Producers listening to fans instead of ratings

If you like a TV show, you can go online and find forums, portals, fan pages and fan fiction sites dedicated to it. You can argue with other fans about whether last week’s episode had an inconsistency, or you can extol the virtues of characters or actors, or chat about where you want to see the show go.

The producers are listening. But to all the fans, or just the ones who support their own goals? And will they take what fans on the net say over what the ratings are supposedly telling them? Should they? Ratings are unreliable and very open to interpretation… but fan forums are hardly a scientific tool.

Network executives and producers smirk at these questions: the answer is, they’ll go on producing crap, and we’ll go on watching it. Sponsors will go on making crap cheaply in China, and we’ll go on getting triple mortgages to pay for it. Americans are stupid. I wish I could argue with that one.

But is this approach going to work forever? Just because the first few generations to see TV were mesmerized by it, will we always be? After all, now we have the internet and camera cellphones and all sorts of other shiny stuff to play with. And if we don’t like commercials, we can just TiVo it and skip them, or rent the show on DVD when it comes out. Or download the latest episode for $1.99 on iTunes. Everything about the way we watch TV is changing, so maybe it’s time for executives and producers to find new ways to figure out what we want to see. After all, it’s getting easier and easier for us to avoid TV commercials altogether.

Here’s my prediction for the next step in TV evolution. Smart young executives and producers will recognize we’ve entered a new age, and find new ways to play the game. Old, stuffy executives will be left behind with their severance packages, blaming someone else for their failure to keep up.

But exactly what role should internet fandom play in all this? After all, producers have been known to pick and choose which fans they listen to – and interact with – online. Fans can create multiple use accounts to make it look like they’re not the only one who wants to see certain things happen on the show. And the vast majority of fans still don’t post online – probably never will. The bottom line is, a show’s most dedicated fans don’t always watch the show for the same reasons as the vast sea of consumers who plop in front of the TV every week and, hopefully, buy some of that cheap China-made crap in the commercials.

It can still be a source of invaluable insight into what audiences want in general, though. It can raise questions networks never thought to ask, and give them new ideas. On the next page are my suggestions for any producers or executives who want to use internet fandom as a way to understand audiences better:

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