Can "Farscape" fans reinvent TV?

When the Sci Fi Channel canceled "Farscape," angry fans launched the usual protest movement. Now they're dreaming of a rebellion that could overthrow TV empires.

Published March 13, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Like so many stories, this one begins with an ending. Or, rather, the announcement of an ending.

Early last September, thousands of fans of the science fiction television series "Farscape" logged in to a chat room maintained by the Sci Fi Channel, which distributes the series in the United States. The Jim Henson Co. actually produces the series, mainly with licensing fees paid by Sci Fi, although Henson also syndicates the show in Britain, Germany and other countries.

"Farscape's" fans (and I'm among them) consider it one of the most innovative and best-written things on TV. The show follows the adventures of astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder), who is marooned in space after an aeronautical accident. Buff, brainy and kinda goofy, John allies himself with a band of outlaw aliens aboard a sentient spaceship that's being pursued by the military arm of a totalitarian regime.

When fans logged on in September, Sci Fi had just broadcast the first 11 episodes of the show's fourth season, with the balance to come in the spring after a short break. "Farscape's" staffers and actors celebrate the end of each season's production schedule by communicating online with the fans -- from Australia, where the show is produced -- to discuss upcoming episodes and drop "spoilers" about the season finale.

The fans received more than spoilers this session. Immediately following a phone conference with Sci Fi programming executives, "Farscape" executive producer David Kemper, along with actor Ben Browder and co-executive producer Richard Manning, informed the "Farscape" faithful (known as "'Scapers") that Sci Fi Channel had just reneged on its commitment to purchase the fifth and final season of the series. Effectively, the show had just been canceled, leaving the audience with a series finale that ends in a cliffhanger.

Predictably, within hours of the cancellation announcement fans had gathered on message boards and in chat rooms to create strategies for protesting Sci Fi's decision. What began as a collective of fans bemoaning the loss of their favorite show has become the Save "Farscape" campaign, one of the largest and most sophisticated fan campaigns in television history.

The Save "Farscape" campaign is hardly the first grass-roots effort to save a television series. In 1968 NBC would never have realized that people were watching "Star Trek" if superfan Bjo Trimble hadn't encouraged other viewers to protest the series' imminent cancellation. Dorothy Swanson organized a successful letter-writing campaign in 1983 to save "Cagney and Lacey," and subsequently founded Viewers for Quality Television to assist other worthy but ratings-deprived shows, such as "Designing Women." Fans of the late-night cult classic "Mystery Science Theater 3000" brought fan-based campaigns into the Internet age when they launched a Web site to find a new home for the series after Sci Fi canned it in 1999. (The site continues to bring "MSTies" together, although efforts to relaunch the show were long ago abandoned.)

In the '90s, grassroots efforts to save canceled shows have gained momentum. Fans protesting the cancellation of the ABC drama "Once and Again" persuaded the network to finance enough episodes to conclude open-ended storylines. Creative "Roswell" fans caught the attention of WB programmers and bought their show more time by sending them bottles of hot sauce as a reminder of the condiment favored by the aliens on the series.

Each successive campaign absorbs and improves upon lessons learned during previous protests. 'Scapers have taken the best from all of them; they sent Sci Fi executives packages of crackers, in homage to the title of a favorite "Farscape" episode, "Crackers Don't Matter."

But protests are perhaps also becoming more sophisticated in reaction to the insensitivity of media monopolies. Movie buffs filed class-action lawsuits in Chicago this February against two movie theater chains for screening commercials before the start of movies. People are beginning to realize that letter-writing is just one of many tools required to express their will.

'Scapers have launched their own multi-tiered campaign. Desperate to save their show soon after the announcement, fans flooded Sci Fi's New York offices with e-mails, phone messages and letters. But initial protests have matured into a long-term effort with one specific objective: to increase the show's ratings by marketing "Farscape" to mainstream America. In a press release issued soon after Kemper's announcement, Sci Fi defended its decision to cancel the series, saying that declining ratings no longer justified the show's expense.

During another online chat in December, Kemper said that the only way to change Sci Fi's position would be to improve the ratings for the show's remaining episodes. Galvanized by this last shred of hope, fans have focused on recruiting new viewers to obtain the six additional "Nielsen families," or households monitored by Nielsen Media Research, that would pull "Farscape" up to a 2.0 in the ratings, a figure the show has not reached this season.

Six more families might not sound like a lot, but it's actually a pretty daunting task. That's six households out of the approximately 5,000 Nielsen families, whose identities are a closely held industry secret. And of course they must also be among the 75 million households that receive the Sci Fi Channel either on cable or by satellite dish. To achieve that end, fans have demonstrated as much creativity and resourcefulness as "Farscape's" creators to bring attention to their struggle. Their efforts included launching a global protest rally in 26 cities in seven countries, funding and producing a 30-second commercial that has aired in 24 major Nielsen markets, and a letter-writing campaign targeting "Farscape's" sponsors and other broadcasting executives.

By focusing on the ratings, 'Scapers are playing by the rules of the television industry. The problem is, no one knows whether those rules even apply anymore. There is a growing sense in the broadcasting industry that the governing business model is dysfunctional. Most media executives agree that scripted television programs (i.e., sitcoms and dramas) are too expensive to produce and don't guarantee audiences large enough to justify higher advertising rates and cover costs. To make matters worse, media companies rely on data collected by an outmoded and flawed ratings system, which remains heavily reliant on the paper "viewing diaries" collected by Nielsen.

Acknowledging the industry dissatisfaction with its system, Nielsen recently introduced its "People Meter," a semi-Orwellian set-top device that monitors who is in the room and what they're watching on TV. About 5,000 families currently coexist with a People Meter, and the "overnight ratings" Nielsen accumulates from them have become crucial figures that can make TV careers, or end them.

Even if ratings were collected with absolute accuracy, it might not be enough for an industry that prefers to chase after elusive demographic segments instead of cultivating advertisers eager to reach the audience that's already watching. In "Farscape's" case, Sci Fi wanted the show to perform better with boys. But the show has already attracted a broad audience, including large numbers of women attracted to the show's strong female characters, feminist storylines, and the sexual tension between human John Crichton and his alien flame, Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black).

According to advertisers, women and sci fi don't mix. These same broad demographics prompted the producers of the syndicated series "Stargate SG-1" to change the mix of characters and storylines so that show would attract more boys and young men, prompting female viewers to mount their own protest campaign last year. Ironically, Sci Fi recently purchased broadcast rights to the retooled "Stargate SG-1" and placed it in "Farscape's" old slot, Friday at 9 p.m., which may have contributed to Farscape's audience erosion.

The entire industry grapples with the same troubles that led to "Farscape's" cancellation. Vivendi Universal acquired Sci Fi's parent, USA Networks, at the end of 2001. One year later the conglomerate almost collapsed and had to sell off many of the assets it had recently acquired, thereby pressuring all its units to tighten cash flow and contribute to the bottom line. At the same time, mounting debts forced the Jim Henson Co.'s corporate owner, the German media firm EM.TV, to consider downscaling. EM.TV may sell all or part of Henson to a third party, such as the Walt Disney Co. or an investment group led by former UPN chief Dean Valentine.

These overarching tensions came into play in the fall of 2002 during negotiations over "Farscape's" fee for its final season. Mindful of its own profit margins, Sci Fi offered an amount lower than expected, arguing that the show's declining ratings meant lower advertising fees. "Farscape's" producers argued that they could not make the show with a smaller budget and had no extra funds to cover the shortfall in licensing fees. According to industry insiders, Sci Fi then exercised a contractual provision that permitted it to opt out of its renewal agreement.

It's a shame that "Farscape" has fallen victim to corporate financial distress, but the only reasonable prognosis is more of the same. The TV industry has yet to adopt workable alternatives, preferring instead to ax veteran programs in favor of cheaper shows. Some producers are considering sponsored content, in which a single advertiser's message is an integral part of the program (Are we really ready for "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter  and Driving My Ford"?), while others believe that international co-financing may be the only way to cover expenses.

Unscripted television -- like the theater of cruelty that we call "reality TV" -- is the option TV programmers are wholeheartedly adopting at the moment. No wonder writer-producers like Kemper are rallying the fans to protect the dwindling number of scripted shows already on the air. If anything, television in the U.S. has lagged behind other nations in going all reality, all the time. Jack Lechner, a film executive and author of the book, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You: One Man, Seven Days, Twelve Televisions," says, "If you look at most television systems [in other countries] 50 percent is scripted programs, at best." Indeed, the Sci Fi Channel now broadcasts "reality" shows like "Crossing Over With John Edward" and "The Dream Team."

The most interesting aspect of the Save "Farscape" campaign has been the willingness of the fans to address and remedy the problems of television economics in order to save their show. If scripted television is doomed, these fans may be on the forefront of a collective effort to keep high-quality dramatic serials on the airwaves for all to enjoy, not just those who can afford premium cable or video on demand.

Using a wide range of e-commerce tools, 'Scapers have collected money for a variety of purposes. There's the "Farscape": Beyond Hope fund, which financially supports the advertising initiatives to promote the show and garner higher ratings. This fund has raised about $9,000 to fund press kits for the media, newspaper ads, and a traveling promotional kit distributed at sci-fi/fantasy conventions. Fan sites devoted to Ben Browder and Claudia Black, the actors portraying "Farscape's" lead characters, collected donations to pay for ads in USA Today, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter to gain public and media attention.

Other funding drives for the show have been even more innovative. In a radio appearance last Sept. 20 on "Interstellar Transmissions," a science fiction radio call-in show in Florida, Kemper discussed a radical idea with listeners: Could "Farscape" viewers actually find a way to finance the show themselves? Energized fans formed a task force to formalize the idea and bring it to fruition.

Matt Sampsell, a research scientist at the Fusion Research Center at the University of Texas, was so inspired that he started the "Farscape" Fund and an online "viewer financing" petition on his own, and later joined with other "Farscape" fans to form the Viewer Consortium, a nonprofit advocacy group designed to develop viewer-financed programming.

Sampsell, now managing director of the Viewer Consortium, says, "I started doing some math in my head. "Farscape" attracts at least 2 million to 3 million people as a regular audience. Even if 1 percent of them were avid enough fans to spend $15 on mailing letters, setting up rallies, and funding advertisements, that adds up to $3 million to $4 million. And it made sense that we would be willing to spend more money for relatively direct participation in the show's production. Writing letters is a good strategy, but you can never be sure if anyone reads them. There is no interaction."

The Viewer Consortium aims to raise more than $750,000, about what Sci Fi pays to broadcast each episode, to fund a new episode of "Farscape"; it has gotten as far as discussing its idea with the Jim Henson Co. Nicole Goldman, a spokeswoman for Henson, acknowledges that the company is aware of the Viewer Consortium's efforts, but declined to discuss the matter further.

"Farscape" supporters admit it's an ambitious goal. But they also point out that such a sum amounts to less than a dollar from each Farscape viewer in the U.S. alone, and that the consortium has already gathered some $260,000 in pledges. But fans have still greater ambitions. Staffed by about 25 volunteers all over the country who work together via telephone and the Internet, the consortium hopes to establish a stronger voice for television viewers by converting viewer passion into financial and marketing assistance for their favorite creators and distributors.

Industry observers remain skeptical. "The odds for viewer-funded financing are pretty remote," says the author Jack Lechner. "They'd have to come up with millions" to really make an impression on producers, he argues.

Organizers of the Viewer Consortium also want to develop alternatives to the current ratings systems and broadcasting structures. Unlike the now defunct Viewers for Quality Television, the organization takes a pragmatic approach toward the structure of the television industry. "The idea here is to have mechanisms for the consumer to affect the industry beyond just lobbying [a network or other distributor]," Sampsell says. The consortium plans to distribute a publication that educates viewers about television industry business practices so that they can frame their ideas and prospective production deals appropriately.

On the one hand, it's heartening to see the do-it-yourself ethic of the Internet applied to the sick-unto-death broadcasting industry. It's also sad to reflect that no one even considers involving government agencies -- like the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission -- that once upon a time were meant to help safeguard the rights of consumers and the public interest in broadcasting.

Unless ratings dramatically improve, this incarnation of "Farscape" will soon come to an end. Sci Fi will broadcast its last episode on March 21. The sets have been dismantled; cast and crew members have moved on to other projects. But the television industry should beware that this is just the beginning of a new level of fan-based direct action. What if the sophomoric narrator of Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity" was right, and what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. The Save "Farscape" campaign shows that people can organize a resistance and work together, based on a commonality of pop culture sensibility. Once they've refashioned the broadcasting industry, maybe they'll move on to politics.

By Adrienne Crew

Adrienne Crew is Salon's Content Licensing manager and subscribes to too many fashion magazines.

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