Danny Pudi, Joel McHale, Donald Glover
Your most beloved program is on the bubble — so you mass-mail trinkets to the network, sign an online petition and add a plea to your Twitter avatar. But are network execs really paying attention?
The answer is yes — but that doesn't mean they've been swayed. "I love the fans and I don't begrudge them," says one network executive. "At least it gives us some evidence that there's a passionate base. But more often than not, decisions come down to the factors we use to size up any show. Do we think there's an upside in it, how is it doing financially, how is it creatively?"
That's why, as viewers get savvier about the TV business, they're changing the way they stage grassroots efforts to keep shows alive. Networks are businesses, so why not target the bottom line? It's a strategy that worked a few years ago with NBC's Chuck, as fans scarfed down foot-long sandwiches from Subway (a series sponsor) to support the spy drama. Subway and NBC noticed and struck a product integration deal that helped convince the network to renew the show.
Shrewd Community fans are looking to make a similar impact. Sure, they have staged flash mobs, produced YouTube videos, added fake goatees to their Twitter avatars and signed online petitions. (Not to mention voting en masse to land Community on the cover of TV Guide Magazine.) But they've also waged a campaign to convince viewers that it's important to watch live (rather than online or via DVR days later) and be counted by Nielsen. "It's amazing how savvy they are about Nielsen," Community executive producer Neil Goldman says. "They feel they're not being counted, and this gives them a way to feel like they're being counted."
Community boosters have expanded their efforts in recent weeks, contacting and thanking advertisers whose commercials appear during the show, and making sure NBC affiliates that pre-empt the show for one reason or another are bombarded by e-mails and Tweets from concerned viewers. (Producers have even gotten into the act, giving away signed scripts and Community sweatshirts online.) "I love the fact that advertisers realize how passionate our fans are," says executive producer Russ Krasnoff. "They're being heard from in a way they never have before." Recounts Goldman: "When we were told we were going to be put on hiatus, [an NBC exec] told me, 'God help us all. We know about your fan base.'"
Of course, the ultimate decision on whether or not to bring back the gang from Greendale next season will come down to economics (and don't worry, it's doubtful the well-publicized fight between creator Dan Harmon and castmember Chevy Chase will factor in to what NBC does). The good news for Community: There's a financial reason to keep the show going, as NBC's Universal TV co-produces the show with Sony Pictures TV, and Community is getting closer to hitting the magic number of episodes worthy of broadcast syndication (the show's cable and digital runs have already been sold to Comedy Central and Hulu).
Otherwise, that brings us to the cold, hard truth: If a network has decided it doesn't make financial sense to keep something on, no big fan push will change that, and more often than not, the mailers become a distraction. "A rabid fan base can help, but only if there's also a business reason that makes sense," says an exec. "If the economics are not in place it doesn't matter."
Every once in a while, a "Save Our Show" campaign has some impact, like when Roswell fans sent Tabasco sauce to The WB or Jericho viewers shipped cases of nuts to CBS. In both cases, the shows were renewed (but nonetheless later met their demise). Those examples were exceptions to the rule, however, and are mostly based on the belief that a young show may still have the means to explode in popularity.
For the longest time, fans of shows on the bubble were swayed by emotion to do some rather expensive things — such as pooling their money to buy ads in the Hollywood trade newspapers or even on the sides of Los Angeles buses. And in what may be one of the most elaborate attempts ever, in 2006, fans of Everwood rented a Ferris wheel (a nod to a prominent moment on the show) and parked it in Burbank near the offices of the new CW network (which hadn't picked up the WB drama). The stunt garnered plenty of media attention, but the cancellation remained final.
Goldman remembers working on Family Guy as fans mailed diapers to Fox. The shipments began to annoy the network, and even the online diaper company eventually asked people to stop. "There's a line," Goldman says. "If I was a network exec and people in my office started being inundated with paintballs [something Community fans are said to have mulled, but decided against, mailing to NBC], I'd be like, 'I'm so canceling this show.' It would annoy me."
The mailings haven't completely gone away. Most recently, Fox received shipments of plastic dinosaurs from an effort to save Terra Nova but canceled the show anyway (and donated the toys to a kids' charity). Last year, Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly was mailed 200 cases of Red Vine licorice twists in a Fringe fan campaign. To fans' delight, he renewed the drama, but it truth, it was economics and the show's strong DVR lift — not the candy — that saved the day.
Still, it appears that TV fans have developed a bit more of a reality check. Other than those Terra Nova dinos, the "save our show" mailings have been virtually non-existent this season. Shows still on the bubble, like CBS' Unforgettable, are relying on social media instead. "It's heartening to see" the fans on Facebook and Twitter, says executive producer John Bellucci.
Social media campaigns provide evidence to executives that an army of fans exists — without overtaxing network mailrooms. "It remains to be seen what works, but we're right on the cusp of people trying new things," Goldman says. "Our fan base is fervent, very active online and very proactive. There's a volume aspect to it, and this type of audience means something to people who want to keep shows on." But leave the Ferris wheel for the amusement park.
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