Events such as Comic-Con and social media have unleashed a new breed of super-fan – but how are TV shows utilising this new audience, and what influence do they have on the shows they love?
Most TV dramas have audiences – but some have fans.
You know the type. They attend Comic-Con in fancy dress – like the Walking Dead fan in Dortmund pictured above – and have limited-edition action figures of the cast at home, still in the original packaging. Or they organise weekend-long pyjama parties to binge-watch entire box sets for the 20th time.
It would be easy to write off fans as the TV industry’s eccentric relatives. But the reality is broadcasters, platforms and producers pay them a lot of attention.
“Fandom is central to our brand strategy,” says Carmi Zlotnik, MD of US premium cablenet Starz. “The phrase ‘For All Fankind’ is our battle cry. Igniting white-hot passion for shows is what drives our subscriber business.”
For Starz, the question of fan power first arises if the network is developing IP that has a pre-existing fanbase, Zlotnik adds. “Take something like Outlander, which we developed from Diana Gabaldon’s novels. That came with a 20-year publishing history and an audience of 25 million. Or American Gods, which we are adapting from bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s iconic novel. Part of the appeal in both cases is that you have a hard core of fans that can evangelise on behalf of your show. But the challenge is making sure they get behind your interpretation. You have to be able to honour their passion while recognising that the needs of the book and the show may be different.”
Pivotal to this is having an author that is enthusiastic about discussing the show’s direction with the original fanbase, says Zlotnik, explaining why particular narrative, locations or casting decisions have been made.
This is particularly important when the TV series needs to diverge from the source material – something fans find much easier to swallow if the author is on board.
As Gabaldon has said: “I tell people the book is the book and the show is the show, and you’re going to enjoy both of them immensely – but not if you sit in front of the show with the book in your hand going, ‘Wait, wait, you left that out!’”
For the author to take this position, it’s crucial they have a great working relationship with the showrunner, adds Zlotnik. “We’re fortunate that Diana and [showrunner] Ronald D Moore are in lockstep on Outlander and that there is a close connection between Neil and [co-showrunner] Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on American Gods.”
One important proviso to all of the above is to ensure the existence of a fanbase doesn’t become the sole determinant of whether a show gets made, says Chris Parnell, executive VP of US drama development and programming for Sony Pictures Television (SPT). “We have created shows with pre-existing fanbases such as Outlander, Preacher and Powers,” he says, “but everything still has to come down to the idea. A rabid, under-served fan base is a good selling tool when talking to a broadcaster, and it provides a platform for getting season one moving. But you have to evaluate whether the story you’re looking at will make a good television series.”
Of course, not all shows are based on existing IP so here the responsibility lies even more squarely on the shoulders of the showrunner and cast. “With Power, we were fortunate to have Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson on board as an executive producer,” says Starz’ Zlotnik. “He attracted a lot of interest before launch. But showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh has since done a great job of keeping up a dialogue with fans.”
Fan management takes on a different complexion once the show is on air. By this point, the pre-existing fanbase has been joined by viewers with no existing creative baggage. With an end product to view, the relationship with fans increasingly pivots around what they are saying on social media.
“A big difference compared with 10 years ago is that you can get an immediate sense of what the audience thinks,” says Tiger Aspect joint MD of drama Frith Tiplady, whose recent credits include Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders and My Mad Fat Diary. “That’s fantastic when you consider that the only feedback we used to get was from commissioners or critics, who might have their own reasons for disliking your show.”
A key question, then, is what to do with this fan commentary. Should it, for example, influence the creative team’s decisions about the show? “Mostly we’re dealing with shows where the entire series is in the can before the audience sees it, so the question is whether you take what they say into account for subsequent seasons,” says Tiplady. “Generally, I’d say the writer has a story to tell and they know what it is, so you don’t want them to be swayed too much by fans. But if there is a character the audience loves then there may be room to expand their role – or not kill them off – in season two.”
While writers and producers need to be cautious about paying too much attention to specific fan opinions, there is clearly a growing belief that engaging with fans around the outskirts of a show is a worthwhile exercise.
This is manifested in various ways, such as the rapidly growing number of after-show chat series (The Talking Dead, After the Thrones), attendance at events like Comic-Con and the use of social media forums.
“AMC’s The Walking Dead and Shonda Rhimes’ ABC dramas have been pioneers in using social media,” says Jenna Santoianni, senior VP of TV series at prodco Sonar Entertainment. “As far as possible, you always need to be looking at what fan activities you can get involved in to raise the profile of your show. When MTV launched The Shannara Chronicles [produced by Sonar] last year, for example, one of the show’s stars, Austin Butler, took over MTV’s Snapchat to promote the show. He also live-tweeted to the east and west coasts of the US.”
Sonar has worked closely with Terry Brooks – the author of the books on which The Shannara Chronicles is based – ensuring he is central to the decision-making process. “Six or seven months ahead of the launch, we screened a trailer at Comic-Con,” Santoianni says. “That was aimed at Terry’s loyal fans, the people who would be evangelists for the show and get the word out.”
Naturally, shows that play to the younger end of the millennial spread tend to have a high profile on social media. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars is often cited as the best example of this, having amassed more than 100 million show-related tweets since it launched in 2010, as well as strong figures for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest engagement. In part, this is down to the fan demographic, but there is also the fact that the show’s stars themselves are hardcore social media users.
In terms of harnessing that interest, Freeform has spent a lot of time analysing fan conversations and then using that as the basis for marketing the show. This strategy seems to have paid off, with Pretty Little Liars coming to an end next year after seven seasons.
That isn’t because of ratings weakness, either. The series is Freeform’s top-rating show and is likely to end on a high having pre-warned the audience it is ending – via social media.
Stephen Stohn, executive producer of iconic teen series Degrassi: Next Class, has been living and breathing the Degrassi franchise for decades. His wife, Linda Schuyler, created it, and Stohn says fan dialogue was always central to their philosophy: “We didn’t just want to create TV, we wanted to create engagement and that is part of the reason why the show has had such longevity. Long before social media really took off as a mainstream phenomenon, we launched a walled-garden website which allowed users to log in as Degrassi students.”
Changing media usage has left that model behind, but Stohn believes the principles underlying the show have kept it relevant: “We always look to create a conversation with fans, and I think that’s especially relevant now that Next Class is streaming on Netflix. Deeper engagement with audiences means they are more likely to subscribe — or, at the very least, that they are less likely to churn out of the service.”
However, Stohn stresses that, from a producer’s perspective, fan engagement is not fundamentally driven by business objectives. “We do it because we’re passionate about telling stories that connect with our audience,” he insists. “We get some incredibly moving feedback from our fans about how the show has echoed aspects of their lives. Our writers are very active on social media, which is what drives Degrassi’s authenticity.”
While there’s logic to all of the above, does this mean fan power can bring shows back from the dead? Over the years, hardcore fans have done everything from funding billboards in support of axed shows to organising demonstrations at network offices. Banana crates, Tabasco sauce and Mars Bars have all been sent to executives in zany attempts to save threatened shows.
These days, however, “it seems as though every time there is a series cancellation, someone launches a campaign to bring it back,” says Tiger Aspect’s Tiplady. “But we’re actually among the fortunate few to have had a scripted show brought back, when Ripper Street was renewed.”
Originally a BBC show, Ripper Street was cancelled after season two but was then revived for a third season following a new financial package that saw Amazon come on board as a partner.
“There’s no question that we were energised by the fan campaign to bring Ripper Street back, but it was a mix of factors that made it happen,” Tiplady admits. “I think timing came into it. Amazon needed strong scripted content at that time and we were ready to go. The BBC didn’t want to cancel the show – it was a question of financing – so when a solution was found, they were happy about it.”
This seems to be a pattern. While fan campaigns can generate positive PR, there also needs to be a clear business benefit and a sense of a tactical opportunity. In the US, for example, ABC cancelled Nashville after four seasons, only for the show to be picked up for a fifth season by Viacom-owned country music-themed channel CMT.
At the time, CMT president Brian Philips said: “CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. We see our fans and ourselves in this show and we will treasure it like no other network. It belongs on CMT.”
While all of this is probably true, the decision was also underpinned by some compelling commercial factors. First, the show was attracting 6.7 million viewers in Live+7 ratings – not enough for ABC but plenty for a cable channel like CMT to work with. Second, it was uniquely ‘on brand’ for CMT. Third, cable channels are desperate for scripted shows, so the prospect of a ready-made franchise would have been very appealing. And, finally, Hulu participated in the deal, echoing the BBC/Amazon partnership that brought back Ripper Street.
If the notion of fans resurrecting scripted shows is slightly over-romanticised, another area where fan power has so far proved limited is crowdfunding via platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. While we’ve seen films and animation series secure multimillion-dollar sums to support production, there are no high-profile examples on the scripted TV front – yet.
However, it’s reasonable to suggest that long-running fan support for a classic show is an indicator that it might be ripe for a reboot. And there’s certainly a suspicion that negative fan feedback can kill a show off.
This was the view of Rhett Reese, co-creator of Zombieland, a TV spin-off of the iconic 2009 movie that was piloted for Amazon in 2013. “I’ll never understand the vehement hate the pilot received from die-hard fans,” he said at the time. “You guys successfully hated it out of existence.”
Overall, there’s no question that fan behaviour needs to be a part of producer, broadcaster and streamer thinking. Indeed, we’re reaching a point in the evolution of TV where the intensity of fan love can be a better measure of a show’s future potential than its season one ratings.
Commenting on this contention, SPT’s Parnell says: “There’s so much competition that people don’t necessarily get to see a show when it is launched. So it may be that big ratings in season one are not the only indicator of a show’s future prospects. We’ve seen series like Bloodline [Netflix] and Underground [WGN America] build fup momentum off the back of strong fan interest.”
This would, again, chime with the view from the commissioning side. Speaking at last year’s Edinburgh International TV Festival, Amazon Studios head Roy Price concluded: “The key to standing out is the show has to have a voice that people care about, that people love and that is really distinctive. The returns on ordinary are rapidly declining. It’s got to be neat, it’s got to be amazing, it’s got to be worth talking about.”
tagged in: American Gods, Carmi Zlotnik, Chris Parnell, Degrassi, Frith Tiplady, Jenna Santoianni, Outlander, Ripper Street, Sonar Entertainment, Sony Pictures Television, Starz, Stephen Stohn, Tiger Aspect