ARTICLE: How Fans Have Made a Difference to Network TV
FanForum/Crashdown’s own black widow (Fionna) was recently interviewed by author Nikki Stafford for an article on save-the-show campaigns run by fans. While the article primarily focuses on the current Firefly campaign, Roswell’s past efforts are mentioned, as well as the fantastic book that chronicles our campaign history, Crash into Me: The World of Roswell by Robyn Burnett.
“We Require Immediate Assistance”: How Fans Have Made a Difference to Network Television
by Nikki Stafford
“This is Captain Reynolds of the Firefly Serenity. We’re dead in the water, our support system is down, and we’re breathing on empty. If you are in range of my voice, I’m asking that you heed your better angels and answer this call. We only have a few hours left.”
“We require immediate assistance. Repeat. Require immediate assistance.”
No, this isn’t a scene from a sci-fi movie, it’s a message on Fox’s official Web site for their newest sci-fi television series, Firefly. And it’s no joke. After only a handful of episodes, the newest brainchild of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon is in serious trouble. Stuck in a Friday night timeslot of 8 p.m., when most people are probably out at the movies, the series is quickly becoming a ratings failure, and Fox has yet to pick up the show for an entire season. In an attempt to get more people to watch the show, Fox posted the above message, taken from a recent episode of the show, in an attempt to let people know that if they didn’t watch this show and help bring in new viewers, it could come to a quick end.
Enter the fans.
A group of ardent Firefly viewers have begun an Internet fan campaign called “Firefly: Immediate Assistance,” trying to convince Fox officials that fans do care about this little show, and considering many of the viewers of Firefly also watch Joss Whedon’s other critically acclaimed show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they are trying to convince Fox that if the WB had cancelled Buffy in its first season over dismal ratings (which were actually a fraction of what Firefly’s is now) it wouldn’t have been able to grow into the groundbreaking cultural phenomenon that it is today. They are currently gathering money for a Variety ad, and are auctioning off signed memorabilia on eBay to help raise funds. Their efforts seem to be making a difference – two weeks ago when Fox was considering canceling the show, they bought two extra episodes instead.
Firefly isn’t the first show to be critically acclaimed and have a nominal audience, and it certainly won’t be the last. But if fans can try to come to the rescue of a show that’s dwindling in the Nielsens, the show might have a chance.
The first well publicized letter-writing campaign happened in 1967, when Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble heard that her favorite show was about to be canceled at the end of its second season. With her husband, she began a letter-writing campaign, encouraging fans to write to the network to let them know of the diehard fan base that existed out in TV Land. “We used fairly simple tactics: write a letter and ask 10 people to write a letter,” Trimble says. “They write and ask 10 people, and so on and so on. It really does work but it’s so simplistic, nobody believes it. Today, we could reach 100 to 1,000 people on the Internet in the same time it took us to reach 10 people by mail or phone in 1967.”
The campaign worked, and the show was signed on for one more season (although, Trimble adds, the network refused to admit that it was the fans who had made the difference). While that might not seem like much, by extending the series to three seasons it allowed it to move into syndication, something that wouldn’t have happened with only two seasons of the series. Because of the repeats of Star Trek’s original series that were aired over the next two decades, the original series has ballooned into a franchise of movies, further series, and countless merchandise.
The next letter-writing campaign happened in 1983, when Cagney and Lacey was in danger of being canceled at the end of its second season. Dorothy Swanson, a viewer who loved the show, wrote over 500 letters to the network (signing her relatives’ names to some of them) begging the network to reconsider. The network did, and the show continued for another five seasons, cementing the careers of stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless. The success sparked Swanson to form the group, “Viewers for Quality Television,” and later successfully lobbied to keep Designing Women on the air after its first season got off to a slow start.
Are all fan campaigns successful? Obviously not. Fans lobbied networks to keep on Once and Again, Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman, and Brooklyn South, to name a few, all to no avail. But there have been several campaigns that did work, including ones for Remington Steele, The Magnificent Seven, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Party of Five, La Femme Nikita, Quantum Leap, The Sentinel, and most recently, Roswell. What sets a successful campaign apart from an unsuccessful one?
The most important thing is to get the attention of the networks, but in a good way Angry letters that take shots at other shows only hurt the cause. “Anger and hostility will be ignored or (worse) used against you,” says Trimble. “The only letters a network will show the press is a threatening or hostile letter which ‘proves’ that fans are crazy or dangerous.” She also stressed that several letters can make a difference, and shows the network just how dedicated you are. She also cautioned against petitions, since they only count as one letter, no matter how many signatures are on it.
In the case of the Save Farscape campaign, it was a Web site that helped spread the word and get the campaign started. When Nina Lumpp, one of the Web site administrators and campaign strategists, first heard on a Friday night the news that Farscape was going to be cancelled, she immediately set to work on a Web site aimed to pull fans together to save her favorite show. “It went up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning and that’s where I completely lose time until 3:30 p.m. Sunday when I finally went to bed,” Lumpp recalls. “I got up a couple of hours later and we wrote our first press release, completely scooping the Sci-Fi Channel’s Monday release.” She invited several members of the online Farscape fandom to help out with the campaign, and now it’s one of the biggest campaigns in the works. While the Sci-Fi Channel seems resolute in the cancellation of the show, there’s a chance it could be picked up by another network.
Creativity can also work in the fans’ favor, and few campaigns have been as creative as the Save Roswell campaign that fans launched for almost the entire duration of the series. During Roswell’s first season, rumors began circulating that The WB was looking to cancel the show. A few fans formed a committee on a Roswell Web site and immediately a sister Web site, the first of many to come, was built to rally the fans to help save the show. Someone came up with the idea of sending bottles of Tabasco sauce – the alien condiment of choice on the show – to the network, and within two-and-a-half months, the network had been deluged with 6,000 bottles. At first the network was so surprised to see the fan reaction they embraced it, and used it for publicity for the series.
“I think initially the network (The WB) was impressed with the fans’ tenacity and enthusiasm,” explained Fionna, one of the campaign’s organizers. “It certainly gave them a staggering amount of free publicity, as our campaigns were mentioned in everything from The New York Times to USA Today to Time magazine. They even had Katherine Heigl pose with all the bottles of Tabasco we sent in and used it as a press picture.” The show was renewed for a second season.
However, Roswell was always on shaky ground, and the fan campaign was just getting started. In season two, the WB once again inferred it would be dropping the beloved show due to low ratings, and once again the fans campaigned, sending in more bottles of Tabasco and countless e-mails. This time they weren’t so successful. “I think The WB had made up its mind already to cancel the show,” says Fionna, “and the repetition of the Tabasco and the petitioning and e-mails and campaigning … I think we went from being a feather in their cap to a thorn in their side.”
When The WB actually went through with the cancellation this time, it appeared their efforts were in vain. But instead of giving up, the fans had already turned their attention to UPN, a network that was considering picking up the show, but wasn’t convinced the fans would follow. While they were sending bottles of Tabasco to The WB a second time, they were also sending bottles to UPN, and a total of 12,000 bottles came flying into the offices of both networks from all over the world, including letters of support, petitions, and charity drives put together by fans. UPN bought the show, and it ran for a third short season before being cancelled once and for all. The fans have never given up the campaign though, despite widespread rumors that the cast was tired of the show and wanted to move on. Now a new fan campaign continues on the Internet where fans are pushing for DVD releases, a made-for-TV movie, a feature film, and even a fourth season. “Roswell always seemed like it was on life-support right from the starting blocks,” says Fionna, “which is a shame, because despite its faults, it really was a fantastic show. But if we were able to help towards it having three seasons instead of one, then our efforts weren’t in vain.”
Programmers at Fox and UPN affiliates have mixed feelings about the fan campaigns. Some representatives said fan campaigns never work, that it’s all about the ratings. Others urged fans to contact the main network, because the affiliates have absolutely no say in what shows get cancelled or kept. And still others suggested that fan campaigns do make a difference, and if fans send letters to the affiliates those letters will be sent on to the network heads.
In the end, no matter how many fans rally together to save a show, if the ratings don’t come through it’s not going to happen. But these campaigns can make a difference when the media picks up on them, writing stories about the Variety ad that fans took out to support their show, or about the guy standing on the corner handing out packets of hot chocolate asking people to watch Roswell. When word gets out that a group of fans are willing to go to great lengths to help save a show, it just might encourage others to start watching it, and if more people watch the shows, it can be saved.
The mark of a great show is how strongly the fans feel about it. And if the fans are willing to offer the immediate assistance a show so desperately needs, it’ll make other people to sit up and take notice.
Nikki Stafford is the author of Bite Me: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
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How you can help:
* Write to the networks of the show; if you check out the Web sites of the fan campaigns, most of them have lists of addresses where you can write to the people who make the decisions.
* Write to the sponsors of the show, but be polite. You want the sponsors to be on your side, not work against you. “Don’t promise to buy their product if you’ll never use it; demographics will show you up eventually,” cautions Trimble. “Don’t threaten never to buy their product; that’s an empty threat and everyone knows it. Just thank them for the fine show they’ve sponsored, and express the sincere hope that they can help keep it on the air. Sponsors know how strong word-of-mouth can be on the Internet, and know that fans can be very vocal. You don’t need to threaten them with that, since it’s common knowledge.”
* When writing networks and sponsors, make the letter personal. If you use a form letter suggested by another fan, the networks and sponsors will pick up on it quickly, and the only way to let them know how much you’re willing to do to save your favorite show is to show the networks that you took the time to write something yourself.
* Be wary of trying to get the show’s producers on side to help you out. “On the plus side,” says Fionna, “a producer can sometimes offer insight into the way a network operates, or advise you on what kinds of things might make the network sit up and take notice. On the other hand, it could be construed as a production office ‘coaching’ the fans, or prompting them to campaign, and that could reflect negatively with the network. I would imagine it is better for the fans to function independently, and to always ensure the network knows they are doing it purely for the love of the show and not because producer so-and-so thought it would be a good idea.”
* Don’t get discouraged, and realize that you’re in this for the long haul. “These things take time,” explains Red. “I am the veteran of a couple of save our show campaigns, and one of the keys is keeping people motivated and focused over time because most of these are not short, victorious wars. They are long and drawn out over months. People get down and depressed when things don’t happen right away, keeping them invested is one of the most difficult aspects of any campaign, I think.”
* And finally, what seems like the most obvious thing to do is usually the thing we overlook: get your friends to watch the show during sweeps. Firefly is a great show, with strong writing, promising characters, and an original setting. It’s on Friday nights at 8 p.m., and with the help of the fans (and perhaps Fox moving it to a better timeslot) it could still be around this time next year.
(For more information on fan campaigns, check out www.fireflysupport.com or www.watchfarscape.com. The complete story of the Roswell fan campaign is detailed in a new book called Crash Into Me: The World of Roswell by Robyn Burnett.)