When fans revolt, do TV execs listen?

CBS's U-turn over 'Jericho is a sign that networks are reassessing niche shows and how to retain loyal viewers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

On a normal day at work, Canadian regional councilor Jeff Knoll might be reminding residents to check fire-alarm batteries or posting storm warnings and school closures. But for the past three weeks this professional politician and father of five has been hard at work on behalf of another town, this one American and, oh yes, fictional.

Mr. Knoll is one of the leaders in the worldwide effort to save "Jericho," a TV drama about a small Kansas community isolated in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. CBS canceled the low-rated series in May.

Unlike the creative work of other dedicated fans to save shows such as "Everwood" and "Roswell," this politician's efforts have paid off. After a campaign that included a 10-city radio tour with the show's stars as well as the well-publicized "Nuts to CBS" drive – fans sent over 40,000 pounds of peanuts to CBS this past week – the "Eye" network has revived the show.

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In what observers call an unprecedented move, CBS is asking the fans to partner with the network to turn fan mail into dollar signs. "Jericho" will return as a seven-episode midseason replacement but CBS entertainment chief Nina Tassler issued a statement imploring the fans to "rally around the show" by watching it in ways the network can count (preferably live on television rather than on DVR or the Web). She also encouraged the fan base to "recruit new viewers."

Mr. Knoll and his cohorts are part of a rising breed of fan that has come of age in the past few years – the empowered, vocal, globally organized enthusiast with both the passion and the means to actively engage in a cause and, most important, make a difference.

"The biggest change in the past few years," says Jeff Bates, editorial director of Slashdot, the news site for tech geeks, "is the growth of the Internet, social networking, and the immediate buzz that goes with that."

The rapid expansion of these tools has meant that large and disparate geographic groups of people can communicate in real time, with an impact nearly unimaginable a decade ago. "Delivering tons of nuts quickly from millions of people would have been really hard, if not impossible, not so long ago," adds Mr. Bates, with a laugh.

This generation's demand to be a partner rather than passive consumer is also a legacy of the boomer generation, born in the protest era of the antiwar movement and Watergate.

"Now," says Shari Anne Brill, vice president of new programming for Carat USA Inc., a New York media research firm, "that generation and their offspring have been given the tools to really make a difference, with the ability to rally like-minded folks around the globe within minutes."

"Jericho" fans are certainly not the first to fight for the renewal of a beloved story. Fans of the currently canceled cult show "Veronica Mars" have been courting CW execs with Mars candy bars all week in an effort to win yet another reprieve for the show (a plane trailing a "Renew Veronica Mars" banner helped it stay on the air after its second, ratings-challenged year).

And fan mail has been around as long as the television medium itself. Back in 1958 when NBC canceled "Matinee Theater," thousands of devotees wrote to the network – to no avail. On the other hand, loyalists managed to bring back the groundbreaking "Cagney and Lacey" for a solid six-year run after being canceled by CBS in 1983.

Enthusiasts have become more creative over the years. A group calling itself "Alien Blast" urged fellow lovers of the teen sci-fi drama "Roswell" to heat up the dialogue between The WB and its audience by sending bottles of Tabasco (the show's aliens loved the zesty taste). While it may have spiced up the executive lunchroom, the move didn't help the show, which died a not-so-mysterious death by low ratings in 2002. Followers of another WB casualty, "Everwood," arranged to have a full-size Ferris wheel constructed near the Burbank network offices (the show's young lovers first romanced on one). While executives expressed delight, they did not renew the show.

As to why some efforts pay off and others don't, there's really no mystery there, says new-media pundit Geoff Allen. "It's all raw economics," admits the chairman and founder of Anystream, a company whose software powers video streaming on major sites such as AOL and CNN.com.

But, as new outlets such as iTunes, digital cable, and streaming Internet video expand, there are more opportunities for both viewers and networks.

"The higher the production and distribution costs, the higher the market share the networks need to command," says Mr. Allen. Cheaper distribution outlets open up horizons for everyone, he adds, and "the lower the costs, the lower the barrier for niche content." If costs are low enough, networks can accommodate a passionate minority.

For instance, while low ratings led NBC to cancel the Irish mob drama, "The Black Donnellys," the same numbers are far more likely to support the show over at HDNet, a high-definition TV network, where it debuted June 13.

Internal politics can also play a role. Some CBS affiliates reportedly were unhappy with the fall lineup, deeming some shows too risqué. ("Swingtown," for instance, profiles couples who switch marriage partners.) But "['Jericho'] embodies all the values of the American heartland," says Ms. Brill.

Organizers of the "Jericho" nuts campaign say their success is bigger than TV. "This shows a positive side of the Internet," says Knoll. "Saving a TV show is a relatively insignificant thing, but once we understand how to organize and communicate this quickly and effectively around an issue – think of the bigger, more important things we could do."

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