Ripper Street and the value of fan campaigns

Cancelled drama Ripper Street is coming back, but what part did the fan campaign truly play in its return?

“None of this would have been possible without the fans” is a phrase we’re used to hearing at this time of year, usually from actors in sparkly outfits on posh stages accepting this that or another award. Is it, though, ever more than a platitude?

When it was announced in late 2013 that BBC One’s Ripper Street had been cancelled due to lower-than-expected ratings, the fan response was immediate. #SaveRipperStreet sped around Twitter, Facebook pages sprang up, and so did a petition attracting over 10,000 signatures in its first week (and topped out at over 40,000).

This week, news arrived that Ripper Street had beaten the cancellation and was to return for a third series. A deal had been struck between the programme’s makers, Tiger Aspect, BBC One, and Amazon Prime Instant Video to finance eight new episodes of the Whitechapel-set period crime drama. Fans celebrated, cast and creators thanked the public for their support, and campaigners justifiably congratulated each another on a job well done.

How much influence on the deal though, did the Ripper Street fan campaign really have?

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Actress MyAnna Buring, who’d encouraged viewers to register their objection to the decision from the off, linked the two explicitly. At Wednesday’s press conference, Buring told reporters, “The response we got from fans when it was announced that the show wasn’t going to be recommissioned was so incredibly moving. We are so grateful, because without that kind of response, I don’t think everyone would’ve been so inspired and moved to create a deal like this.”

Jerome Flynn, who plays Sergeant Drake, added his gratitude on an official Facebook Fan page, telling campaigners, “I want to thank you all for being such a huge part in getting the show back after what felt like a premature death. So congratulations all of you!”. Will Gould, Head of Drama at Tiger Aspect, continued the theme by saying that the show is “indebted to our incredible fans who have been so vocal and passionate and spurred us on”.

What was the “huge part” played by a hashtag, a volley of emails and a petition (signed, admittedly, by a great many people, but still nowhere near the two million gap between Ripper Street‘s series one and two average viewership)? How much support is enough to bring a show back?

When Entertainment Weekly asked the question for US television, they quoted an anonymous studio executive as saying, “So you get 20,000 letters. You need 10 times that to make a difference”. 200,000 signatures would be enough for a network to sit up and take notice then? If it were only that simple we’d be spending our nights in front of the TV enjoying the season five Firefly box-set by now.

Staying in the US, several fan campaigns over the pond have been cited as the reason for a reversed cancellation decision – the nuts sent in to CBS by the kilo that reputedly earned Jericho a second season, the socks said to have earned Reaper another run. More often than not, such campaigns provided TV shows with temporary stays of execution rather than new leases of life (Chuck, which went on to a further three seasons after the fans pay rolled Subway to sponsor it, is an exception to that rule).

The idea of fans mobilising as part of a novelty campaign is an attractive one; we can’t get enough of underdog success narratives. Did the receipt of 6,000 Tabasco sauce bottles really change the minds of the executives in charge of Roswell? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Where fan campaigns can certainly make an impact though, is in bolstering the industry folk fighting their corner.

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We asked Ripper Street Executive Producer Will Gould what measurable impact the fan campaign had on the series three decision. “The fact is that if we hadn’t had such an amazing response – it surprised us all, it was so terrific – I don’t think we would have got through the last two months trying to do this deal. I don’t think there would have been the appetite to do it, because what we were trying to do was so complicated.”

For Gould, the campaign provided the creative team with vital encouragement during the struggle to bring the deal about. “It was the moral support. It was just a genuine feeling that this audience – a very vocal audience – wants a third series. I think it was a really important part of why we all sat there through some long, dark nights trying to work out a way of bringing a third series out.”

We asked Gould how it felt to be on the receiving end of the fan community’s support in this way. “It’s been a really interesting couple of months, I’ve never had this on a show. When programmes come back series after series I think people can get complacent about it, but when you’re cancelled, it’s a bit like being at your own funeral! You hear people talking very nicely about you, which you just don’t get if you’re just renewed. It spurs you on incredibly.”

Would he say the 40,000 names on the petition materially influenced the decision to bring Ripper Street back? “I think so. I don’t know who organised the petition – it wasn’t us – [Ed: it was David Saunderson]. I don’t know if the BBC or Amazon or anyone else were looking at that petition, but I would look at it and think ‘We’ve reached a thousand, that’s good!’ and then it kept going up and as you say, I think it was topped at just over forty, which sounds like a good number!

“What was even nicer were the actual comments that were made by people taking the time not to just click and vote but to actually say what they love about the show, that’s what that petition gave me. You think you know what you like about the show as a programme-maker, but hearing other people talk is a useful thing.”

Even if the campaign, as many are, were to have been unsuccessful, Gould wouldn’t have considered it a wasted effort. “Look, not every show is going to come back, I think we’ve been very blessed on this and it’s been a great story, but I like to think that fans met each other and talked about the show and made friends through this process. Even if Ripper Street hadn’t have come back I think it would have been worth doing.”

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Does Gould have any advice for fans of cancelled shows who want to make their voices heard? “You’ve just got to keep going. What was great about this campaign was that there it wasn’t just flash in the pan, they didn’t just do it for a week, it carried on for two, two and a half, three months, it was persistent. So be persistent about it, if there’s something that you love, be vocal and be persistent.”

Ripper Street didn’t need a Veronica Mars Bar-style novelty postal campaign, but if it had, we asked what item Gould would have recommended fans send to the BBC? “A blood-covered knife!” was his first enthusiastic answer, an apt choice for the homicide-heavy drama. After a moment’s reflection though, “That’s probably a bit aggressive. Maybe Edmund Reid’s bowler hat?”.

We’d go with that last one, much less likely to get you into trouble. Ripper Street series three starts filming this May.

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