Sci Fi applies beta test to series to enhance viewer involvement

The Sci Fi Channel is giving viewers a unique opportunity to offer commentaries on its latest proposed series, Outer Space Astronauts.

The Sci Fi Channel is giving viewers a unique opportunity to offer commentaries on its latest proposed series, Outer Space Astronauts.

The network is allowing audiences to play "TV executive-for-a-day," by giving visitors exclusive online access to five video vignettes, as well as a short survey on their thoughts about the series. This will help the executive producers determine whether the support is there to launch the show.

"This gave us an opportunity to determine how well it would resonate with audiences," says Craig Engler, SVP of and Sci Fi Magazine, via e-mail. "Because the pitch [had] these five test vignettes, we had enough material to show viewers and see firsthand what they think. Ultimately, the decision to greenlight any show still depends on many factors, but this gives us additional information that we've never had access to before."

Why does it matter?

"Not only do we get to see how the concept works in front of a live audience, we're also involving our viewers with our network and our brand in a way that's never been done before," notes Engler. "We're pulling back the curtain and inviting everyone behind the scenes with us, and that fosters a real sense of camaraderie and partnership with our viewers."

The beta test of products is much more common in the tech industry, where companies like Microsoft invite testers to try out software to help the company work out kinks. Mozilla, the maker of open-source browser Firefox, actively solicits help from the community to make its product better.

"It makes a lot of sense for many software and Web companies to run a beta program because of the quality feedback you can get from beta users that helps to improve the final version of your product," says Paul Kim, director of product marketing for Mozilla Corp., via e-mail. "You can also generate early interest in advance of a final release."

Five facts:

1. When its TV series Battlestar Galactica was on hiatus, Sci Fi released 10 webisodes, which have been viewed more than 6.5 million times.

2. The kickoff launch of Microsoft Vista in January featured a "human billboard," with some of the 5 million beta testers who offered their input attending.

3. MTV Networks' Music Group allows viewers to interact with programs like The Real World by submitting themselves for consideration as cast members.

4. Last spring, Mozilla encouraged filmmakers and Firefox fans to submit short films about the product in a "Firefox Flicks" contest to promote the browser.

5. AOL relied on beta testers when launching AOL OpenRide, a new free software product that gives users access to e-mail, IM chats, Web pages, and a digital media center.

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