Blogsight and How Fans Overestimate Their Importance

Ah, Jericho. I used to watch that TV show, grumbling about how it got hydrogen bombs and fallout and static electricity wrong (though it was okay on EMPs). I eventually stopped watching. That’s why I wasn’t too hurt — or surprised — by its cancellation.

Except that a funny thing happened on the way to the chopping block. Jericho fans bombarded CBS with emails and letters and packages of nuts, and in response, CBS renewed Jericho for seven episodes as a mid-season replacement. CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler cautioned fans, though: “[F]or there to be more ‘Jericho,’ we will need more viewers.”

Fans of other canceled shows have taken note. There’s a campaign underway to send Mars bars to the CW to save Veronica Mars. No word yet as to whether fans of Drive are sending cars to FOX.

Regardless, I don’t expect campaigns of this sort to work often, and they’ve had decidedly mixed success in the past. The big problem is that fans think they’re what determines a show’s success, when there is plenty of evidence indicating that they’re not.

Let’s talk about Firefly. The Joss Whedon western-in-space series died a rapid death on FOX. Its fans wrote letters and put an ad in Variety, but to no avail. It was the series’s DVD sales that Joss Whedon managed to convince Universal Studios to greenlight a movie version, called Serenity. Many of the blogs I read then were ecstatic. Friends went to the movie’s early screenings and loved the movie. Entertainment Weekly predicted an opening weekend take of $17 million.

Serenity took in $10 million its first week.

Fans mobilized. They evangelized. They bought extra tickets and handed them out to strangers. When knowledgeable people pointed out that SF movies’ box office take typically drops by 50% in the second week, Joss Whedon himself posted a message saying that he was working to prevent that.

Serenity took in $5 million its second week.

Why were fans and online commentators so wrong? How did they mis-estimate so badly? Because of blogsight and an overestimate of fans’ numbers and influence.

Blogsight is the Internet version of selection bias. Online behavior mimics offline: we tend to hang out with people like us. We read blogs and visit sites that match our interests. If you like a TV series and read blogs written by fans of the series and everyone on these blogs discusses the latest episode and speculates about what will happen next week and writes fanfic involving the hot scientist, then you and the other fans will likely overestimate how popular the series really is. It doesn’t help that only those who love or hate the show will speak up. All the people who saw an ad for Serenity and said, “Meh,” didn’t post about it on their blogs. The one who said “OMG SQUEEEEE!” did.

Beyond blogsight, there’s how the Internet magifies the apparent number of fans. Online communities can have a global membership. I may only know five or six Firefly fans locally, but online I can go to FireflyFans.net and find tens of thousands of them. That seems like a lot, but it isn’t, not compared to the kind of audiences mass market entertainment can draw. Around 100,000 people signed an online “Save Jericho!” petition. 9.5 million people watched the show. Jericho’s only coming back as a mid-season replacement, and even if you took the number of people signing the petition and doubled them, you’d make a 1% change in the number of Jericho viewers.

For a non-entertainment example of both blogsight and people overestimating their impact, look at John Scalzi’s campaign for the presidency of SFWA, the organization for writers of speculative fiction. He had philosophical concerns about the unopposed candidate for president and announced that he was running for president as a write-in candidate. A lot of people discussed his candidacy, with many saying, “Great! I’m voting for Scalzi!” People made campaign posters. SFWA made a publically-accessible forum for people to ask the candidates questions. Technorati showed a spike of discussion about SFWA. Judging from blog discussions, and despite his warnings about his chances, Scalzi seemed like a shoo-in. And yet, he lost by a factor of nearly 3 to 1.

Mass-market entertainment lives or dies by casual fans, not hardcore ones. That is even more true for ad-supported media. It’s no accident that the word “core” is part of “hardcore”. Hardcore fans are a dense nucleus around which you can build a fanbase, but there aren’t enough of them to be your sole support. You want to appeal to as many people as possible, and you want to make it as easy as possible for casual viewers, readers or listeners to to enjoy. The wide-net effect is in part why the 2007 NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship drew nearly a third again as many viewers on TV as game six on the 2006 NBA finals — 19.6 million versus 15.7 million. More people have gone to a school with a division I men’s basketball team than live in a city with an NBA franchise, and NBA teams can move away from your town. The casual-viewer effect is why TV shows with an ongoing, involved story are a hard sell. For every hit show like Heroes and Lost there are far more like Jericho and Veronica Mars and Drive that limp along with an ever-decreasing audience. Casual viewers who turn into a mid-season episode of a TV show with a big narrative arc are lost.

None of this is to say that fans shouldn’t attempt to save shows, or promote the media they love. Fans do have an effect. The “Save Jericho” campaign showed that, as did the Family Guy and Firefly fans who bought enough DVDs to help resurrect those shows, and the Farscape fans who helped make the show-ending miniseries possible. It is to say that fans, and I include myself in that category, should take part in show-saving efforts with a good idea of the chances and with restrained optimism. Blogsight and overestimating our importance won’t help.

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