Save this Premise?: The Premature Campaign to Save Lone Star
September 25th, 2010
When I realized that there was an online campaign to save Lone Star, I had two thoughts.
First of all, I was bolstered: rallying around Kyle Killen’s inspired support of the series, journalists and fans began to voice their support with Twitter hashtags and Facebook campaigns, and as someone who saw promise in the series I was pleased to see the show getting attention.
However, I was also struck by the fact that people are not really campaigning to save Lone Star. The majority are campaigning to save the idea of Lone Star, the notion that complex drama series not about policemen or lawyers have a place within the context of network television.
While I think this is a battle worth fighting, and I certainly am in support of the series continuing (despite my concerns over its longevity), I have some serious concerns about how this campaign relates to the text itself. When we have seen only a single episode, and when there were legitimate concerns of where the series goes from here, is this metric level of internet-related hype surrounding the series not simply creating expectations that the episode will need to live up to? Does this level of support not seem premature for a show that hasn’t even become a show yet?
The idea of a fan campaign is that people with knowledge about the text involved inform those who lack that knowledge about why they should be watching. It’s more or less the same principle as television criticism, but expanded to a wider audience and with the element of “peer review” as opposed to authoritative analysis. However, generally speaking these fans have an intense knowledge of the text: they know the characters, or the storylines, or something about the text which new viewers might not be able to understand.
In the case of Lone Star, what do “fans” – if people can even be fans of something they have only seen once, an open question to which I have no answer – know about the show which wouldn’t be available to someone with access to Google? Or someone who reads a review (or a recap) of the pilot? The campaign is wholly driven by “Lone Star has a great pilot,” but can this extend into “Lone Star is a great show” when we have no way of knowing if this is actually true?
I don’t want to seem like too much of a cynic, as my issues go beyond my personal concerns over the series’ future. More specifically, I wonder if this isn’t creating expectations that Lone Star will be unable to live up to. If anything, we already saw some backlash with the pilot, as the effusive critical praise left many viewers confused (this is from speaking to people personally). I think it would be fair to say that many critics responded so strongly to the series because it was the best among a weak crop of new series, and because it represented one of the only examples of network risk-taking for them to signal as some sign of hope. I personally felt the show lived up to enough of that potential for me to get behind it, but I do think that the push from critics might have actually created anticipation which obfuscated some of the more practical concerns with the series.
And while I want people to be able to judge the show for themselves, and thus would encourage them to watch it, I worry that this sort of campaign actually kills any chance that viewers will be able to judge the show on its own merits. The more we defend the series and encourage people to watch it in order to save the future of (relatively) complex network television, the more that people go into the series expecting something that the series might not actually be. While this kind of campaign could get the show some sort of sampling (although not likely enough to keep the show from getting pulled off the air, barring Killen getting his miracle), is this really how you develop long-term viewership patterns? By hyping the pilot out of proportion, with the same type of enthusiasm with which many would hype Breaking Bad or Mad Men, it could actually endanger the sort of engagement that the series is fighting for.
Yes, the point is likely moot: what does it matter that fan activity could create false expectations for new viewers if the show is not going to gain new viewers? However, considering that the industry is suggesting that Lone Star represents larger trends within the industry, I think the campaign speaks to how defensive we have become of risk-taking in television. Regardless of Lone Star’s actual quality (which I would defend against the skeptics, for the record), the show has taken on a larger role which inspires commitment that may not be supported by the text itself.
I look forward to Monday’s episode of Lone Star, and will also get the chance (even if the rest of American does not) to see the third episode and take part in a Q&A with Killen – this is the kind of show that I am curious to see develop, and that I will continue covering. However, I am not quite so interested in actively taking part in the campaign because I don’t feel that I can advocate saving a show that hasn’t actually become a show yet.
I may be singing a different tune next week, but until that point I’m on Team “Watch Lone Star and see if you like it,” not Team “Save Lone Star because it is the future of television.”
13 responses to “Save this Premise?: The Premature Campaign to Save Lone Star”
I don’t think you’re cynical at all. Great points. The whole irony of a “fan” campaign to save Lone Star is that it has no “fans.” Not really.
“The campaign is wholly driven by “Lone Star has a great pilot,” but can this extend into “Lone Star is a great show””
I don’t see the distinction. Only the pilot has aired; therefore, the pilot is the show. If a second or third episode airs, then the show will be those two or three episodes.
The distinction I would make is that you can’t properly judge any show based solely on its pilot: Pilots usually have strong budgets, long shoot times, plenty of time for tweaking, hand-picked directors, and a singular purpose of getting the show picked up.
Especially with Lone Star, which has a very cinematic pilot, there is very little there to indicate what kind of show it will be: we can pick up genre and basic narrative, but in terms of episodic structure or consistency (two key values of judging a series) there is no data to go on.
Great points which I totally agree with. I’d also add that us Save Lone Star-ers are not only trying to rescue the idea of network innovation, but also combat the notion that a show should be made or broken by its opening numbers.
One of the secret strengths of cable dramas is the knowledge that any new show will be given a chance to find its footing – if FX or AMC orders a 13-episode season, they’re going to air them all before canceling it. (And HBO now seems to almost guarantee 2 seasons!) This is important for viewers, so we know that we won’t be abandoned mid-season. But it’s also vital for creators, so they know that they’ll have at least X eps to tell a story. For a show like Justified or Rubicon, this is huge, as the slow build toward the later great episodes was essential to the tone & pace – but such a strategy would never work on networks with a quick hook.
I understand why economically, it doesn’t make sense for Fox to guarantee Lone Star or any new show a full or half season’s run. But a fast cancellation would signal not only that network shows need to embrace formula and gimmicks, but also that they have to frontload their most compelling storytelling, thereby short-circuiting a range of interesting approaches to developing serialized storyworlds that we see on cable.
I’ve never understood the speed with which networks are prepared to scrap content they’ve already paid for, particularly in an environment where popular cable hits are getting the viewership that less popular network shows pull. The networks have been at least airing most of what was produced, even if it’s just during summer burn-off, but I find it so strange that they don’t give shows much of any room to grow viewership. It’s not particularly applicable to the case of Lone Star since that debuted so extremely low, but its lead in House debuted at 7 million, and hovered between 6 and 7 million until the Christmas break, and then came back as a hit. Those were inauspicious numbers in 2004, but giving it time to find an audience really worked out. Other than CBS, who seem incapable of airing anything without drawing 10 million viewers or more, I can’t understand why the other networks are so incredibly eager to cancel shows that they obviously found appealing enough to give the slot to in the first place. As you said, that’s what cable networks do, and it seems to be working very well for them.
It does make sense for short-term economics, as networks have to ask whether something else could draw a much larger audience in that spot. A rerun of House or a cheapo reality show would earn 2-3 times or more the ad revenue as a low-rated original in the core TV season. Waiting to burn-off cancelled shows over holiday or summer breaks means overall more revenue with no risk. It’s unfortunately the “right” thing to do for profit numbers to the parent corporation, and Fox doesn’t need to cultivate cult viewers like cable channels do.
It’s definitely a better move in the immediate short term, but there are a few things that strike me as really bad ideas in operating that way. Since cable and network audiences are heading toward a convergence point it’s going to be increasingly important for networks to develop those cult audiences, particularly to stay competitive with cable channels that don’t have content restrictions. I’d wager that most people under 20 couldn’t tell you the difference between network and cable channels outside of that content difference, and the continued survival of a cult show like Chuck is partially a result of a network encouraging a small but committed audience.
Of course, Chuck is also largely there because of NBC’s weakness, but that’s another issue with being quick to cancel. House reruns might be good for now, and some reality shows are hits, but many lose their novelty seeking audience quickly (see the current Apprentice season), and hanging a lineup on a few aging hits without building an audience for new ones like NBC did with Friends is how you end up as the weakest network. The fact that drama programming is still being produced rather than just cheap reality stuff is a sign that there’s at least a small impulse for the networks to be more than just profit margin obsessed clearing houses for crap TV, so it boggles the mind that they steadfastly refuse to learn much of anything from the cable networks. Cable audiences are growing because many of those networks try to put on quality programming and they offer some commitment to their show-runners and audiences that it’s safe to invest their time, like HBO being quick on the draw in ordering second seasons. FX has been similarly
These points might not be particularly applicable to the case of Lone Star given that, as Myles points out, we’ve only seen one episode and no evidence that they can carry it forward from here. Even so, pulling something that’s obviously getting a lot of positive critical attention in a time where the old business model isn’t really working and TV audiences are shifting from casual viewing to more selective viewing and to being more engaged with the shows they like via discussions like this seems like a case of repeating the mistakes that got the networks here. Lone Star is on the air because of that good pilot, not because John Voight, Adrienne Palicki or James Wolk are major audience draws, so pulling the plug on something they obviously believed in because of a bad first week in an extremely tough timeslot is an example of poor long term decision making, even if Lone Star itself isn’t ultimately worth it for Fox or for audiences. I will say that their decision to re-air the pilot on Saturday night is a reassuring sign, and it’s good that they’re borrowing the cable tactic of airing an episode several times to get the maximum viewership they can for it.
And now back to working on my paper that’s coincidentally about applying your “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory” essay to House
Usually I read Myles’ posts and find little to nothing to disagree with, or substantively comment on. That is absolutely not the case this time however.
A quick thought first. How does this compare to the fan campaigns begun to save “Dollhouse” months before that show even aired?
There are two levels to the Lonestar situation imo, the abstract and the real world. In the abstract, then some of these points make a fair amount of sense. But the bottom line is that this show could be permanently canceled at any hour. Fox has canceled programs after two to three Episodes before, such as Past Life, Drive and Skin. At what point precisely would it have been appropriate for people who wanted to see those shows continue to have begun campaigning for them?
Viewers and critics support shows for all sorts of reasons and they reject shows for any number of arguments as well. Who is to say whether or not someone’s reason for enjoying a show is legitimate or not? Is the person who supports everything centered on Texas not worth listening to? The person who watches because they believe one of the actors to be “hot”? If we only listen to that segment of the audience that we believe is “worth” listening to, then my guess is that we would be ignoring the majority of the fans and detractors of any show. In a hypothetical world I might argue that such standards would make sense, but this is the Internet Age, where nearly everyone’s opinion is equal and practically that position makes no sense to me. Further, who holds the right to determine whether or not someone else’s reason is “valid” to begin with?
If people like this show, for whatever reason, even if it won’t last, then who are we to say whether or not they should campaign for it? For some, this may not necessarily even about whether they do like the show, it could be that they want the chance to continue to watch it and make up their minds. If Lonestar gets pulled after Episode 2 and airs the remainder of it’s produced Episodes on Saturday nights in July 2011 then they have lost that choice. This may be their only opportunity to do something about that.
Furthermore, some people do make their minds up about a program quite quickly. Wonderfalls, Point Pleasant, Firefly, Reunion, Harsh Realm, Pasadena, Brimstone, Vanished and Strange Luck are all former Fox shows who have fans that still lament their passing years later, despite that they were all short-lived. Some people may think it folly to form emotional or intellectual attachments to TV programs, but that doesn’t stop other people from doing so.
One of the (sometimes) benefits of the age that we live in is that people make quick judgements. There are already people who erased the premiere Episode from their DVR after seeing it’s ratings, without having watched a single Episode. There are people who listened to critics Tuesday morning, whether professional or those that they know personally, as to whether or not to watch Lonestar. With so many voices already out there, then are those who wish to support Lonestar supposed to stand back, be patient, and trust that all will end up for the best? That whatever happens was meant to be? I don’t believe that.
Despite my arguments, while I did watch and enjoy Lonestar, I have not participated in any fan efforts to support it. However, I understand and applaud the effort and dedication of those who are working to accomplish something that they believe to be positive, regardless of their individual reasons for doing so.
Just to be clear, I am not against the notion of people supporting the series: people can campaign for the series all they like, as that is both their right (as you point out) and a logical response to the low ratings.
What I have an issue with, more intellectually than emotionally, is that the Save Lone Star campaign is attempting to protect something which is completely undefined rather than promoting something which has potential to grow into something more. You can promote a show based on its pilot, which is totally fine by me, but it’s tough to argue that a “series” deserves to be saved when you have not seen how that series is going to develop. It’s why the discussion here seems to be more about what Lone Star represents (as you point out, this includes FOX’s legacy of canceling series) rather than Lone Star itself, and I find that problematic.
I think we default to “fans” when discussing an issue like this, but I think “viewers” is simply more accurate. This is being framed as a fan campaign, but in reality it’s a grassroots campaign which connects with those who watched and enjoyed the pilot. I admit to being uncomfortable saying that anyone can truly be a fan of a pilot, and I would argue that Whedon isn’t even close to analogous thanks to the cult of Whedon which supersedes individual series.
Like I say, I think that if the campaign was more clearly focused on the idea that viewers and FOX need to give the show a chance to grow, I would have fewer issues. However, because the campaign seems to be ignoring lingering concerns about its longevity, and legitimate concerns about whether it is even suited for network television, seems to me to be simplifying the series’ place within television and losing sight of the text in and of itself.
Which I consider to be problematic, although not so much that I in any way look down on those supporting it – just intellectually curious, is all.
I loved the pilot. Its not perfect, but its one of the best new shows.
You make strong points, and I guarantee no one wants to be waging a show saving campaign after ONE episode. Our show, like any other, even the VERY BEST will take time to fire on all cylinders and your point about worsening the expectations and hype are something I take very seriously.
However, it’s a little like being on a crashing plane and worrying about what you’ll wear to work if you survive. Right or wrong, we need to change our situation now, and that means we needed to get the word out.
I’d love to toil in anonymity, figure it all out, and mature into greatness. But you can’t mature if you’re dead.
Kyle, thanks for responding.
My distinction I would make is this: I have absolutely no issue with your campaigning for the series (and am quite impressed with your Twitter interaction in particular). However, I think it’s honestly an issue of semantics: if it were “Watch Lone Star” instead of “Save Lone Star” I think I would be infinitely more comfortable with it. The latter implies that there is something worth saving (which, with all due respect, is not something I think we can currently discern), but the former would indicate that there is something worth seeing for yourself and making your own judgment.
I understand why the “Save” language is logical, as it connects with numerous other (occasionally successful) internet campaigns. However, I think that “Watch Lone Star” was so quickly passed up by “Save Lone Star” that these expectational concerns popped up quite easily.
In other words, the campaign has been problematic less in terms of its content and more in terms of its context.
Either way, I shall be watching and reviewing tonight, so my fingers remain crossed despite my reservations.
Wait – Fox can pull the plug after 1 (not really even 2) episodes, but we can’t become a fan in that time? Sorry but that doesn’t make sense. I do share your concern about how long they can take the storyline – I’d like Lone Star to have the chance to go with it. I really love this show – its something different (not another ‘reality’ show, cop/medical drama, mere excuse to have explosions, etc. that is all we have been getting lately!) Yes – its going to be a show that has multiple layers, and a story line that builds up. So did Lost, and that worked well. My biggest complaint is that Fox supposedly wanted this to work – but put it in the worst possible time slot (what new show will have fabulous ratings when its against Monday night Football and DWTS? Think about that.) AND I’m sorry but they didn’t advertise this well at all (how many ads did I see for months for Chase, vs the last minute smattering for Lone Star?) Fox needs to pony up to its shortsighted way of promoting this and keep it running. Lone Star is good – and episode 2 only made it more appealing. [Maybe John V. will have to have a tango scene thrown in for Fox to consider it good enough?] But at this point – Fox’s take on this show is baffling! Great sets, well written, fantastic acting, and a story line that has so much potential – so Fox kills it. Agh! This makes no sense at all.
Come on Fox – keep Lone Star!!!!!!