, Nightfliers — that bring in a wonderful audience; it’s raised the CPMs for Syfy by 90%. We’re going to continue to do that and go all in,” McCumber said about the network’s content strategy. “At the same time, we look at Syfy Wire as being a content factory where we can take 50, 100 swings because it’s lower cost, lower risk and we might be able to develop a real franchise for the linear channel out of what we’re doing there.”
McCumber gave an example with The Great Debate, a panel franchise Syfy Wire does at the Comic-Con conventions where well-known genre experts debate different topics. “It’s become so popular at the Cons, we’re now developing that for SyFy itself,” he said. “We might also be discovering something on Syfy Wire in the animated world.”
Added McCumber, “We feel like that’s the heart of the brand: high-end scripted, topicality of Syfy Wire and the ability for the two to work together.”