"I thought it was delicious!" Sci Fi Channel Executive Vice President, Original Programming Mark Stern declared near the end of our recent "Lunch at Michael's®" at Jsix in beautiful downtown San Diego during the Comic-Con convention.
Stern, who was recently named Co-Head, Original Programming for Universal Cable Productions in addition to his role at Sci Fi, wasn’t referring to the food, though we had enjoyed a fine meal. He was talking about the resolution of the current mother of all television mysteries, the Battlestar Galactica bombshell that has eclipsed even those nagging questions about the island on Lost: Who the heck is the twelfth Cylon?
"Do you want to know who the final Cylon is?" Stern had asked me over coffee, unable to prevent an I-know-something-you-don't-know grin from spreading across his face.
"Sure," I had casually replied, hoping that if I kept my cool he might actually tell me, even off the record.
No such luck.
The Final Five - Battlestar Galactica
Realizing that I wasn't going to leave the lunch with a direct answer, I had decided to learn what I could, so I asked Stern what his response was when he learned the secret millions of Galactica fans won't find out until sometime next year, when Sci Fi runs the ten remaining episodes of the series. "It was just right," he replied (after saying it was "delicious"). "It's one of those things that are right under your nose and you don't expect it -- but it makes total sense. I asked [Galactica executive producers] Ron Moore and David Eick, "Have you always planned this, because it's too well laid in over the last three years?" They wouldn't tell me.
"What's great about it is it doesn't feel arbitrary," Stern continued. "It feels like it could have been planned all along."
As Stern and I were talking, dozens of people were walking past the window near our table, and to judge by the bags they were carrying (and in some cases the costumes they were wearing) most of them were on their way to Day 3 of the 2008 Comic-Con at the San Diego Convention Center. In fact, Stern would be walking there himself after our lunch to attend what can only be described in hindsight as a milestone for Sci Fi Channel and the Con: A presentation featuring the last-ever appearance by the cast of Battlestar Galactica, at least during the actual run of the show. By the time the 2009 Con rolls around Galactica will likely have reached its conclusion, though two prequel movies are already in the works. (One of them is Caprica, a pilot for a possible series. The other does not yet have a title but will run on Sci Fi after Galactica ends.)
It is not an understatement to note that Galactica has played a critical role in Stern's career at Sci Fi. He joined the network six years ago, just as casting was under way for the 2003 Galactica miniseries that would kick-off the phenomenon to come and bring the network unprecedented critical acclaim and industry cred. "When I first heard, "Welcome to Sci Fi, the first thing you're doing is a Battlestar Galactica miniseries,' I was like, "Oh, God, no!'" Stern said with a laugh, recalling the cheesy 1978 series that started it all. "But then I read Ron's script and it was amazing. I got really excited about it. People underestimate how difficult this genre is, especially writers who have never done it before. I'm biased, but I think it's very easy to get wrong and very difficult to get right."
When Stern talks about science-fiction he isn't doing so with the standard forced-interest most television executives whip up for their project of the moment. He's been a sci-fi guy since his childhood in New York, when Lost in Space and the original Star Trek were early favorites. He was also a voracious reader with a passion for the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. As a teenager in the Seventies his favorite movies included Star Wars ("which kind of rewrote the playbook"), Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. "All those movies really took science fiction to a whole new level," Stern said. "It was a really interesting period for me, formatively. Those were the things that had a major impact on me."
Stern's love of science-fiction and desire to work in movies took a back seat during his college years at Dartmouth, where he intended to major in marine biology. "I quickly divorced that idea when I started taking real biology classes and realized how intense they were," he said. He changed his major to psychology, which proved somewhat serendipitous given that he would end up working in Hollywood. "Believe me," he laughed, "I use it all the time!"
After graduation Stern "packed up my Jetta and moved to Los Angeles." He worked as a literary agent's assistant at Writers and Artists Agency for about six months and then took a job as an assistant at Trilogy Entertainment Group, where during the 15 years that followed he worked his way up to partner and president of its television division. Among the projects he oversaw were the 2002 NBC movie Carrie and the long-running Showtime series The Outer Limits (like Galactica an updated version of a show from long ago). The final season of Limits actually ran on Sci Fi, which is how he got to know Sci Fi Channel President Bonnie Hammer. (Hammer is now President of NBCU Cable and Universal Cable Productions.)
"For me the most exciting project was The Outer Limits," Stern recalled. & "We did 100-plus episodes and got to do a totally different show every week. In terms of producing and writing it was never the same thing. We would do a time travel story and then a creature story and a cloning story. We got to explore all sorts of different forms. That was a great training ground for me."
After Carrie, an adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel which Stern described as "the master class of executive producing" because of its challenging logistics ("real fire with kids in a high school gym"), he said he felt like he had done everything he wanted to do as an executive producer. It was at that time that Hammer started talking with him about a position at Sci Fi. "I never really wanted to be a network executive until I started talking to Bonnie Hammer and Dave Howe. (Howe, now the President of Sci Fi Channel, was Executive Vice President of Marketing & Brand Strategy at the time. Read our Lunch at Michael's with Dave Howe.) I was tired of doing the straight-ahead, latex, space-driven science fiction. I really wanted to do other things. That was exactly what they wanted to do"
Stern noted that his wife Betsy and their 14 and 11-year-old children are "not particularly sci-fi friendly." That's a good thing, he added, "Because they have become my focus group. Our whole agenda [at Sci Fi] is how do we invite people in? That has been our mantra for quite a while and my specific agenda with our programming." The benefit of having a family "that is not particularly interested" in what does is that if his wife and kids take an interest when Stern watches dailies at home he gets "a sense that we're on the right track." He knew he was doing something right with the series Eureka when he discovered that his family was TiVo-ing it without his knowledge.
Like most parents of his generation, Stern is struck by the influence of digital media on his children. "I remember rushing home on Friday nights to watch Emergency," he recalled. "I would shout, 'Hurry up! We have to get home! It's almost 8 o'clock!'" (I couldn't resist telling Stern that he is the first person I have ever met who rushed home to watch Emergency. "I'm proud of that!" he replied.) His kids, on the other hand, "approach media in a whole different way," he said. "It's very much, 'I want it when I want it, on my time.' The immediacy of that is really interesting. As a parent it's something you have to manage. You don't get everything whenever you want it."
Stern agreed when I suggested that an entire generation of parents has been caught completely off-guard by the challenges of today's technology. In fact, he had a lot to say on the subject. "Is it appropriate for my 14 year old to be on MySpace and Facebook?" he mused. "How do I monitor that? When I went out, my parents saw me. I went to the movies, I came back, they smelled my breath and it was done. They knew my friends. My daughter is online at 9, 10, 11 o'clock at night. Who is she talking to? What are they talking about? At 10 o'clock at night she's doing her hair because she's about to get on iChat. We are the first [parental] generation that has had to deal with something like that, with things we never could have imagined."
This accelerating impact of technology and media is something Stern said he talked about a lot when he first arrived at Sci Fi Channel, and it is still a primary topic. "We're kind of living in the land of tomorrow," he observed. "There is very little around us now that makes us say, 'Oh, my gosh! That's extraordinary! I could never have imagined it!"
"Our time for astonishment feels like it is getting shorter all the time," he continued. "The iPhone is shocking and revelatory and then it's just another thing. What is that half life now, about two weeks? I still remember my first cell phone. It was a big one that I wore around my shoulder. It was amazing for quite a while. I'm firmly in the generation that started life with five television channels [and now has] 500. My kids will never know that. But I'm sure there are things they will be talking about at a table like this in 30 years, saying, "I can't believe it.'"
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