FOE4 Musings: Chuck vs. Fan Management vs. Fan Facilitation

Chuck vs. Fan Management vs. Fan Facilitation

November 20th, 2009

Currently ongoing at MIT, the Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference is a gathering of academics, industry leaders, and interested parties for a discussion of how “the creation of transmedia storyworlds, understanding how to appeal to migratory audiences, and the production of digital extensions for traditional materials are becoming the bread and butter of working in the media.” And while I’m not at the conference myself, through the joys of the #FoE4 Hashtag on Twitter and some extensive liveblogging it’s as if I am, which is a wonderful feeling for an academic who is isolated from these types of major conferences by geography and funding both.

However, as regular readers of Cultural Learnings know, I rarely engage in wholly academic discussions in this setting, and in terms of this conference I’m particularly interested in the convergence between the discussions being held at the conference and my own experience looking at both television and the culture that surrounds it. In particular, this morning’s panel (moderated by friend of the blog Jason Mittell) on transmedia storytelling from the perspective of the producers (both in terms of third party companies who work on tie-in websites, etc., and those who are in charge of organizing those efforts) raised an important question that perhaps Henry Jenkins put best in a tweet:

There’s obviously an ideological difference between the two terms, one designed to control and the other designed to empower, and in an example like NBC’s Chuck (which, as announced yesterday, is returning in January) we can use these terms to describe the challenge facing the show’s relaunch.. The successful fan campaign which “saved” the show and earned it a third season was facilitated indirectly, as fans created their own transmedia experience by taking product placement and turning it into their own mini-marketing campaign.

And, as a result, NBC is in a position where Fan Facilitation and Fan Management start to blur, as the existence of an existing fan base more often inspires networks to attempt to control and manipulate that group rather than understanding the intelligence implied in their earlier behaviour and using that to their advantage, risking turning them away and squandering the potential they offer.

“Save this Show” campaigns are not entirely transmedia in nature, but they stem from an intense fan reaction inspired by the world being created by the series, and their goal is almost always to demonstrate the power the show has over a particular fan base. The purpose of a campaign is to demonstrate to the network that the fans are loyal to that series, a projection of other transmedia behaviours (fan fiction, for example) into a more mainstream forum. For such a campaign to start, it implies that producers/network have done something right in terms of creating an emotional engagement with their audience that would inspire them to dig into their pockets and their time to help save a particular series.

What was so interesting about the campaign to save Chuck is that the fans were keenly aware of the economics of television, disengaging from the more traditional “Save Your Show” process of taking items from within the show (Hot Sauce for Roswell, Nuts for Jericho) that have emotional value and sending them en masse and instead targeting one of the show’s sponsors, Subway, and their use of product placement. The campaign for everyone, on a particular day, to buy subs at Subway and write comment cards thanking the restaurant chain for supporting Chuck was a hyper-intelligent maneuver that spoke to NBC’s bottom line as much as it spoke to the work of the show. It was the audience demonstrating that they understood the challenges the show faced in terms of earning a renewal, and that they were so engaged with this universe that they were even willing to accept and expand on product placement as an example of the convergence between the show’s fictional world and their own. The result was a third season renewal and an even larger Subway presence within the series, but also a rather difficult situation for NBC.

While Jenkins is right that “Fan Facilitation” is perhaps the more desirable term for the audience (no one wants to feel managed), from NBC’s perspective “Fan Management” is the challenge that faces them. I think it’s possible for a network/production company to engage with “Fan Facilitation” from the beginning: my brother has outlined how Paranormal Activity’s recent launch empowered fans to do their own marketing, and for me this could be termed as facilitation because it both created and managed a particular response. There is no doubt that Paramount controlled the process, but it was starting from the ground up and therefore was able to set the parameters to allow for a greater sense of ownership for its intended audience (ironically, actually having ownership over a particular process actually seems to result in the studios/networks passing on a greater sense of ownership to the audience). The marketing campaign became a sort of transmedia experience, where part of the film’s story was the way in which the audience spread the “found footage” to others across the country.

However, with Chuck, NBC didn’t create this fan community, nor did it even facilitate it to any major degree (the product placement was budgetary, not creative, after all) leading up to the campaign. As a result, the knee jerk reaction from NBC is how they are able to manage what has fallen into their lap, rather than how they can facilitate further growth. As such, they created ChuckMeOut.com, which effectively tracks existing Chuck behaviour (streaming online episodes, watching videos, etc.) and houses it within NBC’s own site. On the one hand, it shows that they are paying attention to what fans are achieving, as the site exists as proof for NBC that fans are engaging with the show in ways that aren’t traditionally measured by Nielsen. However, the site feels more like management than facilitation: it adds nothing to the existing fan community other than occasional prompts for their engagement with the series to occur in a particular fashion, and does little to inspire them to go above and beyond.

I don’t think this suggests that NBC is failing, but rather that their desire to harness the power of the existing fan response, rather than attempting to stimulate and even expand that response, results in management over facilitation. While Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak have facilitated considerable fan response with something like Jeffster, the fake musical group within the series that has created a fandom within a fandom, NBC sees their role as managing, rather than facilitating, these sorts of responses. And with Chuck, it’s creating a scenario where they have an enormously intelligent fandom, clearly devoted to this cause, who are being taken advantage of more than they’re being inspired to create and expand the world further. And with the show’s launch being moved up by a couple of months, the amount of time for NBC to really pull something together to help relaunch the show with the same type of empowerment that saved the series is limited.

And if they continue to try to manage more than facilitate the issue, chances are the inspiration provided by “Save Chuck” will never be harnessed again – while I don’t think fans will abandon the series due to NBC taking them for granted, I do think that the potential convergence of NBC’s marketing muscle and the fans’ ingenuity will be squandered, which is perhaps just as concerning for the show’s future.

Cultural Observations

  • Considering the amount of time I spent in the midst of the “Save Jericho” campaign, that example is more intriguing but less relevant considering the show was cancelled. CBS did a lot of things right in that instance, like creating an ARG, but that was an example of a show that had no support from critics, no reputation for quality outside of the devoted fans, and a network with much higher ratings expectations – neither facilitation nor management could have ultimately saved that show from its eventual fate.
  • This is perhaps apropos of nothing, but I wonder if there’s something to be said for the difficult facing NBC (the broadcaster) when it isn’t also the producer of a particular series: it creates three levels of bureaucracy in terms of the producers/the production company/the network, and perhaps complicates these types of efforts (as NBC has less ownership of the series).
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11 Comments

Filed under Chuck

11 responses to “FOE4 Musings: Chuck vs. Fan Management vs. Fan Facilitation

  1. Rae

    Interesting thoughts… that I mostly agree with. Do you have any ideas for how they can facilitate more than manage?

    I’d say the original intent of ChuckMeOut.com was facilitation but they failed in the execution of it. After all, it does not actually do even what you described it as doing. It never really went out and gathered Chuck activity happening around the Internet and linked to it to make it easier for fans to find. Just look at their “Twitter” page… they only ever kept their initial (and small) sample of people on it AND it hasn’t updated since… probably August based on the SYTYCD twitter of Kath’s that is still one of the most recent Twitter messages. Nor does the site even offer an RSS feed which would have made it easier for people to subscribe and follow it. Which, if they had actually been doing what they said they were going to do would have then (theoretically) created an even bigger wave of people seeing those Chuck posts from around the Web and seeking them out. Something that would have encouraged fans to keep posting about Chuck as it would have meant the possibility of being linked from the site. A self-generating promotion machine, if you will. Especially if it had been linked from the main NBC site.

    None of that happened. The only value it ever added to the fandom were the few times the show actually used it to let the fans know they were there and thinking about them.

    Looking at it, I’d say the idea either didn’t generate from inside the Chuck PR machine (be that NBC or WB) or the person who came up with the idea was not the person assigned to make it happen and/or was given other priorities. A shame really because, while the site would not have shown immediate rewards for NBC/WB as far as its benefit, I think it did have the potential to be a great promotion tool and one that kept the Chuck on people’s minds during the hiatus.

    As for CBS and Jericho, I don’t actually think CBS did much right at all. I think they took of a situation in which the fans were generating publicity for them and used it to their advantage but, because it wasn’t the ultimate reason they made the decision, they didn’t put much effort in taking it further (the ARG felt more like typical promotion than something that specifically targeted the fans who helped put them in the spotlight). But, as you say, I’m not sure they could have done too much even if they had tried given the lack of support from the people who always have the ears of the viewers (vs the fans who, in desperate times, can get loud enough to be heard but can’t really maintain that volume over a period of time).

    • I think you’re right on Jericho, in that it wasn’t executed with much passion behind it, but it just shows you that “token” transmedia engagement isn’t enough.

      And yeah, I haven’t visited ChuckMeOut since it opened, and I don’t know why I would: the blog kept updating, which I’ll give them some credit for, but it was clear that the project was a token “let’s use social media” project that got pushed around to the point where it failed to connect with any existing social networks, and in the process failed to engage viewers. It also didn’t take advantage of its closeness to the series to engage with fans in a way that was different, and potentially transmedia based (character blogs, etc.) that isn’t available on the other sites, so as to encourage us to visit it. It’s just an all-around failure, and an unfortunate one.

      And your point on self-promotion is spot-on, Rae, and yet another example of fans (albeit of the blogger variety, as opposed to the non-blogger) knowing a heck of a lot more about what works best in these sorts of situations.

      • Rae

        You know what it is? I think the idea behind ChuckMeOut is great especially when, from the other side, you’ve got PR firms reaching out to bloggers to get them to post about the show (though, to my knowledge, this was not actually happening during the majority of this hiatus). The system should be rewarding itself, so to speak.

        But it’s not going to happen magically. There are ways to make it easier (Google Alerts, utilizing filters in a reader, accepting submissions for approval, etc.) but you still have to have one person who actually has to spend a couple hours of their day doing the work. I suspect most of the time (because this happens in my office too) these jobs get relegated to people who didn’t get into the business to search the web for people talking about a show, ya know? Once in awhile you get a person who gets into it and that’s when the project really succeeds. Well, they also succeed when someone gets hired specifically do these type of tasks but, given how fast these attempts pop up and then die out, I dunno if I believe that happens often.

        Everyone seems to be circling the drain and someone’s going to get it right eventually and that’s all it’ll take for the others to follow suit.

        And, to be fair, the problem with fan facilitation is that we’ve still got a lot of areas where networks and studios can’t endorse what fans are doing even if they appreciate it. Where they have to juggle the legality and the fans at the same time. ChuckMeOut is an official NBC site. Let’s say I create a really kick ass fan video or fan art and all the Chuck fans out there are linking to it and talking about it. I’m betting ChuckMeOut can’t, because I’ve violated copyright rules, etc. This doesn’t mean they can’t posts and sites to share that stay out of that gray legal area but I can see how it factors into things and could be a reason networks shy away from putting themselves into what could potentially be a sticky situation.

        Ok, now I’m just rambling. 😉 I just wanted to add that I do think the idea behind the site is great and I hope someone can eventually find a way to make something like that truly work.

  2. Rae

    Oh. I also wanted to mention, I think it’s actually the people on the show itself that have done more facilitating than anyone else. Chuck has lots of presence on Twitter and, through Zach, Facebook. Some of that is a PR presence but it’s mostly people from the show interacting, even in small ways, with the fans. I don’t know if that was mandated by the PR folks behind the show or if it’s just the folks on the show actually being interested in those tools and seeking them out. Either way, it’s done more for keeping the show somewhat present during its hiatus than anything NBC has done.

    • Another great point, although one that’s tough (as you note) to pin on a PR initiative or just a really cool set of people working on the show. There’s definite value to the creative/performance aspects of a show to skip the network side of things and interact with fans directly (it’s why something like Comic-Con is so successful). My one concern is that this is something that is sort of a perk for existing fans more than a way to pull in new ones: yes, it’s a selling feature (having a cast that clearly appreciates fans and interacts with them in these different areas), but not one that will really work to expand Chuck’s potential audience.

      • Rae

        Hmm, it may not expand the audience by much but I think it does help keep Chuck on people’s mind which means they talk about it to other people, etc. But don’t underestimate the importance of feeding the current fanbase while trying to attract new fans. With an absence this lengthy you want to make sure the current fans stick around just as much as you want to expose the show to new ones.

        • Both are incredibly important, no doubt, but right now Chuck’s biggest problem is getting new fans more than it is keeping the ones it has. You’re right though that it’s possible to use the current fans to grow new ones, but that’s takes a finesse that I don’t think a network is capable of.

  3. Thanks for following from afar, Myles! One additional note – in a later panel, Henry talked about fan activism around both pop culture and politics, suggesting that he was working on a project on fan “buycotts” like the Chuck/Subway example.

    Day two starting now!

  4. Thoughtful, balanced post. You’ve got a new fan/follower. Also following the FOE4 from much less afar, but had to work (on a brand strategy for a cable network so less), so appreciate your insightful additions here. My question, considering my current work, is how a network should build this behavior into their brand proposition? I ask you in particular because you seem more attentive to the economic realities of running a network than a lot of Utopians blogging on the subject. It’s fine and good to talk about how a network should be more responsive and inclusive, but what does that mean in practice? And frankly, it’s hard to take that POV seriously from people who have never actually managed any project bigger than their own blog.

    • First off, thanks for the kind words.

      In terms of the network branding this behaviour, it requires two things.

      The first is good content, simple enough. The second is a perceived line of communication. With these two things in place, a brand is capable of adapting and growing to changing trends: good content grows fans, and a perceived line of communication is capable of empowering those fans.

      The example I’ll give at the moment is SyFy’s Twitter presence: Craig Engler, who runs the Twitter, spends more time answering questions and addressing rumours than he does posting news or trying to provoke social media behaviour. It creates a perception that someone is paying attention to the internet chatter, and even when he posts that SyFy has no intention of picking up other canceled science fiction series it makes you realize that SyFy, as a network, knows about that show and took the time to deny the rumour.

      In terms of individual series, Twitter is an equally beneficial tool, allowing writers/actors/producers to interact with fans in a way that makes them feel like part of the creative and branding processes. As Rae notes above, there is something special about the people involved in the show both at creative and network levels being accessible and aware, two important factors in terms of making fans feel like saving a show goes beyond their own personal enjoyment to the jobs/visions/experiences of the people directly involved.

      But, of course, it’s not an exact science, and some shows aren’t built for this kind of interaction, so I can’t offer a chemical makeup of the whole scenario.

      Thanks for the insightful comment, and good luck with the strategy!

  5. Pingback: When Worlds Converge: Futures of Entertainment at Cultural Learnings « Cultural Learnings

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