Is TV paying too much attention to fans?

The Net is bringing writers and fans closer, but there are perils in that proximity.

By , / contributor

If you happened to have your TV tuned to The Hub (a cable channel operated jointly by Hasbro and the Discovery Network) Jan. 21, you might not have noticed anything unusual. A rainbow-maned Pegasus was hanging a banner and talking to another gray-colored Pegasus jumping on a cloud – typical Saturday morning cartoon nonsense. But for the numerous adult fans of the show "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic," it might as well have been a Beatles reunion. The showrunners had just given their "brony" fan base, a fan base made up largely of adult men, a huge shout-out, by incorporating a fan-created character into the show.

Until the past decade, fans were largely cut off from the writers and producers of commercial television programs, apart from sending fan letters. But, as it has a habit of doing, the Internet changed everything, by allowing fans to band together in chat rooms and discussion groups. That change has made a huge difference in how the creative staff of shows get audience feedback.

"As soon as the episode airs, I can go online and see people's responses in real time," says Jayson Thiessen, supervising director for "My Little Pony." "I can actually watch them watch the show and see their comments."

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Now that writers are peeking at what the fans are saying practically the moment each episode runs, are they trying too hard to make them happy? Some of the early beneficiaries of this new online fan-community model were the shows created by Joss Whedon, among them "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," and "Firefly." All three cult hits aired when the Internet was undergoing rapid expansion, and they all developed fanatical online communities.

According to Christopher Buchanan, who served as president of Mr. Whedon's production company, Mutant Enemy, Whedon never let the desires and speculation of the fans influence the direction he wanted to take the show or individual characters.

Whedon sometimes made unpopular choices in his shows, Mr. Buchanan says, but it was a part of what made them so engaging. Whenever it seemed as if characters were in a good relationship, fans would start to get nervous. When Tara was killed off on "Buffy," the reaction was strong, he says. "We got hate mail. I had a guy that would fax me every day a single-spaced full page of ... you don't even want to know ... for six months." But he believes that same sense of unpredictability is what kept the fans on the edge of their seats.

Although fans didn't have a direct influence on the shows themselves, Buchanan acknowledges the role that an active and organized online fan base had in helping get a green light for "Serenity," the cinematic sequel to the shortlived "Firefly" series. Although it wasn't the only factor involved in getting the movie made, he says that it contributed to the decision. "One [factor] was the sales of the DVD sets and that was obviously directly related to fans." He adds that the decision to produce a DVD set of the single season of "Firefly" was also a result of the strong online fan presence.

Speaking to the website Digital Spy last fall, "Community" series creator Dan Harmon said, "Some people keep blogs ... angrily saying things they don't like about the show, other people praising things that they love. And all of it is something that, six or eight years ago, could have been looked at as an erosion of the television medium. But I think it's a way to keep these characters alive and give them more dimension."

Another cultish show that benefited from its online community was "Chuck," the NBC nerd-spy comedy that has just concluded a five-year run. Phil Klemmer, one of the writer/producers, thinks that fans helped prolong the show's life. "I want to believe it because I want fans to continue to be passionate about their television, that they have a say in the process. I think the fact that [the fan campaigns] became a news story, that [they] got people talking about Season 3, that's why it was valuable."

But did the fans influence the show in a more direct fashion? No, Mr. Klemmer says. "I don't think there's room for fans' voices in a writers' room. There [are] already so many voices trying to reach a consensus, inviting the whole world into a writers' room is more chaos than it can bear." Klemmer also points out a more pragmatic reason that fans can't influence plot and character to any great extent – the lag between when a show is written and when it airs. Since shows are written months before they run (or as much as a year in the case of "My Little Pony"), by the time fans react to a plot point, the scripts for many future episodes are already in production or completed. But that doesn't mean that fans can't influence shows in more subtle ways over time.

In the case of "My Little Pony," the relationship between an unexpected adult fan base (the show is targeted at 6-to-11-year-old girls) and the show's creative staff has evolved over the two years of the show's run. For example, the gray Pegasus pony mentioned earlier started life in the first episode as a random "background pony" who, due to an accident or mischief on the part of an animator, had crossed eyes. In spite of her short screen time, fans noticed her immediately and dubbed her Derpy Hooves ("derp" being Internet parlance for something stupid, or a stupid facial expression). Her character was quickly fleshed out by the fans and became a mascot of sorts for the brony community.

Once it became clear to the showrunners that Derpy was becoming a phenomenon, they played along. "We thought, you know what, maybe we can see this person again," says Mr. Thiessen. "It was a fun little nod to how the fans had reacted to her."

Derpy became a sort of "Where's Waldo?" character, showing up in background scenes in the second half of the first season and onward. None of her appearances were scripted; they were gags inserted during the process of creating storyboards or animation for the episodes. But in the episode "The Last Roundup," Derpy made her big debut with speaking lines, completing her transition from fan meme to a full-fledged character.

Thiessen cautions that fans shouldn't make too much of Derpy's appearance. "It was a one-time thing because it was a spot where it seemed it would work." He believes that fans spend a lot of time searching for hidden meanings, especially in background characters. "The fans read into things that I never would have [seen] coming."

Relating so closely with the fans can have its perils, as well. Soon after the "The Last Roundup" ran, some fans who claimed to represent the disabled community began to complain that Derpy was a negative stereotype of individuals with mental disabilities. Hasbro responded by editing the episode to change the voice and remove the name, which then led to a huge backlash from the fan community.

Hasbro explained in an official statement: "Some viewers felt that aspects of the episode 'The Last Roundup' did not stay true to the core message of friendship which is the heart and soul of the series. Hasbro Studios decided to make slight audio alterations to this single episode."

In the future, the line between commercial production and fan-created content may blur, especially for a show like "My Little Pony," where the production tools, such as Adobe Flash, are readily available. Thiessen says that he has seen fan-created content that approaches the level of quality seen in the show, and is intrigued by the idea of shows crowdsourcing part of their production. "It's so new that it's kind of unprecedented. So who knows?"

Another enticing idea is that fans might directly fund shows. Buchanan notes that when "Firefly" was canceled, some fans made serious inquiries about continuing it as an audience-funded program, although the logistics didn't pan out. Thiessen has also considered crowdfunding for private projects. "But the budgets for these shows are so high," he says. "I think that you might be able to get a short film, but not a series."

For fans who want more say in the direction that a show takes, paying for it themselves would have one big advantage, Klemmer says. "If fans were putting in the money, they're no different than Warner Bros. I'd take a notes call [where the studio funding a show gives its input on a script] for a fan-funded show. That's the way it works."

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