What TV Networks Still Don’t Understand About Fandom

In the era of #PeakTV, networks are turning to the power of fandom to try to ensure their survival. It's not going so well.

Warning: The second half of this article contains spoilers for recent episodes of The 100 and Sleepy Hollow.

In an age of peak TV and fracturing audiences, networks are starting to understand that fans (and their fandoms) have power. Across the television landscape, networks are broadening their understanding of what makes a successful show from simply the quantity of viewer to the “quality” of viewer. We’re talking about The Viewer vs. The Fan

Though passion fails to be measured by the outdated Nielsen TV ratings system, it can be measured by Nielsen social ratings (and other company’s social metrics) via sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. From where I’m standing, Tumblr is one of the chief places where TV fandom really lives. If you take a look at which shows are the most obsessed about on Tumblr — they are not the same shows that are doing the best in the ratings. Content creators might not have figured out how best to monopolize financially on fannish interests, but they are increasingly interested in trying.

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We’re seeing evidence of this in networks recent, yet increasingly urgent quest to understand fan culture. Networks, studios, and writers are, more than ever, aiming to attract viewers who will tweet, tumble, and tell everyone IRL (in real life) about how much they love their show. These kinds of viewers are not only difficult to shake, but can represent a free, enthusiastic source of promotion. They have value to both broadcast networks trying to attract viewers and, perhaps to an even greater degree, to cable and premium channels trying to attract subscribers to their brand.

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Unfortunately (for networks), these viewers’ media savviness is a double-edged sword. These kinds of viewers have allegiance to the story and characters vs. the brand, and are understandably not so forgiving when they feel they have been manipulated and/or used.

The same fandom power that is drawn to and will avidly promote a show because it represents and empowers underserved demographics will, of course, leave that show if that very element of the plot is downsized or eliminated altogether. That’s the reason they’re watching it in the first place. And, if they feel they have been lied to by The Powers That Be, their enthusiasm used as free promotion, then they will probably be mad about it.

Tapping into the market value of fandom

Variety recently published an article called “Why Understanding Fans is the New Superpower.” In it, guest columnist Susan Kresnicka, a team leader at media branding agency Troika (her team, Research & Insights specializes in understanding fandom), discusses this commercial shift toward creating more fan-driven content:

Over the last two years running the Research and Insights team at Troika, I’ve watched many of our clients come to similar conclusions about the importance – and value – of fans and fandom. Many of them have shifted their language, now targeting ‘fans’ instead of ‘viewers’ or ‘audiences.’ Marketing strategies are increasingly crafted to drive not just breadth but depth of engagement. And the conversation has in large part moved from how to ‘manage’ fans to how to ‘relate’ to fans, even learn from them.

Networks are implementing this belief that viewer engagement can matter over audience size in tangible ways. Working with Troika, Starz recently rebranded itself as “Starz: Obsessable,” a soft relaunch the network seems to hope will make it a home for fandoms — like the sizable one around the book-turned-show Outlander— to form. In an official press release, Starz explains:

Fandom is exploding as a cultural phenomenon. Starz partnered with Hollywood-based branding and marketing agency Troika, whose Research & Insights department specializes in understanding fans and fandom. In a recent quantitative study conducted by Troika, 85% of adults consider themselves to be fans of something and 70% identify as fans of a TV series.

Yep, fandom has market power, and major corporate entities are just starting to embrace that fact. Both in the context of a show like Outlander,which refreshingly pairs literary romantic conventions with prestige drama, and in the context of mainstream pop culture in general, commercial creators are starting to accept that women watch nerdy stuff, too. More than that, they are the ones who are talking about it the most within fandom circles. Victoria McNally outlines it in her MTV article “Why 2016 Is The Year We Need to Stop Pretending Women Aren’t Geeks,” writing: 

A lot of [mainstream geek acceptance] has been powered by online conversation. Social media, which is primarily dominated by women (80% of women say they use social media, compared to 73% of men, according to Pew) has given female geeks a chance to connect with one another directly, and to encourage new fans to get involved as well. It’s no small wonder that on Archive Of Our Own, a popular fanfiction website with an overwhelmingly female user base (80%, according to a third party survey in 2013), geeky properties like Doctor Who, the works of J.R.R Tolkien, and the DC and Marvel universes — The Avengers especially — reign supreme over the the 20,000+ fandoms featured there.

If mainstream pop culture is where men who love stories go to see themselves, then online fandom is often where women disproportionately go to do the same.

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A shift in how content creators interact with fan culture

Contrary to what Starz’ press release might lead you to believe, fandom isn’t a new phenomenon. It has been around as long as media has been, with H.P. Lovecraft first introducing amateur press associations to science fiction fandom and with (mostly female) fans starting to write and share Kirk/Spock zines almost 50 years ago. The explosion is not in fandom itself (though the Internet and mobile technology has, admittedly, made fandom easier), but in commercial entities’ interest in it past sending “cease and desist” letters.

For most of media history, the relationship between fandom and TPTB has, at best, been defined by a willful ignorance by TPTB and, at worst, been defined by an antagonism from TPTB towards the fans “stealing” their work. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that commercial entities are interested in engaging with, courting, and understanding fandom. Unfortunately, many networks, studios, and showrunners aren’t so good at it.

The problems with networks efforts to understand and co-opt the commercial power of fandom is that these two groups of people are approaching content from fundamentally different ways: as a commercial product vs. a community creation. Fandom thrives, in part, because it operates outside of the commercial system. It is less concerned with staying inside the lines of a rigid heteronormative storytelling structure because it doesn’t have to figure out how not to piss the people who are buying the product off. It has no allegiance to the market, only to the online community.

Fandom communities gift fan fiction to one another, create fanvids inspired by conversations they’ve had within other fans, and have long, involved debates about fictional characters and worlds and how they relate to our own just for the fun of it. Introducing money to the equation can and does change everything, especially as long as commercial content creators keep making the value judgment that relatively homogenous TV shows and movies are the only kinds of product that can make money…

Fan creators vs. commercial canon creators

In his Time article on fan fiction, titled “How Harry Potter Became the Boy Who Lived Forever,” The Magicians author Lev Grossman wrote about the cultural division that occurs around “original” vs. fannish works, saying:

Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters’ lives, for free? There’s a division here, a geological fault line, that looks small on the surface but runs deep into our culture, and the tectonic plates are only moving farther apart. Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that’s out there?

When fans conceptualize their favorite TV shows, they often think of the TV show itself as the be-all and end-all. However, in broadcast network TV, for example, the TV show isn’t the product. The audience is the product, being sold to the advertisers. The TV show is just the bait. (Admittedly, this analogy becomes more complicated when you take into account factors like syndication, DVD sales, streaming rights, and international distribution, but the basic logic still stands.) 

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For TPTB, on the other hand, creative content is inextricably tied to copyright and ownership. It needs to be. In our late-capitalist society, stories (like so many other things) are defined by their relationship to money and, therefore, to the social status quo that money tends to reinforce. 

When fans criticize a storytelling decision or disturbing pattern across the respective TV show or larger TV industry, TPTB often don’t seem to listen — or at least don’t take action. Their responsibility isn’t to social accountability or even narrative satisfaction past the point of watchability; it is to creating a product that draws in the most viewers, who will then watch commercials, buy cable, or sign up for an online streaming service. It doesn’t matter why or how satisfyingly viewers are watching the show. Only that they’re watching it.

However, that “if, then” logic is outdated — and I think TV networks are starting to realize that. We no longer live in a TV era where there are only a few programs to choose from every night, nor one where every show needs to appeal to as many people as possible — from the more socially progressive markets to the more conservative ones. (This is more true for premium cable and online streaming services, then for broadcast networks.) Niche programming, aka the cult TV we talk about so much on this site, can be a viable market alternative.

The first rule of fandom: canon isn’t everything

The world of fandom, however, plays by different rules. Fandom isn’t just an homage to the content it examines; it is a community conversation with it, one that often goes past the rigid limits of mainstream media to create a more expansive, inclusive world. It’s the engaged masses talking back to the mainstream culture they have little to no power in creating (because, demographically, it is a very specific subset of privileged people who are given the opportunity to create pop culture).

Fandom is choosing to value stories that don’t make money as much as stories that do. (Not, to be clear, that more diverse stories couldn’t make money.) In that same Time article, Grossman interviewed an anonymous source who described the subversive nature of fanfiction, a huge subset of fandom, like so:

For me, fanfic is partially a political act. MGM is too cowardly to put a gay man in one of their multimillion-dollar blockbusters? And somehow want me to be content with the occasional subtext crumb from the table? Why should I?

Fans don’t have to play by the same commercially-sanctioned rules of mainstream media. By and large, they had no part in creating commercial canon. They don’t need it, past creating a sandbox to play in. As Charlotte Geater’s excellent Women Write About Comics piece “On Shipping: What’s Disney, What’s Yours, and What’s Mine” puts it: 

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We see people in comics, and in films, and everywhere. We all wrestle with feelings and we can recognise them in stories when we see them. We don’t need for them to be sanctioned. It doesn’t matter what the writer intended, or what the artists intended. More importantly, it doesn’t matter how Disney wants me to interact with the stories that they bankroll … One of the most radical things I tell myself about the media I consume is: fuck canon. Every story is as real as every other story.

This radical, fannish notion that non-canon stories have immense cultural value because they are created free from commercial interests that believe stories must fall within a strict, white, often male-centric, heteronormative structure to succeed seems to be the hardest element of fandom for mainstream culture and TPTB to understand. However, as commercial content creators attempt to harness the power and methods of fandom to make money, it is one that is continuously being run up against. TPTB continue to shoot themselves in the foot by limiting, ignoring, and undermining diversity in canon storytelling. Let’s look at a few recent examples…

The implosion of Sleepy Hollow

Fans are desperate to see a wider variety of experience represented in mainstream culture, so they create their own stories using the common cultural language mainstream media has provided. This lack of diversity is one of the reasons Sleepy Hollow,when it first premiered, was met with such enthusiasm. It was a diamond in the rough: a genre TV show featuring multiple characters of color.

Sure, the supernatural drama’s following came in part because it was a lot of ridiculous fun, with its shotgun-wielding Headless Horsemen and its time travel twist on the typical police procedural, but it was also one of the few shows on network TV that had a black female lead in the form of Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills. The word spread on Tumblr and Twitter and in meta analysis across the Internet.

While Ichabod Crane may have been the character who (very loosely) carried over from canon, it was Abbie who was allowed to be the audience surrogate character — an all-important narrative element that doesn’t usually come in the form of a black woman, let alone one who transcends black female stereotypes to get an actual character. (For specific examples of how much Abbie Mills’ character struck a chord with viewers, especially women of color who are so underrepresented in pop culture, check out the #IAmAbbieMills and the #AbbieMillsDeservesBetter hashtags on Twitter…)

Last week, Sleepy Hollowmade waves for all of the wrong reasons when it killed off Abbie Mills. This was the final nail in the coffin for this show, which has been steadily relegating its characters of color into the background since that first, glorious season 1. John Cho and Nicholas Gonzalez left. The storylines for both Abbie and her sister, supporting character Jenny Mills (Lyndie Greenwood), faded in prominence as the story of Ichabod Crane and his dysfunctional family took center stage. After criticizing the show on social media for downsizing his role, fandom-friendly actor Orlando Jones was asked to leave the show after season 2.

Sleepy Hollowhad a sad, slow demise from one of the most-talked-about, diverse shows on TV, with an enthusiastic fandom to boot, to a shadow of its former self with a shadow of its former audience. It was a classic example of TPTB either not understanding why people were watching their show or, if they did, doing nothing to play to it. People responded to the diverse nature of this well-rendered cast of characters, the subversion of the white alpha male archetype with sentimental, fish-out-of-water Crane, and the chemistry between its two talented leads. Season 3 especially all but eliminated most of these elements.

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There are many factors that go into the construction of a TV narrative. Many of them have nothing to do with what TPTB think would make a good story. Sometimes, budget constraints or actors schedules force scriptwriters to make narrative decisions they would otherwise never make. Nicole Beharie chose to leave Sleepy Hollow,but that was after the narrative sidelining of her once prominent character, which she presumably didn’t choose. She also didn’t choose the insulting, culturally tone-dead manner in which her character was written out. 

The handling of Abbie’s exit as a character on this show is not the only narrative misstep Sleepy Hollowhas made (though it is the biggest). It is the latest in a long line of missteps demonstrative of a larger ignorance of what made people respond so enthusiastically to Sleepy Hollow in the first place, and one made even worse by the way fan interaction was handled in the months leading up to Beharie’s exit.

When season 3 started, the Sleepy HollowTPTBproclaimed they had listened to fan feedback in regards to Abbie’s sidelining in season 2. They also teased a potential romantic resolution for Ichabod and Abbie throughout season 3, though never delivered on it. Just the latest example of TPTB playing with fandom fire and getting burned. Though, I will admit, not the most egregious example to be found on network TV in the past few months…

The 100 feels the fandom backlash

Sleepy Hollowisn’t the only network genre TV show currently suffering backlash from a fandom it appeared to be, but was apparently not, listening to. If you’re a fan of The 100(or even if you’re not), you probably know that the show recently killed off an LGTB character, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), in a particularly tropey way. 

Though the actress’ exit was pretty much a sure thing given her casting on another show, the character’s death came after months of The 100TPTB actively courting the LGBT subset of its fandom, using their collective fandom power to promote the show while repeatedly assuring LGBT fans that the all-to-common narrative fate they so feared for this canon LGBT character (one of a rare few on TV) would not come to pass.

This process is commonly known as “queer-baiting” and, if you’re looking for a detailed account of what The 100’sinteraction with its LGBT fanbase looked like over the past year or so, the fan site We Deserved Better meticulously outlines it in all its cringe-worthy glory. In her Variety article on the subject, “What TV Can Learn From The 100 Mess,” veteran TV critic Maureen Ryan succinctly sums up how important it is for networks and showrunners to analyse and reflect on The 100‘s fandom-related fail in this modern era of TV:

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What has occurred since March 3 is not just a problem for The 100 and the CW, it’s a cautionary tale for all of television, which increasingly depends on fans to bang the drum for shows and increase their profiles.

As it happens, the resurgent CW just made a big bet on fan-driven entertainment as the future of TV. The network just renewed all of its shows, in part because it measures engagement in a host of ways; overnight ratings are no longer the be-all and end-all. Social media engagement counts for a lot, and word-of-mouth promotion is often what makes or breaks a marginal show. That’s especially true at the CW, but in the age of 400-plus scripted shows, that’s also the case for many other programs on broadcast, streaming and cable.

But intense fan engagement is a double-edged sword. The fans who know how to help raise a show’s profile and make noise on social media are also whipsmart in any number of other ways. Today’s TV viewers won’t stand for being used as pawns, nor will they help promote a show when they feel it has let them down. With the events that occurred in the March 3 episode of the show, many think The 100 did just that.

There’s an important difference between that “manage fans” and “relate to fans” Kresnicka was talking about in her “Why Understanding Fans is the New Superpower.” The 100tried to have its cake and eat it too with its treatment of fandom in relation to Clexa, and they got burned for it. Only time will tell if their treatment of the fandom will have any lasting effect on the show’s success. Personally, I can’t see how it won’t and, in the age of niche, fan-driven programming, that’s bad, folks.

Fandom is not in the product, but in the process

If there’s anything I think mainstream content creators could learn from their efforts into understanding fandom, it’s that a huge percentage of the American viewing public is desparate for more diversity in their storytelling, stories that represent the world more fully. This includes gender, sexuality, race, class, and the infinite other ways of experiencing the world I could not hope to list here. 

Thankfully, there will always be fandom. Because of its existence outside of the commercial structure, it will always be able to operate with a freedom commercial culture cannot. But what makes fandom so different from commercial content is not simply diversity in representation, but diversity in creation (though the two are inexplicably linked). Mimicking the products of fandom is missing the point. The process is the point. Fans create fannish works because they want to be included in the process of creating popular culture, they want to see themselves and play a part in our mainstream myths.

Not everyone wants to be a content creator, but for those who do, fandom gives them a chance. It gives them a community. It gives them the option to exist in on our popular culture — something canon all-too-often fails to do on its own. For these reasons, it’s hard to imagine just how much TPTB can use the methods and power of fandom for their own commercial benefits. Fandom and canon may use the same characters, settings, and plots to comment on our world, but, in many ways, they operate in alternate universes.