The show must go on

Thanks to Shapshifter for sending this to me

Title: The show must go on
Author(s): Mark Juddery
Source: The Australian, 03/07/2002
AN: 200203071M07777321
Database: Newspaper Source

The show must go on

Edition: 1
Section: Features, pg. M07

Passionate fan lobbying has saved several programs, and their stars, from the axe, writes Mark Juddery

DESPITE consistently low ratings, the television series Roswell has twice been saved by Tabasco sauce. In two organised internet campaigns, Warner Bros execs were sent thousands of bottles of Tabasco, which (as regular viewers know) is a delicacy for the cast of spunky, alien teenagers.

The Tabasco campaign was orchestrated through Roswell websites, in Which devotees discuss their favourite series. “From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you for, in fact, saving our show,” Wrote an executive producer, Kevin Brown, in an email to one site last year.

At the moment, it seems that Roswell, screened locally on Nine, only had three lives, and that no bottles of sauce will renew it for another season. However, its survival so far proves TV’s decision-makers are not swayed by ratings alone. While ratings tell us whether a TV series has viewers, producers can never be certain why it has viewers. For that, they seek advice directly from the usually passive audiences.

John Holmes, head of drama at the Seven network, says the opinions expressed on mail or chat groups are always noted, but “in the end, we go with our gut instincts. We might make reference to fan mail, but it’s not, for us, the final say.”

Seven’s main audience interaction is through focus groups. “A few surprises have come out of that, but again, your gut is 95 per cent right. All they do is reinforce what you’ve been thinking about the program.

“But that 5 per cent is always a bit of a surprise. There was one character we were going to write out of Home and Away, who turned out [to be] a major favourite. We’d all tired of that person as a character in the show, but we realised that the public was very happy with them.”

The character remained.

Nonetheless, fan mail has power on many series. It has helped to solve characters’ love affairs, turned favourite guest actors into regulars, and allowed the evil (but highly popular) Daleks to continue exterminating people through years of Doctor Who. It has even saved a few series from cancellation.

Fans of the original Star Trek are usually considered the pioneers of such campaigns. In 1968, through an organised letter-writing campaign, they convinced America’s NBC network to produce an extra season of the revered but low-rating series. Since the Trek precedent, viewers of other shows have formed networks, hoping to save their series through phone and letter campaigns, pickets, even fund-raising.

The internet has changed the ball game. More recently, producers have been known to eavesdrop on internet discussion groups, reading through scores of viewer opinions about what does and doesn’t work in a series.

Online, few popular series are allowed a quiet burial.

Currently, viewers are uniting to save the animated series Futurama, which has ceased production, ostensibly because they already have too many episodes in the can. “Obviously, they are letting us go out of production,” executive producer David X. Cohen recently told the magazine Cinescape, “which means we’re going to lose all of our writers and probably all of our animators”. With the future of Futurama so vague, the campaign could well last for another year.

Meanwhile, viewers of MGM’s science fiction series Stargate SG-1 have been even tougher. A few months ago, the popular Dr Daniel Jackson was killed off when actor Michael Shanks decided to leave the cast, unhappy with the show’s direction. The mostly female viewers who shared his opinion (and grieved his passing) have since organised their own international cyber campaign, drowning MGM in protest phone calls — more than 1000 calls within the first day — and raising thousands of dollars to establish a campaign website and buy protest ads, including a full page in the trade journal The Hollywood Reporter.

Viewers feel that the series has been “dumbed down”, as witness the promise to replace Dr Jackson with “a handsome hunk”. As a viewer named Paula wrote to the producers: “How could you hope to replace a complex, three-dimensional and so very human character with just another pretty face? You thought that was enough for us. It isn’t!”

The Stargate campaign is especially passionate, but TV has that effect on people. Nonetheless, email protests don’t always work.

Unlike letter-writing, sending an email message doesn’t require much effort, or even a stamp.

Moreover, some producers prefer to ignore the devotees, however strong their online opinions. Three years ago, when The Bill was revamped to make way for spunkier characters, more brutal stories and ongoing, soap-opera plot lines, loyal viewers of the British police drama were outraged. The problem was, there were not enough of them left. In the face of sagging ratings, producers chose to appeal to a different audience — and the ratings improved tremendously.

The crew behind The Simpsons, meanwhile, believes that the vocal cyber-fans who have complained about the series’ recent direction have grown too attached to the characters. While reviews and ratings are still good, the fans take it far too seriously. “That’s why they’re on the internet and we’re writing the show,” producer Ian Maxtone-Graham has said.

He might have a point. Consider all the great TV moments — from Robin Ramsay’s death in Bellbird to Willow’s shift to lesbianism in Buffy — that appeared (or remained) despite protests. The creative teams just wouldn’t listen to the viewers — and looking back, none of them would regret it. Sometimes, perhaps, we should leave it to the experts.

Interactive TV

Lost in Space

The whining Dr Zachary Smith, played by Jonathan Harris, was to be killed off after the first six episodes of this space opera in 1965. However, due to positive fan mail, he not only survived, but — to the anger of his co-stars — was given the best lines for the next three years.

Number 96

Abigail, the most popular sex symbol of Number 96, provoked so many complaints from shocked viewers that her character, Bev, was written out of the series after a year. The blonde siren was quick to protest, claiming that her sex appeal was not being respected. It took 1000 protest letters, however, for the producers to reverse their decision. By this time, Abigail decided to walk out on them anyway, and another actor, Victoria Raymond, replaced her in the role. No explanation was given for Bev’s sudden facelift.

Cagney & Lacey

The CBS female police drama starring Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless was saved from the axe in 1983 by a letter-writing campaign, in which supporters argued that the networks had an obligation to provide viewers with “quality” programs. The series ran for five more seasons. The campaign led to the formation of Viewers for Quality Television, a non-profit organisation that has since championed such series as China Beach, Designing Women and Seinfeld.

Copyright 2002 / The Australian