Like most people living in a nerdy-friend bubble, I was surprised to learn—when it was cancelled—that NBC comedy Community, though seemingly adored by everyone I know, was not beloved by the population at large.
In an earlier era—the well-worn tale of Star Trek fans' write-in campaign notwithstanding—that would have been the end of that. Not enough eyeballs equals not enough show.
But then, a funny thing happened. Community, which once upon a time would have been consigned to the dustbin of history (or, you know, DVD sales and bit-torrent-ing) was picked up for syndication—even though at around 60 episodes it was well short of the magic 100 at which shows have traditionally been considered worth syndicating. And it wasn't just syndicated to one platform: the show was licensed for re-running by both cable channel Comedy Central and online video provider Hulu.
As the December 31 Los Angeles Times article explained, "'"Community" has not been a wild ratings success, but it is a show that people really love and they tell 10 other people about it,' said Andy Forssell, Hulu's senior vice president for content acquisition." That is, the sheer numbers of people who watched the show was less important in the decision these content providers made to license it than the fact that the ones who did watch it were very dedicated.
At this point, certain optimists would proclaim a victory for fans. Henry Jenkins, for example, has put intensified attention to fan wishes into the long tradition in which:
from time to time, networks reprioritize certain segments of their audience and the result is a shift in program strategies to more fully reflect those tastes—a shift from rural to urban viewers changed television content in the 1960s, a renewed interest in minority viewers lead to more Afrocentric sitcoms throughout the 1990s, and a shift toward an emphasis on loyal viewers has been changing what reaches the air in the early twenty-first century. Fans are seeing more shows reflecting their tastes and interests reaching the air; those shows are being designed to maximize that appeal to fans; and those shows that fans like are apt to remain on the air longer because they are more likely to get renewed in borderline cases" (Convergence Culture, p. 62)
Over time, different groups get recognized and incorporated, this view goes, and it's just fans' turn at long last. He adds, "For years, fan groups, seeing to rally support for endangered series, have argued that networks should be focused more on the quality of audience engagement with the series and less on the quantity of viewers. Increasingly, advertisers and networks are coming to more or less the same conclusion" (p. 63).
Imagine the sound of the needle being pulled rapidly off the record here. (For younger readers, that's what this sound that you've heard throughout media sources actually is.)
Reality check: that word "reprioritize" suggests some sort of shift in who television-making entities found valuable, but the fact is that the priorities didn't change at all—they wanted as many people as possible to watch their shows (or, really, their ads), and they realized that more people lived in cities now or that there were a lot more black people than they realized such that they were worth pitching shows to. Long story short, the math changed.
So in looking at this shift toward recognition and rewarding of fan-style investment, instead of thinking of this as a "reprioritization of audience segments" or a realization that intense investment is better, the fact is that, like earlier shifts, the math must have changed in some fashion.
Having finally finished Amanda Lotz's 2007 book The Television Will Be Revolutionized a month or two ago, I can now put my finger on what it is: kinds of media distribution that didn't used to be possible have become possible, and these shifting technological and economic possibilities is what has made the difference on series like Community.
The first factor here is economic viability beyond a mass audience model. Once upon a time, as Lotz explains, "network programmers knew that the whole family commonly viewed television together, and they consequently selected programs and designed a schedule likely to be acceptable to, although perhaps not most favored by, the widest range of viewers" (p. 11). This model was based in attaching monetary value solely to sheer number of eyeballs.
Later on, as this norm of whole-family viewing went by the wayside, "instead of needing to design programming likely to be least objectionable to the entire family, broadcast networks—and particularly cable channels—increasingly developed programming that might be most satisfying to specific audience members" (p. 14). Value here came from having largest possible numbers of particular kinds of eyeballs parsed out by gender, age, or income.
In the contemporary moment, what Lotz calls the "post-network era," this process of making content for more specific subgroups has intensified dramatically. This change has "shifted production economics enough to allow audiences that were too small or specific to be commercially viable for broadcast or cable to be able to support niche content" (Lotz, p. 124).
As we’ve moved beyond mass or even large audiences as the only model of financial viability, that is, it becomes possible for a show like Community, which NBC cancelled because it didn't do the mass audience thing well enough, to survive and thrive in alternative economic frameworks like new-style syndication.
The second feature of the landscape—which is of course intimately tied to the first—is new technological possibilities for distribution. Forssell, the "senior vice president for content acquisition" quoted above, pointed to this when he said that Community is "a good fit for online audiences, and in today's digital and aggregated universe, shows like that can survive and thrive." We can think of what's "online-fitting" about the show in two ways.
On one hand, this is because, in that online distribution is a "pull" medium, where people seek out content they want and "pull" it down, rather than a "push" medium, where people have content "pushed" out to them whether they seek it or not, Community's audience dedication suits the way the technology works.
On the other hand, in a pretty basic way, "infinite shelf space and near zero marginal cost [ . . . ] radically shifts much of the operational logic of commercial creative industries" (Lotz, p. 131). These technological possibilities shift television away from a scarcity model and into one of abundance, where there isn't a requirement to select only the things that sell the best but instead everything can be made available however much or little it sells. As Lotz puts it, "another benefit arising from on-demand distribution is that it allows studios to profit from content that may be pretty obscure or fairly far down [ . . . ] the 'long tail'" (p. 131).
These sorts of shifts away from determining what kind of TV can be made on the basis of mass-audience economic norms and network-television technological ones are reshaping the landscape in some surprising ways.
Perhaps the biggest coup in this regard is that "Netflix in November announced that it planned to restart production of another cult favorite, Fox's 'Arrested Development,' which won an Emmy for best comedy but lasted just three seasons before being canceled in 2006. Netflix was drawn to the series because of its young, affluent and fervent fan base."
This isn't the first time a show has gone back into production on the basis of fan enthusiasm—FOX's Family Guy, after all, was put back into production in 2004 after the DVD sold well (Lotz, p. 129)—but what's important in both of these cases is that not only is a show that once would have been dead being distributed (as with Community), but they're actually making episodes of a show on the basis of the strength and attributes of its fan base.
This is the point at which scholars who cheerlead technological change as empowering fans would probably declare victory. It is, undeniably, the case that fans and intense devotion are now taken much more seriously.
And it's equally true that "this new participatory culture has its roots in practices that have occurred just below the radar of the media industry throughout the twentieth century," such that what has in some sense happened is that "the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications for their commercial interests" (Jenkins, p. 133).
But to just be glad about this strikes me as at best overly optimistic and at worst naïve. These shifts have happened only because courting this sort of audience can now make not just sense but cents. To look at these shifts in technology and practice with no critique of capital is pretty distressing to me.
Yes: the landscape has changed—a smaller number of people can now be enough to be worth selling to advertisers. What those people want to see is now worth enough revenue that they actually get it. That's pretty cool compared to the alternative of not getting what you want at all, but it isn't cool beyond that relative sense
Fans might well be powerful after all. What they want is now taken into account in a way that it never was before because shifts in the mediascape have made them into a viable market. To the extent that that's generally what constitutes having power in contemporary society, yeah sure, they've got it. But I'm not comfortable just accepting that equation of monetary value with value, full-stop.