Pimp My Show!

The title says it all. We are already a few months into the Fall 2006 television season -- some of the new series have already come and gone, others have started to develop solid fan followings. I wanted to invite my loyal readers to share with us which new shows have really caught your fancy and why. (Of course, it's always fun to hear which new shows have bored or disgusted you, too.) It's been a while since we've had a really good conversation going with the readers of this blog so I am hoping you will rise to the occasion and share with us what you think have been the most interesting new shows this season. And of course, since I've got lots of international readers, don't presume we are just talking about American shows. I'd love to hear about amazing shows out there in other countries which are generating fan interest.

To get the ball rolling, I dug out some notes I sent to the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium this summer, before any of the shows had actually reached the air. I tried to predict which new shows would be "most fan friendly." It's interesting to see how well I did.

First, let's define "fan friendly." By fan friendly, I mean programs that attract strong, committed and highly visible followings as manifested in such activities as fan fiction writing, convention discussions, and online forums. Such programs may or may not enjoy ratings success by traditional standards. So, the CSI franchise consistently ranks in the top tier of the Nielsen ratings but doesn't generate anywhere near as much interest within the fan communities as a lower rated show such as Veronica Mars. Indeed, historically, fan favorite shows enjoyed a marginal position on the schedule, having strong niche appeal but struggling to stay on the air. That's why there have been so many letter writing campaigns through the years to keep their favorite shows on the air. It is only in recent years where cult shows like Lost also happen to be ratings leaders that the line between the two has started to blur.

Yet, even if fan favorites are not top ratings earners, they serve other vital interests for networks -- as I suggest in Convergence Culture. They are "must see" TV at a time when appointment viewing is in decline. They tend to rank higher in terms of paid downloads or digital video recording than many shows that do better in the ratings. And early research suggests that people watching their favorite shows are more engaged with the advertising as well as the content. They are also more willing to seek out further information about the series, resulting in more touch points and a greater receptiveness to convergence-based strategies. And for lower ranked and cable networks, a strong niche audience may make or break a program.

For my current purposes, I am really talking about two different but sometimes interrelated fan communities: one mostly female and focused around the production and consumption of fan fiction and the second, mixed gender and focused on online speculation and discussion. Keep in mind that there are other possible fan communities - sports fans, soap fans, music fans, etc. who will have their own criteria and interests.

So, what kinds of shows are most apt to attract strong fan followings?

Fan Friendly Programs:

1. Focus heavily on characters and character relationships. In some cases, fans will pull secondary characters from the margins of a series if they are not interested in the central protagonists. In particular, they are looking for the following:

--Strong emotional bonds - especially partnership, mentorship, and romance (probably in that order if you are talking about the female fan writing community)

-- Strong focus on the formation of alternative or utopian communities (again, this is especially true with the fanzine community).

-- Intelligent characters who use their brains to solve problems

-- Outside characters or characters with strong internal conflicts.

--Strong, competent, and active female characters

We can understand each of these traits as in some ways reflecting how fans see themselves and their social network. Fans see themselves as intelligent, strong, independent, socially committed, and nonconventional and they are drawn to characters who share those characteristics. They contrast themselves to what they call "mundane" viewers. These traits also reflect the genres that have emerged in fan fiction. Given the presence of a strong fan tradition about male partners becoming lovers, for example, there is a tendency for fans to be attracted towards shows that have strong partnership themes. So, a show like House meets all or most of these criteria including intelligent protagonists, a focus on friendship, romance, and mentorship, a strong sense of community, etc.

2. Focus on genre entertainment. While many fans watch realist or quality dramas (such as The West Wing) or sitcoms, these programs rarely cross over into their activities as fans. They do not generate the same level of discussion online or at cons nor do they inspire the same amount of fan fiction. Historically, organized fandom started in response to science fiction but with each new series that fits the other criteria but does not fall into the science fiction genre, the tastes of this community has broadened. So, at the moment, fan favorites can include crime dramas (Prison Break), mystery (Veronica Mars), adventure (Lost), science fiction (Battlestar: Galactica), historical drama (Rome), westerns (Deadwood), Buddy shows (Entourage), medical shows (House), etc.

3. Provides a strong sense of continuity. Even before there were fully elaborated story arcs on television, fans were inclined to read the episodes as if they formed some larger continuity. Series which rely heavily on continuity tap the collective memory of the fan community and allow them to show the kinds of mastery that comes from systematically watching a particular series. The management of continuity in turn becomes a favorite activity in online fan discussions.

4. Contain secrets or problems to be solved. Take this back to a distinction I make in my book, Convergence Culture between attractors (that is, shows that draw together like minded individuals) and activators (shows that give the fan community something to do - some roles and goals they can pursue together in relation to the content). The power of a show like Lost is that it is continually opening up new secrets, posing new mysteries, and creating new opportunities for fans to pool knowledge (see the much-discussed example of the map this season). This also accounts for how reality television programs such as Survivor, Big Brother, or American Idol find their way into the emerging fan cannon - because they offer either plenty of room for speculation between episodes or explicit opportunities for evaluation and participation.

5. Often have strong pedigrees. Shows by creators of previous fan shows (such as Abrams or Whedon) can more or less insure that their fan bases will turn out and give a first look at any new series they produced. Since part of the challenge is to produce a series that will be an attractor, this is a huge advantage going in. Despite the focus on characters within fan aesthetics, the same has not always proven to be true for actors. While there are fans for specific actors who will follow them from series to series, fans of a character may or may not be interested in something else from the same performer.

These are traits we can judge from advanced information about a series. There are other elements that are harder to read. It is not enough that a show operate within a well defined genre; it has to respect those genre conventions and satisfy the audience demands that draw them to the genre. It is not enough that characters be compelling on paper but there's an element of chemistry that emerges as these characters are embodied by specific performers that can make or break a series.

What happens when we apply these criteria to the series announced for this fall.

First, most shows do not stand a chance of reaching this kind of committed fan viewer because they do not meet most if not all of these criteria. By my count, there are 14 shows that have the potential to be fan friendly. A surprisingly high number are explicitly comparing themselves to Lost, hoping to become mass-cult successes.

What's striking in looking at the fall lineup is that networks have gotten the idea of continuity and serialization almost too well. Many of the series are designed to last a season or even half a season. They have plots or gimmicks that are going to be compelling in short bursts but will be hard to sustain over time. Some may go the route of 24, generating a new plot for each new season. Some will be canceled before each the first story arc runs its course. And some will make the mistake of avoiding resolution and thus drawing out a plotline well past its likely audience interest. If American television operated like British television, say, where you have a firm commitment for x number of episodes going in and then a series ends, whether or not it develops strong ratings, then we would know how to calibrate expectations about these series. But, many of them are artistic time bombs which may take off strong and then blow up in the networks' faces as they move into season 2. Of course in a world where the vast majority of shows never make a second season, this may not be a total disaster....

If I had to pick the most likely fan favorite of the lot, I would go with Heroes, followed by Vanished, Six Degrees, Jericho and Runaways. Studio 60 is the wild card in all of this - It will certainly be watched by a large number of fans but will it motivate fanish activities. (Either way, Studio 60 is probably the new show that is going to be most eagerly awaited in my household.)

Of these shows, at this point, Heroes and Studio 60 are the only ones that are still on my Tivo. How about you?