Buyer’s Corner-Thomas Vitale, Buyer for SCI FI Channel:Not Looking for Your Dad’s Space Fiction

Thomas P. Vitale, senior VP, acquistions, scheduling and program planning for the SCI FI Channel is not only a consummate science fiction fan (he’s known to his cohorts as a walking sci-fi encyclopedia, he attends sci-fi conventions, and outreaches to fans through online chats on SCIFI.COM.), but he’s also a big animation buff. So, it’s not surprising that Vitale was the SCI FI exec to give original animation a big push once he saw the blazingly bawdy pitch for Tripping the Rift.

Created by animators Chuck Austen and Chris Moeller and originally released as a short by the now-defunct Film Roman online entity, Level 13, the series was eventually pitched to Vitale as a co-production between Film Roman and Canadian-based Cinegroupe. Although the creators are no longer involved, the show has morphed into an over-the-top sexy satire that garners high marks from the 18-34, mostly male, crowd.

Vitale, who appears to have an eye for hits–he supervised SCI FI original series like Farscape–explains that he’s tentatively looking for a show that might serve as a complement to Rift. But, you definitely have to have your act together if you want to pitch to Vitale. One of the first employees of the cabler, he definitely knows what’s best for SCI FI.

Rita Street: Tell us a little about the history of animation on the SCI FI Channel.

Thomas Vitale: Eleven years ago, when the Channel first signed on, we aired animation for kids. We had a block called Cartoon Quest that stripped two hours a day and on Saturdays. We ran off-network and off-syndication product and even fresh series straight from Japan like The New Adventures of Gigantor–(which SCI FI paid to have re-voiced). We ran Robotech and the original Land of the Lost, but there was so much competition out there that kids didn’t come to us. We got much better ratings with adult-oriented product, so we ended the animation block.

We didn’t totally drop animation though. I’m a huge fan of animation and anime so we started to pick up anime movies and premiered some in primetime, including Akira. We were the first in the U.S. to air Akira, about nine years ago. We also aired Lensman, the original Vampire Hunter D, Robot Carnival, Dominion Tank Police 1 & 2, Demon City Shinjuku, and many others. We got a lot of attention when we first introduced anime because no one else was running it. It was a daring and interesting move, so we got a lot of media coverage. But soon after that, MTV launched some of its cutting edge animation, then Cartoon Network started to air anime. The novelty wore off and the ratings dropped. At the same time we were really growing our adult dramatic fiction.

RS: So there was little hope for animation after that?

TV: No, in the back of our minds we thought that if the right product came along, why not go for it? That’s why when Tripping the Rift came along we got excited. So, it wasn’t like we were out there soliciting animation pitches. On the other hand, we didn’t have a closed-door policy towards animation.

RS: What was it about Tripping the Rift that caught your attention?

TV: Well, the producers brought in the short and then a pitch about what the series could be. We liked the short because it wasn’t just funny, it was daring and sexy and smart. Plus, it met our needs–it was sci-fi, but broader. It wasn’t just for sci-fi fans, it had the potential to attract a larger audience because of its cultural satire. And, to grow ratings we have to have something like that, a show that attracts both audiences– fans and general viewers.

RS: So once you signed on to air Tripping the Rift, how involved were you in the development process?

TV: SCI FI was very involved. The series uses the short only as a jumping off point, so there was a lot of development that had to be done. I might have been the point person who worked directly with the producers and writers, but everyone at SCI FI worked hard on the show’s creative and marketing, including the network’s president, Bonnie Hammer.

We really worked to steer clear of just wink-wink, nudge-nudge humor. We challenged ourselves to dig deeper and make each episode about something bigger than only juvenile humor. So now we have an episode about religion and God and the nature of God, an episode about the death penalty, one about the world of sports and the exploitation of athletes, one on gun control, and another on nature vs. nurture. We do have sex jokes and silliness and slapstick–that’s important too–but we also ask bigger questions. Plus we throw in current satire about Martha Stewart and wardrobe malfunctions and use a lot of Bush references. There are also a lot of sci-fi jokes that you won’t get unless you’re a knowledgeable fan.

RS: Well, obviously all that development work, especially in the writing, really paid off. Considering the success of Tripping the Rift, will you be looking for more animation?

TV: It’s sort of the same thing. If we can find another property or another idea to pair up nicely with Rift–one that works for the genre and the Channel–then we’ll definitely pursue it. But we’re not out there saying we have to have another show. So, yes, we are taking some animation pitches, looking at what might makes sense, but we’re not forcing the issue.

RS: Can you define for our readers the mission statement for SCI FI Channel acquisitions?

TV: We look for anything that’s “of the imagination.” From a branding point of view, it’s the “if” in the middle of SCI FI that we go for. Philosophically, we ask “what if?” We’re looking for programming that fits the genre, but we have a broad definition that includes traditional sci-fi that’s futuristic, involves space or time travel or aliens, but we also include horror, fantasy and the supernatural as well. Earth-based sci-fi is also very important to the Channel right now.

RS: If a creator wants to pitch a show that meets the needs of your brand and is a complement to Rift, what other elements should they consider in order to win you over?

TV: To get your concept to SCI FI, it has to come through an agent. Plus, you need to hook up with a producer who has sold to television before, someone with credibility. The producers of Rift didn’t come to us and say, “Hey, here it is; you finance it.” They came in as an international co-production with part of the financing and with a great deal of experience producing adult animation. Since animation isn’t what we do on a regular basis, it really helped to have that comfort level. We paid a license fee that helped finance production and wegave the show national exposure. All that said, the most important thing to do is pitch to a producer or a production company first, and then pitch to SCI FI after.