Owen Steinberger charts the rise of audience involvement in television, and looks at where we may have gone wrong.
LONG have television networks ruled over their schedules with extreme prejudice, slicing beloved programs from their rosters for not meeting arbitrary quarterly requirements or for being a touch too controversial for primetime hours. A simple timeslot change can doom a series – eight on a Friday night has a legacy as TV’s death bed, where problematic programs would be shipped to decimate their ratings, justifying their cancelation soon after. Little could audiences do but bemoan the iron hand of corporate media.
There were, however, ripples in the water, signs of a coming change in the television industry. The original run of Star Trek was rescued from termination, which would surely have doomed the million dollar franchise to early obscurity, by a wave of support from fans. Newspaper columnists urged their readers to send mail to NBC in 1968, which The Press-Courier documented as more than 6,000 letters a week. A third season was brought to bear as a result.
Star Trek would go on to be cancelled after this renewed run, its budget having run thin, but a precedent had been set. David had shown that Goliath could fall; network television had become irreversibly democratic.
This trend of consumer involvement was given a massive boost by the advent of services like Kickstarter, which allow for individuals to pitch their ideas to an online audience in hopes of individual investments. Star Citizen, a video game meant to call back to old-school space exploration titles, has managed to amass just under $130 million over four years from crowd funding at the time of writing.
The sight of that much money lit up the eyes of media executives: people will pay your production costs, and all you have to do is promise them something they desperately want. These services have made it possible for individual entrepreneurs to share their ideas with the world with great success, which is of course an incredible thing. For television networks, however, it has made pleasing its audience a dangerous necessity.
In this internet age there are no half measures. The full integration of television and its audience has begun, the two fusing together into self-serving grotesque, made of equal parts greed and goodwill.
“The full integration of television and its audience has begun, the two fusing together into self-serving grotesque made of equal parts greed and goodwill.”
People now get up in arms over the axing of their favourite series with droll regularity. If every show that is cancelled elicits a five thousand signature petition for its return, then these petitions cease to matter. Fans have also started countless petitions for an entirely new series, or for individual changes to existing ones, such as the reversal of a favourite character’s death. A recent petition to “Bring the Old Republic era of Star Wars to Netflix” has garnered over one-hundred thousand signatures, and continues to climb.
At this level of saturation, television networks are caught at a standstill. Audience fervour is at an all-time high, but attention spans are low, so if a series is indeed resurrected, or born of a petition itself, the likelihood that it will go on to succeed is no higher than that of any other, original project.
Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are set to steal the crown from network television partially due to their flexibility in acquiescing to audience demands. Subscription models and the viewer’s freedom of choice allow for some niche series to be funded and added to the service with little risk to the platform as a whole.
Netflix has stood behind this new form of interaction since its reboot of the beloved series Arrested Development in 2013. However, even though fans had been clamouring for new episodes for years, the Netflix-produced season released to middling reviews. Such is the fatal flaw of audience-driven television, that art makes no guarantees.
“Such is the fatal flaw of audience-driven television, that art makes no guarantees.”
Online communities often create echo chambers of opinion, circular conversations reinforcing each other until fandom rises to a fever pitch. The expectations of audiences are therefore almost always set far higher than studios can meet, regardless of objective quality. The greater problem with this circular logic, however, is the brutal fact that the customer is not always right.
The creative process is a delicate thing, like the repair of an intricate watch. To attempt to truly create something great under the piercing glare of millions of expectant superfans, while thousands upon thousands post comments and tweets, send emails and private messages, all urging you in particular and often contradictory directions, is often to doom the project to failure. If only they could shut the window and get some peace and quiet.
That networks have started to bend to the tyranny of their audiences is, in a way, a deserved punishment for the decades they have spent cashing out on generic comedies while railroading creative series to failure. But this supposed gesture of goodwill should be seen with suspicion, if not with derision. As life often shows us, what we thought we wanted rarely meets expectations once it is finally ours.