Revolt of the couch potatoes

When TV fans want to save a favorite show from cancellation, they organize online. But do the networks care?

Published August 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

When a TV series gets canceled today, it's practically guaranteed that fans will organize a campaign online to save the show. Such campaigns are often Exhibit A in support of the argument that the Internet empowers the little guy and transforms passive audiences into an engaged public. But do these Net-based, grass-roots campaigns actually work? If every cancellation leads to another protest movement, how effective can the protest be?

The 1997-98 season for the major and minor broadcast TV networks saw notable campaigns on the Net for six canceled series. (For some reason, one-hour dramas tend to inspire the most support online.) Of those six, two were brought back by their respective networks, apparently thanks to the fervent protests of fans on the Net.

Pat Kleckner, who works as a marketing and technical support representative for a computer company, sums up her and her online colleagues' efforts: "We wanted 'The Magnificent Seven' back on CBS. And we had the tools to make that happen. Our secret weapon: the Internet."

Premiering in January of this year as a midseason series, "The Magnificent Seven," based on the movie of the same name, won decent reviews and strong early ratings. When word spread that it was unlikely to be renewed after the initial batch of nine episodes had aired, Kleckner and other like-minded fans on the Net felt the network hadn't given the new show a fair shot at building an audience. Determined to save it, they sent e-mail, letters and faxes to CBS and pooled $5,000 of their own money to buy a prominent ad in the May 5 Daily Variety to voice their support.

CBS went ahead and canceled "The Magnificent Seven" on May 20, so Kleckner and the other campaigners switched into second gear, writing and faxing executives at CBS affiliate stations. And they bought another ad, this time in USA Today, and timed its publication with the CBS affiliates' meeting in Los Angeles. This time, their efforts succeeded. On June 8, less than a month after the series' official cancellation, CBS granted "The Magnificent Seven" a midseason renewal -- and credited the fans on the Internet for influencing the network's decision.

The Net's immediacy and instant feedback enabled Kleckner and her colleagues to change their strategy quickly when it became necessary to convince affiliates to side with them. "The renewal campaign probably would not have worked without the Internet," she says. "We were working against the clock most of the time."

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Television has traditionally been passive entertainment: You watched it; you enjoyed it; but if there weren't enough people tuning into your favorite show (according to the Nielsen ratings), the broadcast network took it off the air and replaced it with another program. If that upset you -- well, tough.

Things started to change in 1967 when fans of the original "Star Trek" organized and flooded NBC with letters protesting the series' possible cancellation after its first season. They also managed to convince the network to renew "Star Trek" again after its second season -- but not after the third.

The next high-profile write-in campaign to save a series faltering in the ratings was the 1983 effort on behalf of CBS's female police drama "Cagney & Lacey." Fans persuaded the network to grant the series a stay of cancellation, and "Cagney & Lacey" would go on for five more seasons. "Cagney & Lacey" supporters argued, in part, that the networks had an obligation to provide viewers with programs of "quality" -- and their campaign led to the formation of a nonprofit organization called Viewers for Quality Television.

Despite such events, organized letter-writing campaigns remained a rarity. Rounding up fellow watchers of a particular program to take part in such an effort -- or, for that matter, even identifying them -- remained a daunting task.

The Internet changed that. Today, through newsgroups, e-mail lists and Web sites, fans of a television series can remain in constant touch with one another. To enlist others to help save a show from cancellation is now easier than it has ever been before; an online campaign for an endangered TV show can be put together in a matter of hours.

"It used to be that only the very special series merited a campaign," says Dorothy Swanson, president and founder of Viewers for Quality Television. "TV critics have told me throughout VQT's 15-year history, 'Be careful what shows you go to the well for, or campaigns will be diluted and mean nothing.' Well, that's happened. It's not special anymore. Just about every show that's canceled gets a 'campaign' because it's the 'favorite' of a group of people. TV critics are jaded about it."

Swanson suggests that TV networks may not put much stock in e-mail. "Used to be, a viewer would have to get out a piece of paper, put it in the typewriter, type it, place it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and take it to the mailbox. That showed commitment and forethought," she argues. "Now, [you] click on an icon and can send an immediate message. While that's fine, executives know it doesn't require much effort to do that, and they don't know whether it was a 4-year-old or someone in their desired 18-to-49-year-old demographic group."

Cyndi Glass, a library assistant who ran an unsuccessful online campaign to save the CBS police drama "Brooklyn South," observes, "I do think that e-mail and newsgroup postings are taken much less seriously than snail-mail, and I have also noticed a tendency for the networks to look at Web boards and [message boards on] AOL rather than Usenet newsgroups, if they give the Internet any credence at all."

Swanson adds, "When you e-mail a network, it goes to whomever monitors that Web site -- usually somebody with the audience services department. [Even if] you think you have an executive's private e-mail address, after one unsolicited e-mail from a viewer, you can be sure that exec will [change to a] different e-mail address. But with a letter, it goes to his office. Where it goes from there, you have no control -- but its initial destination is that office."

Association with the Internet may actually hinder the effectiveness of a save-our-show campaign, suggests Karen Irving, a proprietor of a graphic design company who ran the campaign to save "The Sentinel" on UPN. She and other "Sentinel" fans organized through the Net but delivered their protests via thousands of calls and faxes, and successfully convinced UPN to reverse its decision.

Irving recalls, "We spent a lot of time suggesting that individuals not represent themselves as part of an Internet campaign [when contacting UPN to voice support for 'The Sentinel']. Because the Net is so immediate, it is often discounted by the networks as 'fanatic' and 'knee-jerk.'"

Veterans of the "Magnificent Seven" campaign disagree. Christine Twedt, a webmaster by occupation who worked along with Kleckner, says, "I believe the fact that we were able to directly reach the executives at CBS, via their direct e-mail accounts, helped substantially. In traditional write-in campaigns, if the mail is sorted in some distant mail room, there's no way to know if the message got to those who matter. With e-mail, we can send that message directly to their desktops. It's more visible."

In the case of the successful "Magnificent Seven" campaign, the show's creators made a point of giving credit to Net activists. "It is my firm belief that the effort and enthusiasm of this significant group of fans was a primary factor in influencing the network," says John Watson, an executive producer of the show.

One theory that's been reported suggests that the show was already set for renewal, and CBS merely seized the Internet campaign to generate publicity. "Not true," Watson insists. "When CBS informed us that we would not be on the fall schedule, they [did say] they were considering the show for midseason, but this was by no means certain."

Maybe it's the rosy hue of optimism from her accomplishment, but Kleckner believes that the TV networks are beginning to take the opinions of television viewers on the Net more seriously. "Now that the network decision-makers themselves are coming online with e-mail, I believe they see firsthand the Internet's value as a powerful and far-reaching tool," she says. "I believe [our] campaign generated enough attention and respect to give credibility to this electronic tool."

Still, not every campaign works, and the people behind the unsuccessful efforts often take a less optimistic view about the impact of Net activism. Kris Voelker, a multimedia designer who has been running the Internet campaign to save the CBS family drama "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," says, "'Dr. Quinn' fans have been told that their e-mails have been an annoyance, whereas 'Magnificent Seven' fans have been praised for the volume of e-mails they have sent to CBS."

David Loehr, a writer and artist who championed ABC's controversial religious drama "Nothing Sacred" on the Internet, has harsh feelings about his experience: "Response from ABC [to our campaign] has not been bad; it has not been polite; it has not been simply unsatisfying. It has been downright rude."

So why does one Internet campaign succeed and another fail to sway the network powers?

Watson, the "Magnificent Seven" producer, says, "I suspect the effect was cumulative -- the combination of ads, letters and e-mail to executives at the network and affiliates had an impact because of their passion and by their sheer number."

Cyndi Glass, of the "Brooklyn South" campaign, advises, "Don't wait till [your favorite show has] been canceled like we did. Get a campaign going to keep it on the air, and if it's in doubt, like 'Brooklyn South' was for a month, that's when to really apply the pressure. In retrospect, we waited too long, and fans of the show had no clue that it would be canceled."

Veterans of other campaigns agree: If you like what you watch, support it immediately if you want the show to stay on the air. TV networks today typically want a new series to achieve acceptable ratings in less than four weeks or the ax begins to sharpen.

This week, the first of 36 new series will premiere on the broadcast networks. It's anybody's guess how many of them will inspire campaigns online to save them from oblivion. Which will you want to save if the need arises: The college angst drama "Felicity"? The "docs in space" sci-fi series "Mercy Point"? The quirky buddy cop show "Buddy Faro"? The Irish-American family drama "Trinity"?

As Glass and others like her who fought for their favorite shows suggest, it may not be too early to start thinking about which of the new series might be worth campaigning for online -- even before they start airing.

By Howard Wen

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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