Understanding Online Fandom Through the TV Guide Cover Poll

For the first time in its history, TV Guide Magazine allowed readers and online fans to choose its cover story. Or, rather, the show that would be featured on its cover. Running for two weeks – ending on November 1 – the ‘TVGuideCoverPoll’, as it became known on Twitter, garnered 5.5 million votes (with a million of those accumulated in the last day of voting). Six shows with large fandoms were presented for choice: Bones, Castle, Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, Smallville and Supernatural. Each of the four major networks were represented, and The CW network had two shows up for vote.

It became a virtual online phenomenon. The networks, the shows’celebrities and producers, and fans all went on a massive online PR campaign to get people to vote for their show. When all was said and done – and my own eyes were crossed from constantly hitting that ‘submit’button – I realized that the TV Guide poll was actually a lesson in what fandom, and online fandom in particular, means today. To that end, I’ve attempted to come up with 5 fundamental trends about online fandom through observations of the poll. I also contacted Debra Birnbaum, the editor-in-chief of TV Guide Magazine, who was happy to chat with me about background information on the poll and her own thoughts and observations.

Regrettably, she would not reveal the winner to me. That woman is a vault. I, along with the rest of you, will have to wait until December 6, when the winner is announced (the show will appear on the cover of the December 13 issue of TV Guide Magazine). Until then, let’s take a look at the power of online fandom. Of course, I’d like to qualify this by saying the list below is not an exhaustive look at online fandom. There are actually some darker aspects to it that I didn’t examine here (like allegations of cheating for the poll, which Debra told me was not something that was successful and I’d be happy to explain more of what she said if asked in the comments). I was more interested in examining the positive aspects of online fandom and how the internet has changed the way that fans can express their admiration to shows and celebrities.

(1) Fandom is Like Being at a Beatles Concert

I asked Debra where the idea for the poll came about, and she detailed her first experience at Comic Con, where she said ‘I’ll never forget sitting there in the Chuck panel and the screaming…you know, it’s like being at a Beatles Concert. It was amazing.’That promoted her to wonder what would happen if she gave fans the power to speak up for the shows they really love and that led to the ‘fan favorites cover poll’.

Debra’s not wrong. I attended my first Comic Con this past July and was blown away by the amount of screaming and infectious enthusiasm that fans have for their shows. But if you remove fandom from a room populated with physical bodies, you’ll find no less enthusiasm for it online. In fact, the internet has really allowed fans to harness their individual and collective power, making anything possible. Obviously I write for a television site, where I can see how often people retweet our articles, or how well they respond to articles posted about certain shows that they like, or read comments about how passionate they are about a show. I can browse the internet and see dedicated fan sites for shows, know that people write fanfiction, see them post photos of interactions with stars….the list goes on and on. I get emails from people who thank me for writing about a show they love and then tell me why they love it. In a sense, I can still hear the screaming fans every time I come across words written on a screen.

Some people may make the observation that this is just an example of society’s obsession with celebrity. I might argue that gossip sites reflect that more than television sites. When someone makes a comment on TVOvermind, they’re not usually commenting on the looks or relationships of a star, they’re talking about their love for a show, their frustration with certain storylines, or their support for certain characters’relationships. Those instances are not usually about celebrities themselves.

It may not take place in any physical sphere, but online fandom can often be just as loud as those screaming Beatles or Comic Con fans.

(2) Do the Underdogs Have More Passion?

In addition to the screaming that Debra heard at Comic Con, she specifically noticed that she ‘heard the passion of the fans for shows that might not have a huge audience base…but what they lack for in number, they make up for in passion.’What’s interesting to note is that the top 3 shows on the cover poll were Chuck, Supernatural and Smallville. Although these numbers aren’t definitive, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say that both Supernatural and Smallville average around 2.5 million viewers. Chuck averages between 5.5 and 6 million.

Contrast that to the other three shows that didn’t make the top three: Bones (approximately 10 million viewers), Castle (approximately 10.2 million viewers) and How I Met Your Mother (approximately 8.7 million viewers). Like I said, these numbers aren’t conclusive, though they are likely approximate (I took most of them from a list of 2009-2010 live + same day ratings from TVbytheNumbers). If that’s the case, then it’s clear to see that the underdog shows – the shows with the lowest ratings of the bunch – had some of the loudest fandoms in this case.

It’s also interesting to note that the two most popular shows on the poll – Chuck and Supernatural – which spent the last few days fighting to the death for the winning spot – both have never had a TV Guide cover before. It’s difficult to say whether the lower-rated shows – or the shows, like Chuck and Supernatural, which don’t necessarily get as much cover space on bigger publications like TV Guide Magazine – have some of the strongest fandoms. We don’t know what would have happened if Supernatural and Chuck had been pitted against some of the more higher-rated shows on television, like CSI or NCIS. Maybe the underdog shows just need some more support if they’re in danger of cancellation, which prompts their fans to show more devotion and scream louder, so to speak. Or maybe their storylines and characters just inspire fierce devotion in their fans.

I think it’s nearly impossible to prove a statement like ‘fans who support underdog shows have more passion.’I also think it’s probably unfair to fans of more popular shows. I know for myself, personally, I have more enthusiasm for Supernatural than any other show I watch that has higher ratings, and I spend more time exchanging emails about its theories and mythologies (or even about Lost, when it was on the air) than any other show. So while something may be true for me, I’m not willing to say it’s true for others. All the cover poll can really tell us is what happened in that particular instance. But if there was some experiment that could be done to prove or disprove this hypothesis, I would be interested in seeing the results.

(3) Fandom Holds to No Borders

I used to write for a Prison Break fansite, and I would get emails from people all over the world who wrote to me about my recaps or to talk about the show. I’m not kidding, I got emails from South American, Africa, Australia, Asia and the Middle East. In fact, the majority of my emails came from viewers outside of North America.

TV Guide is only really sold in the United States. Debra admitted that it will be more complicated for international readers (myself included) to obtain the magazine (though she did provide a link to an outside subscriber and is looking for a way to make this particular issue more easily accessible to international readers). Despite this fact, she told me that she had looked up the stats in anticipation of our phone call and said that while a majority of the votes were logged inside the United States, fans also voted from Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, France, Australia, Italy, the Philippines and Spain. When I woke up on the morning of November 2, I woke up to tweets from fans in Europe and Australia, who had asked their fellow citizens to continue voting as those of us in North America had gone to sleep, because the poll had lasted until midnight PST the night before. The likelihood of many of those people outside of the U.S. getting their hands on the magazine bearing the winning show on its cover will be no small feat, but they voted anyways, simply because they wanted their show to win.

If you spend some time on Google, it’s not hard to find fan sites for television shows in many languages, not just English. Despite the fact that viewers in North America watch these shows first, they are broadcasted in many countries around the world, and their DVDs are sold internationally. When I went to Comic Con, I become friends with a girl who had come from Australia and sat with me during the Supernatural panel. Despite the fact that the show wasn’t airing current episodes in Australia (I can’t remember how many seasons they were behind), she was a devoted follower. The internet has given people the amazing ability to be more interconnected than we’ve ever been in the past, and it also allows a fan in Vancouver to connect with fans in Manila or Sydney. It allows fans from all over the world to participate in ‘save our show’campaigns when they might not otherwise have had the opportunity.

(4) The Internet Has Fundamentally Changed the Manner in Which Fans, Networks and Celebrities Interact

These days, the only thing you need to do in order to generate PR for something is to post it on Twitter. Okay, maybe that’s an over-exaggeration, but I think we can all admit that the internet has changed the way that fans interact, and the way that networks, producers/writers and celebrities interact with fans.

Debra said that they threw around ideas for how to promote the cover poll but, in the end, she was convinced that extensive PR wasn’t needed from TV Guide. Her plan was essentially to post about the poll on Twitter and watch it take off. Despite her confidence that this plan would work, she admits to being surprised by how ‘fandoms really rallied around their shows, how the stars got so into it. Obviously the networks got behind it, and we knew the networks were going to promote it on their Facebook pages. But especially for something like this, it was amazing to see how the ‘˜unofficial’things took over. It really was the fans who really drove the voting…Watching that whole conversation take place was amazing’.

The executive producer of Chuck, Josh Schwartz, promised to provide Gossip Girlspoilers if his show won the poll (Schwartz is also the executive producer of Gossip Girl). The various actors on shows who have Twitter accounts were all actively asking their fans to vote for their shows. Various blog writers were also pushing their followers to vote for their favorite shows (or even to vote at all).

It used to be that we’d have to wait for magazine interviews or late night television show appearances to hear from producers and celebrities about their shows. Now, all they have to do is give some phone interviews to a few websites and post a few words on their Twitter accounts and it’s proof that the dividing space between those who make television and those who watch it is growing ever smaller. They’re not just interacting with bloggers or the larger websites, now celebrities respond personally to the tweets of their average fans and engage in their own PR.

Personally, I think these actions are beneficial to shows. I don’t think fans really like standoff-ish celebrities. So when an actor in your favorite show takes the time to interact with the people who’s continued viewership ensures they are gainfully employed, everyone is happy. The fans feel like their love of the show is reciprocated. Even those celebrities who don’t have Twitter accounts were putting out statements of thanks for fans voting in the cover poll, and thanking them for their continued devotion.

(5) Sometimes Fandom Just Doesn’t Work

This final point is not necessarily relevant to the TV Guide poll itself, but it’s still an important lesson related to online fandom. I think many fans – myself included – occasionally forget that the entertainment industry is a business. All talk of good scripts, artistic expression, and a fan’s love for a show aside, the networks are in the business of generating ratings, which in turn generates a profit or, at least, doesn’t generate a loss. Craig Engler, who runs the SyFy network’s Twitter account, is actually very transparent and frank when answering fans’questions about the cancellation of television shows. In two tweets he remarked: ‘Another great irony of the TV biz is that TV networks NEVER want to pull shows. But of course that’s not the perception out there’and ‘TV networks, TV viewers, TV advertisers & TV distributors actually all want the same thing: Good shows that last for many years’. He also remarked that ‘Most shows don’t make money. The ones that do help pay for the ones that don’t. Which is true of most entertainment businesses’. International sales to channels in other countries and DVD sales also help to make television shows profitable.

I remember the outrage over the quick cancellation of Lone Star a few weeks ago. Before that happened, however, there was the inevitable multitude of blog posts and twitter messages pleading for more people to tune in and praises for the show. It didn’t work. Despite the fact that Lone Star was loved by critics (who, one can argue, are powerful fans themselves), the ratings of average Americans simply weren’t enough to justify the continued production of the show.

During our call, Debra made the remark that she jokes with people that if Moonlight were on the air today, it probably wouldn’t be canceled. That social platforms like Twitter could have saved it. It’s an interesting thought – that the power of online fandom has reached such a pitch that it can save most ratings-challenged shows if it has a strong enough group of devoted fans. I don’t know whether she’s right in that statement, but I can see why she would make it. At the end of the day, the question is still whether the network and the producing studio would have found Moonlight‘s bottom line to be enough to keep on the air.

Of course, there have been times when fans have been successful in savings hows. Before the power of online fandoms really came to be, fans of the show Roswell sent in bottles of tabasco sauce to the studio to show their support for their shows. Fans of the ratings-challenged Jericho sent in bags of peanuts and that show came back for a second shortened season instead of simple cancellation.

Sometimes, no matter how hard the fans try – or how loud they are – they just can’t save a show. Right now Life Unexpected is on the bubble over at The CW. It was a critical darling when it first premiered last year. Unfortunately, it’s currently pulling in the lowest ratings spot on the network. But the fans are still tweeting about it and making pleas for the network to save the show. Recently, SyFy canceled Caprica, the show that was a prequel toBattlestar Galactica. Almost immediately fans rallied to save the show. But the problem with online fandom is that sometimes it only works if keeping the show makes monetary sense, or other outside circumstances. Chuck’s future at NBC has been threatened almost every year, and fans wait with bated breath to see if it will be renewed for another season. But they’re vocal. They buy Subway sandwiches (Subway has been a major sponsor for years), they plead their case online. The fact of the matter is that the show is cheaper to produce than some other NBC shows, and the ratings have generally held steady for years, even if they aren’t the best. It was recently given a full-season order this year, but that could also be due to a lack of mid-season shows to replace it if it ended. The point is that money, the number of shows a network has in its roster, and scheduling issues all go into deciding whether to keep a show on the air. The newest issue of Entertainment Weekly has a good article about why networks cancel shows that expands on the reasons I’ve mentioned here, so you should pick that up if you want to know more.

That’s not to say that fans should keep silent. If it came down to a network deciding the fate of two shows – with all of the other factors above being equal – it’s entirely possible that the show with the loudest and most passionate fans might win. While the fans can’t win every time, it doesn’t mean they should stop trying.

Conclusion

Whew, this turned into a rather long lesson from a simple TV Guide poll, didn’t it? But I don’t think that the trends listed above will disappear. If anything, online fandom can only get stronger. Debra told me that the ‘fan favorites cover poll’is something TV Guide Magazine would like to continue doing on an annual basis. In addition, the magazine is exploring other ways to give fans an opportunity to express their opinions. The fact is, the landscape of promotion and interaction has changed with the internet, and it’s refreshing to see when long-running magazines like TV Guide or television networks are willing to embrace fans, find ways to harness their promotional power, and reward them for their devotion.

Of course, the only question left is ‘who won the TV Guide cover poll?!’If it’s not Supernatural, I may be taking to Twitter to express my outrage. Or I may start a verbal war by saying that the Supernatural boys are cuter than that guy on Chuck and see where that leads.

Kidding. Probably.

Updated: By the way, Supernatural won the TV Guide cover poll. To read more about it (and view the cover), click here.

[email protected]
twitter.com/clarissa373
twitter.com/tvovermind

Photos: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW


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