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.
- 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).