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.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Share

8 Comments

  1. on June 10, 2007 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m stunned that the nuts thing worked. I’m also amused that CBS wants viewers to not time-shift the show. Say whuh? Okay, so that’s a sop to advertisers, but what advertiser backs a show with a tiny audience? I think the answers to that question are two-fold: someone on a budget, and someone in a niche. The former is likely to put together a forgettable—or regrettable [I'm looking at you, HeadOn]—advertisement, and the latter is the kind of ad the viewer will rewind to see.

    Frankly, if I’m a broadcaster, I probably want the time-shifters, because of the anonymous data TiVo gives out on that niche audience. Maybe then I can go to those niche advertisers and say, “Folks that watch $show1 also watch $show2 on our network … let’s put together a deal.” Perhaps they don’t get that data from TiVo regularly, but they could mine it merely from using the device, and I think they’re complete idiots if they don’t do so.

    I thought about sending Dawn Ostroff a Mars bar, but … I don’t think that she’s the problem at the CW. I think that she was one of VM’s bigger fans—okay, so Kari has influenced me as we’ve discussed this ;)—but that the suits are likely the people that killed it. And that’s their business decision—even if I think that it’s a bad one. [I don't see them coming up with shows for next season that will draw more fans than VM did.]

  2. Lexy
    on June 11, 2007 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Serenity my not have made a splash with the box office, but people forget that it only had a fraction of the money and publicity that other films have put into them. The box office myay not have raked in the gold, but by the power of the fans the film is shown around the world on Joss’ birthday raising thousands for charity.

  3. ksnake
    on June 11, 2007 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    1)Serenity didn’t happen because of Firefly DVD sales. Even Joss Whedon has said this. He made some good contacts at Universal, and he pitched the hell out of it, and Whedon’s rep was still riding high at the time, and now not so much. Honestly, the fans got a movie (that nobody else wanted), but what did Whedon get? Closure, and a career in comic books.

    2)I’m not convinced the fan campaign for Jericho was the primary factor in its probably brief revival. I think they used the fan campaign to justify doing what they wanted to do anyway–top off the DVD package, while drastically lowering production costs. If the ratings go up, great–the show stays on. But they’ll probably drop (no McRaney), and that’s all she wrote.

    When a show comes back, it’s all about what’s going on in the executive offices. The fans are sitting on the sidelines, throwing food.

    You might as well give cheerleaders credit for winning ballgames. Most they do is psych up the team. But just as often, they end up distracting the players. Though probably these cheerleaders don’t look so good in short-skirted midriff-baring ensembles.

    ;)

  4. on June 11, 2007 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I’ve edited the bit of the post that talked about DVD sales. I would guess that in Serenity’s case, DVD sales were used as evidence for the fanbase. Certainly Universal left the majority of marketing, whether by design or by default, to that fanbase.

    It’s a truism that corporate decisions are made by corporate officers. Fans don’t decide what shows come back. But fans do influence that decision, and that’s where your cheerleader analogy breaks down. Fans are part of the group consuming the media and the eyeballs viewing ads. After the fan campaign, CBS can go to potential advertisers and say, “Here is part of your built-in audience for your adverts.”

  5. Rae
    on June 11, 2007 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I agree, but want to add the corollary that while hardcore fans may not be the audience that can support a show, they – we – can develop better, more subtle forms of evangelizing to further develop the, um, “softcore” base and thus keep the shows/movies/whatever on the air/screen/page/etc, than we are using right now.

    Frankly, I’m surprised that the nuts campaign worked, too. However, I was fully unsurprised that the “lots of people loved Firefly and went to extraordinary lengths for it! you should listen to them!” promotion for Serenity, mounted by the Universal marketing people, didn’t. Blogsight, indeed.

    I think that neither we the fans nor they the marketers yet know how to use our enthusiasm most effectively. However, I don’t think that we’ve hit the ceiling of what’s possible for the hardcore fanbase to accomplish.

  6. Rob
    on June 12, 2007 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    … also the NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. Even non-fans tune in. So many people do brackets and are in various polls, the gambling factor alone increases the viewership considerably.

  7. ksnake
    on June 12, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    See, with Serenity, the deal was in the works before the Firefly DVD set was even released. It would likely have gone through even if no DVD set had been released for that series. And frankly, Firefly DVD sales (like Serenity DVD sales) weren’t all that impressive–except by the standard of low-rated TV shows, and flop movies. Particularly once you allow for the fact that a large percentage of the sales stemmed from the same small group of fanatics, buying them in bulk to give away to potential converts.

    I think the problem here is less that we need to come up with better ways to promote our favorite shows than that we need better shows to obsess over, period. And we already have far better things to do with our money and spare time than to blow them on SOS campaigns that either don’t work, or that lead to brief disastrous revivals that underscore what should have been obvious in the first place–the more hardcore a fanbase, the less likely it is that their tastes will jibe with those of the mainstream audience.

  8. Adeptus
    on July 9, 2007 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    “Firefly DVD sales (like Serenity DVD sales) weren’t all that impressive”

    Oh really?
    Have a look at Amazon’s rankings.
    Firefly is still #56 in DVD bestsellers, and Serenity is at #213.

    (that’s across all categories of DVDs – if you divide it into genre, they get much higher – eg Serenity is #64 in Action/Adventure or #49 in SciFi/Fantasy; Firefly is #26 in TV or #16 in SciFi/Fantasy)