The X-Files Revival: A Case Study in Social Television

Feature Chris Longo Matt Allair
3/1/2016 at 9:07AM

We look at how streaming led to The X-Files revival and how a new generation of fans stayed connected.

This article is the second part in a series on X-Files fandom.

The marketing team at Fox, and the official X-Files website, spent the better part of 2015 organizing and promoting a re-watch campaign of the show's original 202 episodes (don’t forget the series finale, “The Truth,” is a two-parter). Of course, Fox broadcast wasn’t actually airing X-Files reruns on a nightly basis, meaning fans were encouraged to use platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to satisfy the requirements of a re-watch that took well over half of the year to complete.

With nostalgia projects taking over Hollywood, Fox was able to successfully leverage the widespread reach of the series, from existing fans all over the world, to the new generation that found Chris Carter’s series via streaming platforms. No matter the impending outcome of the revival in terms of quality, the network had a beloved cult-turned-mainstream hit, and an army of an established fanbase, to build buzz for the six-episode miniseries.

The trend of consumers binge-watching television is nothing new. However, Fox’s grassroots strategy—using social media as an aid, not leader, for an already excited fanbase—should be considered a successful case study in cross-promotional social media marketing. From Fox’s coordinated tweets and Facebook posts reminding fans to stay involved and engage socially, to the integration of a fan-led poster project, and timed tune-ins from fan-led sites like X-Files News, the build up felt organic in a way that’s rare when it comes to how television shows are promoted today.

Couple the social media campaign with years of the show being available on the major streaming platforms, as well as television reruns, and it should be of little surprise that the revival debuted to impressively high ratings that even topped the original series finale ratings. Fox, which late last year decided to eliminate the wildly inaccurate same-day ratings, now uses multiplatform data (DVRs and next-day streaming on the Fox co-owned Hulu) to paint a more accurate picture of viewership. 20th Century Fox Television Studio co-chair Dana Walden told Variety that it doesn’t matter when or how viewers tune in, opting to play the long game that has kept shows like The X-Files in the public eye.

“The good news for us is that we own the show,” Walden said. “I think we’ll see a great turnout within a seven-day window. But if viewers watch it beyond that, on whatever platform it’s available, that’s all good news.” 

Netflix alone has more than 70 million subscribers worldwide. Numbers for Hulu range around the 10 million subscribers mark, while Amazon has been mum about releasing its user information. Fox is a part owner of Hulu, which had exclusive next-day rights to the new episodes. 

Fans discovering or rediscovering The X-Files on these platforms certainly enticed the executives at 20th Century Television to move forward with a revival, and the correlation between “event series” ratings and years of the show sitting on streaming sites is something that is hard to quantify, but cannot be ignored.  

Former X-Files producer Frank Spotnitz has been a beneficiary of the dedicated X-Files fanbase in relation to his outside projects like Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle. Spotnitz was a major link to the fanbase of The X-Files during 2008’s feature, I Want To Believe, and he has seen, quite clearly, how social media and streaming has made things easier for fans to organize and focus their discussions on any given genre show.

“The fandom has become incredibly sophisticated,” Spotnitz told Den of Geek. “I am amazed and very impressed by the ingenuity of it, not only in the analyses of the series, and discussions about every possible aspect of it, but the vast social networks that have formed across the planet. I have had meetings with fans in Berlin, Madrid, Rome, London, Los Angeles and Santiago, Chile — all of them are extremely well informed, and know each other, not just through their discussions, but through their collaborations on video projects and some incredibly imaginative fundraising for charity.”

The development of streaming sites with exclusive new programs has changed the way networks like Fox look at their business strategy. For a network that depends on advertising, the streaming platform is not only an alternate revenue source for an old property, but a way to gauge interest in a show’s present-day marketability.

Actor William B. Davis, known on The X-Files as the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man, or as hardcore fans would know him for his other name, C.G.B. Spender, shared his own view of the fandom to Den of Geek. “There are a lot of new fans and it’s remarkable how many second generation fans there are because of Netflix or wherever they are seeing the original show,” Davis said. “I see fans all the time who were way too young to watch it in the 90s.”

Davis also reinforced that the revival can to be credited to the on-going interest from fans of the series. “Sometimes you hark back to what was successful before and think ‘well that could be successful again.’ By some extent it was driven by the fans. The fans had been demanding, asking, pushing for the longest time,” the smoking man said.

One longtime fan found himself in the middle of Fox’s promotional campaign. J.J. Lindl, who started the Tumblr account The X-Files Poster Project, generated attention from fans and the media for his independent art project. Hailing from Pittsburgh, he was a first generation fan as a kid, who loved the pairing of horror and science fiction that The X-Files managed to do better than most.

“Without X-Philes' fan support, this artwork simply wouldn't exist,” Lindl said. “When I first started the project and chose Tumblr as the platform, it became clear very quickly that the fandom would be central in my creative process - it was so amazing to see what intelligent and passionate fans were out there and having them request episodes, give feedback, and generally motivate me to keep creating.” 

Lindl had been creating posters and sharing them on Tumblr sporadically when folks from Fox asked him if he wanted to be a part of their 201-day social media campaign. “I jumped at the chance,” he explained. It led to his posters being licensed by Fox for sale. 

The way we consume television is still evolving, but it can’t replace the individual interest of each fan’s experience. Fans of The X-Files have continued to spread the word about the series to a new generation of fans, and have successfully done so with the guiding hand of an industry that is still learning how to capitalize on nostalgia. 

Den of Geek’s X-Files correspondent Matt Allair is a writer, freelance filmmaker, musician, and the webmaster of The X-Files Lexicon. Chris Longo is the Deputy Editor and Print Editor for Den of Geek. You can join him on the search for William Mulder on Twitter.