overthinking the idiot box

April 24, 2006

Feature
Fans vs. Show-Runners

by Vicki Karigiannis and Joelle Tjahjadi

Loyal viewers might eventually become fans, and what are fans but normal people like us who champion shows we are passionate about?
Fandom and television are, for the most part, intricately intertwined. Television is written for the masses, and each show generally targets a specific demographic in the hope of attracting a core group of interested viewers. Loyal viewers might eventually become fans, and what are fans but normal people like us who champion shows we are passionate about?

With the onset of the internet, fans were able to voice their opinions to a large audience, and not just any audience at that, but one that is interested and engaged in the same topic. Sites like Television Without Pity (TWoP) and show-specific fansites encourage this. These websites are the global watering hole for fans to dish on the latest and greatest on Gilmore Girls or The O.C. Some of these sites (notably TWoP) have become so large and so popular amongst fans that they can be considered mainstream.

Producers, writers and even the networks themselves are taking note, and well they should. These people have a vested interest in finding out what the fans want from their nightly entertainments and the best places to gauge fan reaction are online fan forums where one can read fan response to specific shows, episodes and characters. TV programs are, after all, a kind of consumer product, and if the consumer isn't satisfied, it behooves the producer to find out why.

But in the end, shows are for the viewers, and these viewers have very specific wants. If these wants aren't met, consumers will turn to other venues to feed their increasingly finicky appetites, and with other forms of entertainment out there, there is little margin for error.
A television program is a cultural product that is consumed by viewers. Yes, any show that comes into existence could be to amuse its creator; a chance to take an idea and bring it into being. But in the end, shows are for the viewers, and these viewers have very specific wants. If these wants aren't met, consumers will turn to other venues to feed their increasingly finicky appetites, and with other forms of entertainment out there, there is little margin for error. The television audience needs (and even demands) a stellar product to stay happy and be willing to return for more. That is, ultimately, the goal of television: to sell its story and satisfy its viewers. Happy viewers result in high ratings, which lead to a good chance at network renewal and more seasons of the show. This eventually leads to the ultimate goal: a happy (and profitable) life in syndication heaven.

Fans have the power to make or break a television series. Ardent fan support led to the online fan petitions that saved Family Guy and kept Arrested Development on-air for as long as it was. This is why TV executives, producers and writers turn towards the fanbase of their shows to gauge what fans like and dislike. Fan reactions are very much of interest, and the more shows they can broadcast that will garner viewer attention, the better off they will be. After all, the higher ratings a show gets, the greater the possibilities that networks get for advertising revenue.

While online fans are only a small proportion of the actual viewing audience and may not be a representative sample, they can provide valuable qualitative feedback on programs that Nielsen ratings just cannot convey. This is the kind of input that television executives need to hear. Nielsen ratings merely give numbers. Viewer opinions provide the kind of feedback that give showrunners and the networks solid information to work off of to improve their current shows, and perhaps even introduce new ones next season.

For most TV show runners, the posts on fan forums are an insightful look into fan desires and interest. It is a way for them to find out what fans want out of a show, and how they feel about what they are actually getting. It is a very real and immediate form of feedback, and show creators are turning to fan reaction as a kind of measurement of success.

Josh Schwartz, creator of popular California-based drama The O.C., saw ratings drop during the show's second season, and did not know why. A read through of TWoP's O.C. message boards made the reasons for fan dissatisfaction abundantly clear. He quickly noted that viewers were not receptive to the writers' introduction of secondary characters and the resulting break up of popular character relationships. Furthermore, fans were quick to point out multiple plot holes and were angered by what they perceived as illogical plot twists.

While the writers thought they were creating interesting situations, fans were actually unimpressed with what they perceived as unnecessary drama. Schwartz realized that he had to rectify matters quickly, before the ratings really took a nosedive. So he fixed things. And fast. He re-established all the relationships as they were in the first season and moved back to focus mostly on the show's primary characters.

Veronica Mars' Rob Thomas also sees the importance of appeasing fans. As he told Salon:

I haven't taken a plot idea, but we certainly react to what they're responding to. I mean, it does influence what we do here, without a doubt. We try to be really careful with our continuity and with our clues. They catch everything. So part of it is just that voice in the back of the head, when you could have a lazy TV moment, and you realize, "No, no, the fans notice." So it's good that they're there for that. And also, who are they reacting to? Who do they like? Who do they not like? It does make a difference. And certainly if they say something like, "This character's boring me," I notice. For me, it's like, well, we better give him something cool to do.

But even Thomas draws the line at catering to the fans' every whim: many of his viewers have negative opinions about the character of Deputy Leo. Thomas, however, loves the character and finds him an asset to the program. Thus, this still leaves room for organic storytelling and for a creator's show to continue according to plan without any real outside interference. After all, as much as viewers love their shows and know them well—and show runners acknowledge that—they are not professionals and do not get paid for their thoughts and suggestions.

So what, if anything, can be concluded from this? Fans are important. They are, after all, the shows target audience, and television shows need fans to make them successful. A show without fans is tantamount to a death sentence in the ratings-happy cutthroat world of television programming. Fans do have a say in the way a show is written, and show runners do sit up and pay attention when an overwhelming majority of fans come to similar conclusions about a plotline, a character or an episode. Show writers will still continue to write what they like, until fan disapproval is so great that the show is affected negatively through lower ratings and possible threats of being pulled from the network line up midseason, or next season.

Ultimately, both parties are thinking of the integrity of the show. Fans are willing to trust the writers and producers so long as they are true to the characters and the plotlines are plausible within the realm of television. Fans keep the writers on their toes, they do notice mistakes and slips in timeline. In turn, they trust the show runners to keep them interested season after season through realistic character development and intriguing (and plausible) plot twists. So long as the fans are there to keep the writers honest, and the writers are there to be true to the spirit of the show, then it becomes a win-win situation for both.

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