Save Our Show: How Social Platforms Impact The Way Networks Listen To Fans
When superfans latch onto a television show, networks can channel that resurgence of interest into a successful resurrection or revival.
Every brand strives to have superfans, especially the ones who are so passionate they will go online and post constantly about how much they love your products. Since millennials came of age during the time the world was straddling the line between analog and digital, they have a tendency to become extremely nostalgic about the early-90s and the turn of the millennium.
For them, it was a wonderful time of childhood innocence, so they long for their favorite TV shows to be revived or they want more episodes of a show they discovered as an adult, but feel didn’t get the ending it deserved. As digital natives, millennials are also not shy about broadcasting their true feelings to the world on Twitter and Facebook, where they often find a group of like-minded people. These groups of superfans congregate in an online space to advocate for the return of their favorite shows.
Before social media, fans would write letters to the network in a last-ditch effort to save their favorite show. Sometimes these campaigns worked; sometimes they didn’t. For example, Star Trek has always been known for its dedicated fan base of Trekkies (or Trekkers). The earliest Star Trek fans waged a letter-writing Save Star Trek campaign in 1967 to get their show a third season. After the second season ended, NBC was taken aback by how much mail they receive, officially NBC reported that it received 116,000 letters. According to Stephen Edward Poe, author of A Vision of the Future, the number is closer to a million. Save Star Trek’s overwhelming success made it impossible for NBC to ignore the fans.
Times have changed. With the exception of Jericho, whose fans sent CBS about 40,000 bags of peanuts, fans don’t inundate a network with mail anymore. Instead, they take their outrage to social media and strive to engage the network in a productive conversation about their favorite show, hoping to save it from cancellation.
This is where social media becomes a double edge sword for TV networks. Fans will tell you how amazing you are, but they also don’t hesitate to tell you how much you suck. Nickelodeon is constantly bombarded with complaints from 20 and 30-somethings about how it just isn’t as good as it used to be. Considering the networks target demographic is 6 to 11-year-olds, these complaints ring hollow because those complaining are not the target audience. Nickelodeon justifiably doesn’t take those complaints seriously. However, those millennials fiercely protect their childhood memories, which are filled with how much they enjoyed those wacky Nickelodeon shows with be yourself themes.
These Nickelodeon millennial superfans waged a social media campaign to bring back reruns of Double Dare, Legends of the Hidden Temple, All That, Rocko’s Modern Life, Clarissa Explains It All, CatDog, Rugrats, Hey Dude, and every other show from their childhood. This culminated in Nickelodeon creating a TeenNick programming block, launched on July 25, 2011, dedicated to re-airing classic Nickelodeon shows called The ‘90s Are All That, which has since been renamed NickSplat. The block is still going strong 6 years later. Interest in the block has been so strong that Nickelodeon revived plans for the cancelled Hey Arnold!: The Jungle Movie, which will air on the main channel on November 24, 2017.
Nickelodeon isn’t the only brand to successfully capitalize on nostalgia for its product. During the 2016 presidential election, the cast of Will & Grace reunited after 10 years for a 10-minute video urging fans to vote. While the initial intent was to capitalize on nostalgia for NBC’s Must See TV primetime lineup, the show went viral and resonated in the way NBC hoped it would.
For diehard fans and NBC, the video’s success proved that we need more Will & Grace and that the show can be as politically relevant now as it was in the late-90s when the concept of having a show center around a gay man was controversial. Because the video was positively received and went viral, NBC decided to revive the show for a 9th and 10th season. So far, the revived Will & Grace has been producing solid results for NBC with around 7 million people tuning into each episode.
Even though “The 90s Are All That” and Will & Grace originally attempted to cash in on nostalgia, they ended up becoming more than a nostalgia trip. Netflix’s Arrested Development revival and Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival were the result of a different, but related phenomenon.
While there was some nostalgia involved, Arrested Development fans and Twin Peaks fans took to social media to demand justice for their shows. These superfans felt that their respective show wasn’t given proper send-offs. Despite years passing before a network would revive either show, fans never let go of their unwavering dedication to their favorite shows. Both shows are unique because they have always teased fans with in-jokes and Easter eggs. They were made for fans to dissect plot points and dialogue on the Internet.
When Arrested Development was cancelled, Fox never allowed the show to have a proper ending. Upset fans emailed, created petitions, and voiced their displeasure on fansites. They dissected each show to make it easier for new fans to get the series’ numerous in-jokes. To this day, fans identify each other with references to money being in the banana stand or mentioning how Tobias “blue himself.”
While Fox never brought the show back, Netflix stepped in and used this information to quantify Arrested Development’s fan base, which had grown because of the show’s availability on DVD and streaming services. Ultimately, Netflix decided to invest in a revival. Six years after the show’s original cancellation, on August 7, 2012, Arrested Development’s growing legion of superfans rejoiced as the show returned for a sixth season.
Twin Peaks’ superfans found themselves in a similar situation with twists that were as unusual as the show itself. Their new content drought lasted 25 years. Unlike Arrested Development, Twin Peaks wrapped up its primary storyline in the middle of its second season at the ABC’s request. Then, the writers admitted that they ran out of ideas as the show lingered for another half-season. However, diehard Twin Peaks fans gathered in Usenet groups on the nascent internet and dissected every episode together. These fans carried the Twin Peaks torch for 25 years, sharing VHS and DVD copies of the show with friends who missed it the first time, and advocating for better treatment of the show.
It took a while, but someone finally listened to those Twin Peaks fans. In 2014, Showtime decided to capitalize on Twin Peaks’ lasting popularity and announced the show’s continuation as a limited series, which took a tumultuous 3 years to come to fruition. Once the show debut, it averaged 2 million viewers, a number that includes time-shifting, encore presentations, and streaming.
Pre-internet, it was easy for networks to dismiss an extremely passionate group as fanatics and not representative of a general interest in a particular show. Those days are long gone because, as Twin Peaks’ fans prove, nothing truly disappears on the internet. Instead, things snowball until they are too big for networks to ignore. Regardless of the end result, if a show has a big enough fan base, the network has to answer to them online.
Netflix learned this the hard way. When the network cancelled Sense8, fans immediately petitioned and tweeted #RenewSense8 in an attempt to get a new season. In the past, their cries would have been ignored. However, social media’s pervasiveness and the media attention the campaign attracted convince Netflix to bring the show back for a two-hour finale.
Over the years, networks have learned that they will reap the rewards if they listen to fans on social media. As a result, instead of ignoring what fans were saying, Nickelodeon dug through their archives and created a successful programming block. NBC ran with a positive reaction to an old favorite and fans have praised it for keeping the original run’s spirit. With Netflix’s backing, Imagine Television, The Hurwitz Company, and Fox’s production arm, 20th Century Fox, resurrected a cult favorite and grew Arrested Development’s group of superfans. And Twin Peaks’ distributor, CBS Television Distribution, kept the show in the family by finding it a home on CBS owned Showtime and has been receiving praise for the revival. Whether Netflix will be similarly rewarded for saving Sense8 only time will tell.
While these networks and shows achieved success, there’s no magic formula for creating a brand or show that deeply resonates with fans. Nickelodeon, NBC, Fox, and ABC couldn’t have predicted their properties would have a second life (In the case of Fox and ABC, on a different network.) due to eliciting strong reactions from superfans on social media after all those years.
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