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Networks and Fandom - Why fans are not to blame for being passionate

Perhaps you've heard of the general attitude that is currently pervasive in Network TV vs. Fandom.
Perhaps you've also encountered shows that have a fairly passionate fanbase to the point where passion can get out of control. And believe me, it gets scary when that happens.
It's not an unimportant issue to discuss the boundaries that exist between fans that truly invest time, creativity and money in something they love and the entertainment industry that mostly operates on making successful business.
Scratch that.
Only making business.
Business means money, which is why at some point creativity only takes second place, despite people trying to tell you otherwise.

But what is the general problem then?

If you're a fan and TV critic and you stay at the pulse of fandom activity, it isn't easy to balance the act between supporting a business in a more unbiased way and supporting the fans and their right to voice their dissatisfaction with a show. You probably encountered people who told you "stop watching if you're so unhappy" or "this is just entertainment and you're supposed to be entertained" or my personal favorite "don't take things too seriously".
As a fan and not a general viewer this means that people tell you to stop being a fan, because according to them you're not a good fan anyway. We could call that an allergy for criticism. When it comes to the point that you start to hate the creative choices a showrunner makes, you get the feeling that you need to be heard in order to make this show better. As a result, fans start to fight over a product that they have no control over, and it gets incredibly frustrating for both sides; the fans that feel like their investment and love for this show doesn't matter, and the creators and network that are bombarded with E-Mails and campaigns to get a show back, to get character x back and so on.

Boundaries no longer exist.

So how can we counteract this phenomenon without blaming fans or the network for the difficulties that arise when shows start to get problematic. And what is considered problematic in the first place?
TV shows don't exist in a vacuum and they are part of a complicated relationship between corporate investment, ownership, advertising/ad sells and of course social networking/online viewing, which is slowly changing the entire system on multiple levels.
The aim of TV shows is to create content that appeals to the target demographic while at the same time promoting a brand and selling products to said target audience. Ads are necessary for a network's revenue. In turn the audience can also spread the brand on an international level, something that is quite important and happens a lot through social media and social blogging.

Today's viewers are much more informed about the quality of the brand they are consuming.

The result is that criticism is even more likely to spread through social media, affecting the fandom that blogs, writes and creates content, thus helping the show to gain even more viewers who get curious about the product. Fans have the ability to support your content and to make it appealing to other fans from all over the world. For free! And fans with over 20.000 other fans following their blogs, reviews, previews and fan content have the power to affect other viewers, especially when criticism is backed up with evidence drawn from our current social climate and provided by experts in a certain field.
Experts? Aren't the creators supposed to make a successful brand that appeals to fans on a larger scale? Aren't they supposed to be experts?
Absolutely not.
As I argued before, entertainment is business and the creative integrity of a show comes second place. Patterns of successful storytelling are repeated to hit the same target demo (Vampire Shows, Procedural Med/Cop shows etc.) Unfortunately, these methods actively hurt the entertainment industry, because the social climate is changing at the same time. Ultimately, it means that the lowest common denominator is not always the most appealing one.
And to put it simply, fans are smarter than that.
When they ask for a product to appeal to their wishes rooted in social awareness as well as their firm knowledge in screenwriting or even directing, the shows that don't provide are the ones that lose in their eyes. Your show is starting to get criticized from bottom to top, and it isn't because the fans are spiteful and want a showrunner to fail. It's because they care. They even back up their criticism with evidence, drawing statistics on their own, using their knowledge to full advantage to make their point.
How about the critically acclaimed shows that don't get the ratings they supposedly deserve?

As a huge Hannibal fan I noticed that ratings have been steadily decreasing while online fandom activity increased at the same time. However, this phenomenon is not necessarily bad for the network, especially when it stays in contact with a loyal fanbase that contributes to establishing a successful brand.
It results in cult shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and so many other shows being born after their deaths, shows that became genre legends and made money years after they aired their last episode. Fandom was to key to that kind of success; a fandom that was informed and expected diversity from a show. A good example is Star Trek. Katie, a friend of mine once put it like this:

I have two words for anybody who whines that it isn’t fair to expect a book or movie or TV show to be inclusive: Star Trek. Star Trek was LITERALLY PREMISED on the idea that if we saw a more inclusive, peaceful world represented on TV, we would take steps to get there. It inspired millions of people to enter the sciences, to become actors, to be more than the media of the 1960’s told them they could be, because Star Trek SHOWED THEM IT WAS POSSIBLE. "But Star Trek was only on for three seasons,” I hear you cry. That’s true. But despite only three seasons, people kept it alive in fandom for thirteen years until the first movie was made. Then another movie. Then another, and another, and another. Then Next Generation was made, and so on. Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon has existed for nearly fifty years in part because it spoke to such a wide range of people. Not too bad for only three seasons. So no, maybe books and movies and TV shows don’t have to be inclusive. Maybe it creates too much extra work or it’s too inconvenient or whatever. But in doing so, brands bypass the opportunity to become more than just a show or a book or a movie. They lose the chance to be cultural phenomena. They lose the chance to change the world. Besides, more people identifying with something = more market share = more money.
If TV shows aren't willing to support diversity and to reach out to people from different cultural backgrounds, women as heroes, children, disabled people, people of color, people identifying as queer, people who don't fit into a socially created image of beauty, the shows won't become a meaningful, cultural phenomenon. They become the show that had successful ratings in season 1 only to suffer from season decay years later, because no one bothered with the same old things anymore.
We are faced with a problem. Would you rather want to appeal to a number of people with a Nielsen box (which is a very outdated system anyway) or people who watch a show for 40 minutes of entertainment and nothing more(not even buying your product, discussing it etc.), or a fandom obsessively praising and criticizing a show online? A fandom that can easily turn against you if you do something that is not particularly appealing to a sizable group. A fandom that can tarnish your brand with the easy use of social media.
You want to make money, but you also want a successfully established brand. And you want to be critically acclaimed while becoming an important part of popular culture in order to make even more money.
What now?
As someone who would enjoy seeing a balance between showrunning and fan support, I'd want to be as aware as possible of my target demo and the fandom supporting my product on social media. This support obviously includes heavy criticism if I manage to do something that is considered offensive. Like it or not, but a fandom does not solely exist to praise your work, because your show will be ruthlessly picked apart minute by minute. And the reason for this investment is simply love for a show.

How much control does a fandom have over the brand?

Technically it shouldn't have any control at all, because a showrunner needs to preserve creative integrity rather than constantly providing fanservice to small groups that often contradict each other. The ability to see what kind of group might offer valid points is one that isn't easily mastered, especially when you don't even want to be criticized. The problem is that fans - as I argued before - are smarter than that. Even the general audience possesses more awareness through easy internet access in times of globalization. They know exactly what they want and they detect when a writer distances himself from the responsibility he has over the content he produces. This phenomenon is particularly striking in Genre Shows.
Genre fiction can be freeing in many ways, but it also has plenty of restrictions. Obviously if you’re setting a book in a secondary invented world, you can create social structures in that world that are different from those in the real world. But I don’t believe that writers of realistic fiction have no control over the representations in their stories. I disagree with the sometimes popular notion that writers have little control over their characters. Writers create their characters and the context for those characters. Writers are responsible for the words they put on the page, including diversity or the lack thereof. Source
Fans can reveal flaws in storytelling, flaws in representation, flaws in canon issues, flaws in PR. Their ability to create organized campaigns increases with social media and it results in showrunners being flooded with angry or very revealing letters.

Do you listen to them? Not always, but there's a certain arrogance and refusal to accept well-meaning criticism from fans who are simply more aware of certain issues than the creators are. When fans call you out on your lack of queer representation and they are queer, they will know more about it than you will when you're not even living it. Or when fans belonging to a group that is subjected to stigma and constant stereotypes tell you why your content is offensive, don't tell them to stop watching or to find another show. The only ones to blame are those that insult other people personally rather than giving valid criticism.
But never insult your audience. The customer is king, after all, as cheesy as that sounds.
Doing that actively drives the audience away (as happened in The Vampire Diaries and several other shows in the past). It might seem unfair, especially when a showrunner is not being given well-meaning criticism, but insulted via twitter and "fanmail", but the life of people in the public eye is vastly different from the people who are not. One tweet can result in fans instantly dropping your product and encouraging others to stop supporting your brand via social media. The development gives your brand a negative connotation and can prevent your show from truly being successful and well-liked by your target demo. You lose money and credibility.
But a show should always strive to make money and to support creativity. Sometimes it means taking risks with established formats in the first season, challenging stereotypes rather than reinforcing them through constant repetition. What was established in the first season might not work at all six seasons later.
You can lose your target demo through unsuccessful promotion and rejected criticism, which is important to the young, new online generation striving for awareness, representation, good storytelling and respect. They certainly earned it.
Per definition from Henry Jenkins (Convergence Culture, 2006):
A fandom is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it.
The process to create your own story out of an existing one is what I would call an active rebellion against flawed, established canon, the attempt to live out the possibilities that the show does not want to offer.
The future is not about repetitive shows using the same themes and assuming that these patterns will lead to immediate success just because a predecessor did. It isn't about stubbornly clinging to stereotypes and refusing to listen to people who want you to succeed.

The future is Orange is the New Black, or Podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale. Sadly, TV might become a lot less diverse than it should be precisely because of these miscalculations in knowing your audience. To put it simply, a passionate fanbase is not to blame for what they want. Fans, be it part of the fandom or part of the general audience are fickle and easy to turn away from a product that does not satisfy them on even the simplest levels, such as good storytelling, good directing and even good promotion, especially when it gets worse with each season.
Entertainment is business. And it's a sad state.
Veronika K.
Graduate at the University of Zurich, writer, TV addict. Favorite shows include Hannibal, Game of Thrones and Supernatural. Very opinionated and concerned with social issues in media. Professional procrastinator.

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