The Nielsen ratings are not always the infallible statistics critics and pundits would have us believe. In fact, there are a veritable truckload of shows that have been saved by a loyal fan base expressing their outrage at an undeserved cancellation. When pleading, threatening, sending postcards, and spamming the network’s contact email doesn’t work, fans leap to the next somewhat-logical step: we’ll pay for it! But could it work? Could a group of average fans with normal salaries really keep a weekly series funded?
Past Successes at Saving Shows
The original incarnation of Star Trek is most credited with being the first series ever to be revived due to fan pressure. Aficionados of the show launched a letter writing campaign and were partially successful in that the show did continue, albeit in a Friday night ‘death slot’ with a reduced budget. Nichelle Nichols called NBC on their behavior in her book Beyond Uhura, stating that they had done so to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. A second letter writing campaign ultimately failed and the show was canceled after 79 episodes.
Cagney and Lacey, the 80s police procedural featuring two female detectives, was also revived after a ho-hum first season using a letter writing campaign. The show went on to win 38 Emmy nods and 14 wins. Fans of science-fiction teen drama Roswell convinced the network to keep it going by sending in bottles of Tabasco sauce, only to watch it be changed and ultimately limp off into cancellation once more. The scenario played out again and again with such series as Designing Women, Futurama, and a bizarre banana box campaign for Arrested Development.
However, the continued success of revived shows has been a mixed bag. While some went on to win piles of awards, others languished and petered out yet again. It’s hard to know what shows will be successful and which ones will bomb. It seems no amount of polling, studying previous successes, or tweaking the time slot can accurately predict a series’ success.
The Idea of Fan Backing
While researching a previous post about Firefly, I was intrigued by the fan attempt to actually fund more episodes. Fans of the canceled show launched a website soliciting donations after one of the actors, Nathan Fillion, stated he would do more Firefly if he ever won the lottery. It was Fillion himself, coupled with creator Joss Whedon, who ultimately pulled the plug and implored fans not to send money.
What if they’d agreed to try a fan-backed series? While it’s not impossible, a lot of planets would have to align to bring it to fruition. While I am not a television executive, nor do I play one on TV, here are the three biggest obstacles I could think of that would make this idea nearly insurmountable.
1. The math doesn’t work. Baywatch holds the Guinness Book of World Records’ distinction for the largest viewership of a TV series ever at 1.1 billion viewers a week. By comparison, Firefly averaged only 4.7 million. That was approximately ten years ago. Let’s say half of those viewers no longer even remember the series. Of the 2.35 million ex-viewers, say a full ten percent of these people are willing to commit to paying a monthly fee or a one-time stake per season to see more. This leaves 235,000 people, roughly, to support a series that cost a whopping one to two million dollars an episode.
For this reason, Firefly was a no-go. However, applying this model to virtually any canceled series comes up with the same problem. Fans would have to pay for the entire series before they see much of anything, as series are obviously filmed ahead of their release to television. Even at an average cost of $1.5 million an episode multiplied by an entire season, say, 26 episodes, is $39 million dollars. In the above scenario, that would mean each die-hard Firefly fan would have to pay $165.96 a season. Just to watch it on TV. No DVDs, no extra commentary, just 26 episodes jammed into the best time slot a channel will sell them.
Before you start thinking about advertising slots during commercial breaks helping to cover the costs, what companies are going to buy air time during a show that already got the ax and is being propped up by fans? The network may be able to fill them at bargain-basement prices or it might not.
2. Time and previous experience is a factor. Again using Firefly as an example, since the series was cancelled Summer Glau’s career has done nothing but climb. Joss Whedon has moved on and committed to other projects, notably directing The Avengers. Similar canceled shows could quite easily run into the same problem. As soon as a series is announced as canceled, casting directors scramble to snap up any good talent from the defunct show’s lineup. If fans didn’t act quickly and pay quickly, a lot of the actors and actresses would already be committed elsewhere.
This facet would of course be less important if fans wanted to back an entirely new series. With shaky fan-backed funding, a cast of untested newbies may be lured by the exposure. However, the project would have to be headed by an experienced hand at some point. How much would they charge to take such a gamble?
3. Fans would likely throw a ton of hissy fits. It’s bad enough when an actor or actress has to leave a series or take a sabbatical due to a serious health issue, unexpected pregnancy, or disagreement with management. Can you imagine the outraged shrieking if fans had laid out a pile of cash only to see a favored performer exit stage left? As contracts would doubtless be on a per-season basis, what would fans’ reaction to a pay increase demand be? Fans of House, M.D. were so caustic regarding Lisa Edelstein’s departure that actual death threats were posted on the web. Death threats? Over a TV show? Yep.
Message boards ‘net-wide already include a lot of qualifying about how much money the complaining fan has spent on a certain series. Negative reviews often start out ‘I can’t believe I paid for all the seasons on DVD and the movie was so bad’, or ‘I feel cheated.’ The demands from fans who made large financial contributions would only grow louder and louder.
While I don’t pretend to know the finer details of television production, a fan-backed project would be difficult to arrange and tenuous at best. Perhaps a web series, with its lower overhead, would be a better choice. It is also a more distinct possibility for films, where there is a budget to be met on a one-time-only basis. Another idea that may be acceptable is blind fan donation to a favored project. So many interesting ideas! Time will tell. If there’s one thing fans aren’t, it’s being shy about voicing their opinions and support.