[As part of an ongoing personal experiment designed to assist in deciding my academic future, it is my goal to complete short (by my standards) essays from a television studies perspective. If you find these more interesting than my usual writings, you can find a great online journal devoted to such efforts at the University of Texas at Austin’s FlowTV.]
In the World of J.J. Abrams, Fringe Watches You:
Gradual Serialization and the Active Audience
When Lost exploded out of the gate with a surprising amount of success in 2004, it created a domino effect on both sides of the screen. For the networks, it created a renewed interest in highly serialized television, spawning numerous shows that offered deep mythologies, interconnected stories, and science fiction-like premises. For the audience, meanwhile, it spawned new forms of what is often referred to as “active audience,” producing large fan communities speculating on the answers to questions and the keys to mysteries.
In 2008, however, the landscape is quite different. Prison Break, a much-hyped serialized drama, is in danger of cancellation, absent from FOX’s January schedule. Heroes, once NBC’s flagship drama series, has fired two executive producers amidst falling ratings and dwindling fan interest. Meanwhile, CBS recently tripled its ratings performance in a Friday night timeslot by replacing new drama ‘The Ex List’ with a repeat of crime procedural ‘NCIS,’ now one of their highest rated performers. Where serial dramas seem to be losing viewers every week, procedural dramas seem to be picking up steam at every interval.
And yet, there is still an emphasis in terms of the networks of searching and promoting for active audience: whether through online ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), message boards, or through online webisodes or comic books that fill in gaps in continuity or add extra bits of character information. In “A Specter is Haunting Television Studies,” Jeffrey Sconce of Northwestern University questions not the effectiveness of these tactics but rather their impact on the medium as a whole. He writes that “we should be compelled to ask if these “activities” actually serve us, or if they instead actively expand the demands and desires of television itself, the most seductive point-man in the overall ‘system of objects’ that wants us to continue serving as the Petri dishes in which it cultivates its own future sustenance.”
While Sconce is speaking specifically to those who practice television studies, as well as those who consume media, a question exists here about the people who create the shows themselves. For J.J. Abrams, who developed highly serialized shows such as Lost and Alias, there is an expectation that what he produces will follow their example, particularly amongst these types of active viewers. When FOX debuted Fringe, however, this expectation was thrown for a loop. This is a show that viewers jumped into expecting to find deep mythology, complex theories and scientific phenomenon of unknown origin – what they found instead was a highly formulaic if stylized procedural that, at a glacial pace, is introducing an overarching mythology.
It’s a new structure that requires viewers to relearn how to watch a show with Abrams’ name attached to it; and, if Abrams gets his way, he and his writing staff might be the ones to teach them.