Growing up watching television in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw it as a magical and untouchable signal beamed into my life from palaces of celebrity with locked gates and glossy sound stages on the other side of the Atlantic. The only way I ever hoped to influence what was broadcast was helping to move the Blue Peter Totaliser™ by collecting bottle tops at school or trying to ring in to play Feed the Frog on Going Live.
I was a fan of many TV shows – but there was nothing I felt I could do when the axe fell on Challenge Anneka and Telly Addicts – or even when Michael Grade called time on Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor Who.
Yeah, we could write letters to the channel and shout about it in the playground and the park – but a collective and public voice was almost impossible to achieve with pen and paper for an unconnected audience on sofas across the country (and in some cases the world). It was therefore easy for commissioners and programme makers to either believe that no one cared, or at least feel insulated from public pressure to reconsider their decisions.
This blissful (and/or convenient) ignorance to fan pressure is not a luxury afforded to 21st century TV commissioners, because technology – especially social media – has given the fans a strong voice, and a connection to the shows and stars they love, in a way that means their views have to be considered (or at least appear to be). The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in again…
Just last week we saw US police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine cancelled by US network Fox as part of the rather curious (to UK viewers) annual cull of TV shows across all American channels. It took around 30 hours for rival network NBC to pick up the show after an outcry from fans on the internet and some slick backroom dealings from among others showrunner Dan Goor and co-creator Mike Schur.
“To see the support of the fans was so wonderful; to be reborn felt so good. It really has been a magical week,” Goor told The Hollywood Reporter after it was confirmed the show would go on.
Now the Brooklyn Nine-Nine/ NBC deal would have been greased by existing connections between Schur (Parks & Rec/ The Good Place) and the network, but there is no question that the huge outpouring of emotion from fans, celebrities and opinion formers on social media gave any potential deal a huge amount more energy.
Social media allows these people to connect with each other and instantly feel an ownership of a show that in my more youthful years could not have been possible. Fans can talk to the stars and the showrunners, and they can respond in real time, corralling the audience – offering them hope and insight into what’s going on. TV programmes can trend on Twitter and videos can go viral on Instagram and YouTube giving global reach to any plight of fans that has legs.
It’s what we saw on this very site when campaigners refused to accept that Ripper Street was ending on the BBC in 2013. With 92% in our RadioTimes.com poll saying they wanted more and the comment threads overrun with support for a new series, the groundswell of fan power helped convince Amazon that the show was worth taking on in a deal with the BBC.
Exec producer Will Gould told RadioTimes.com at the time “the [fan] outcry was fantastic…” and Amazon head of content acquisitions, Chris Bird, confirmed, “That emotional outcry is important for a business like Amazon.”
Of course outcry is not always enough – there are plenty of shows that have big mobilised fan bases who are very vocal that have never had another day in the sun. From Firefly to Hannibal, In the Flesh to Torchwood and Home Fires to The Hour to name but a few. Perhaps the revolution in TV is coming too late for these shows, but surely the Brooklyn Nine-Nine example will give dedicated TV viewers hope going forward…
Whether these campaigns will be successful remains to be seen, but it does appear the tide is turning. Fuelled by social media, a proliferation of broadcasters and the fact that shows never die in a world of on demand – it’s much harder for cancelled TV to be swept under the carpet of the traditional schedules, and it’s much easier for the torch to continue burning in fandoms.
TV fans of today have never had a stronger voice, or a more direct line to the people that make the shows they love. So, perhaps we are on the cusp of the true democratisation of TV commissioning and recommissioning? Now, whether that’s really a good thing for general viewers is a debate for another day…
Right. I’m off to ponder what might have happened had Twitter been invented when Noel’s House Party came to an end.