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Emily Post’s Guide to Save-Our-Show Campaigns (firefly mention)

Wednesday 18 July 2007, by Webmaster

FANS, COME in closer. Closer. Yes. That’s good. Okay, I know sometimes you and I have disagreed on stuff like, oh, fanfic. But you know I love you. Hell, I am you. I remember explaining my X-Wing Fighter to my Ga and God love her if she didn’t just sit there and nod when I babbled excitedly explaining who Darth Vader was. I traced and re-traced and collected every bit of Peanuts memorabilia I could. I went to three Star Trek conventions willingly. I built the Battlestar Galactica model. In a dark period in my past, I was even obsessed by Mickey Mouse. (I lived in Orlando. What do you want from me?)

As I cruised into adulthood, before I joined the dark side and started creating entertainment, I flipped for Twin Peaks. I thought long into the night about episodes of thirtysomething and The Wonder Years. I taped every episode of the first three seasons of Murphy Brown. I’m not even counting M*A*S*H, or my current crazy-love-object, the Ron Moore era Battlestar Galactica, Yes, brothers and sisters, testify — I know what it’s like.

And oh, shall we speak of it? Shall we speak of the dark times? Of the poor shows, beloved, that never made it? That sank beneath the waves and caused me depression? Yea, verily, Almost Grown and Eyes, I’m looking your way. My So Called Life and My Life and Times, I mourn you still. Sons & Daughters, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, Love Monkey — no...no...the wounds are still too fresh.

I know how it feels.

But now I’m wearing a different hat. I write for shows. So that fan enthusiasm — so much easier to foment and direct in this easy internet age — might just come to bear and help save a project I loved and worked on.

Or it might help kill it.

Let me explain.

I’m going to take off my writer hat right now and put on another, earlier chapeau. This one’s worn, and it doesn’t fit as well. There’s a couple of holes in it. But it should still serve. Ah. There it is. Sharp.

Once upon a time, dear reader — after I was a fan, but before I was a self-interested writer...I was a network person.

Please. No hissing.

In 1997 I helped start up Canada’s Sci-Fi Channel, SPACE: The Imagination Station. In those early days, our offices were kind of all crammed together — as were our job functions. The publicist spent a whole lot of time answering the mail. And because we were practically on top of each other in a small office, we kind of all got to see it. And it was instructive.

Letters written in meticulous longhand by genteel grandmothers; crazy precise lettering of obsessives; semi-literate screeds that ended in the middle of a sentence — we got it all.

In my years working inside the TV station I got a chance to see all the different kinds of mail that came through the door: job applications, complaints, contest entries, resumes, requests, and fan letters. Lots and lots of fan letters.

More importantly, I saw where they went. I saw who they went to, who was tasked with dealing with them, and how they reacted. It’s not necessarily who or how you think.

Recently, fan campaigns are back in the news. Part of this is cyclical, of course, as the upfronts means not just a flurry of new shows, but the killing of a bunch of once-upon-a-time hopefuls.

Fan campaigns are usually futile — too little too late, too small a fan base, a hundred other reasons...but they continue to flourish because every once in a while, they work. Or seem to work.

Jericho is the latest example. Yes, CBS reversed its decision to cancel and bring the show back for 8 new episodes. Depending on whom you talk to, fans either had a lot to do with that, or not very much to do with it at all. Me, I think it’s in the middle. I think that Jericho fans organized very early and did good work writing letters, and I think that CBS, who wasn’t that sure about canceling the show to begin with, found out that advertisers weren’t too excited by their new shows and reversed on Jericho to buy themselves time.

But that victory, no matter whose it is, puts fire into the heart of any fan who thinks that maybe the show they love is going out before its time. But all fan campaigns are not created equal. And there are ways you can go seriously wrong and actually wind up hurting the show you love.

So I wanted to talk about Save-our-shows. I’m going to make a lot of reference to Blood Ties here, because that’s the show I just finished on, a show I’d love to have the opportunity to write for again, and a show that’s right in the midst of a mobilized campaign by its fan base.

So, take this as you will. But as a writer/insider, once and future fan, and former network person (though not a suit; never a suit) I present to you

Emily Post’s Guide to Save-Our-Show Campaigns*

*not actually affiliated with Emily Post

1) Don’t Send Crap.

It seems like a good idea, and kind of hooky — find something that’s associated with the show and send it on in in droves to "show your support." Jericho fans sent nuts, and yup, every news story about the show mentioned the damn nuts. But the nuts are beside the point. It’s a bauble.

The problem is that now everybody wants to send some tchochke. And man, that’s a big mistake.

So, Blood Ties fans, please, don’t send pints of blood or fake fangs or anything. What you say in a letter is way more important and powerful than any hunk of junk you push through the postal system.

I have less of an opinion on other "organizing cries" like raising money for a charity or an ad or something — though really, my humanist side says that it’s always better to give to charity than try to buy an ad in Variety — but when it comes to the crap through the mail stuff, I’m firm. It’s a bad idea.

Because I’ve seen who it goes to.

The people who have the power to greenlight or un-cancel a show are never the people that have to deal with the cases of nuts or steel rods or Mars bars or fake vomit or whatever else gets sent by the skidload. It never gets anywhere near them. Instead, the likely outcome is that you’re going to make some personal assistant or mailroom person’s day absolute hell. For weeks. They get paid crap, and now they have to deal with your crap. It’s not fair. They can’t do anything about the show. And they’re the ones who suffer.

But there’s also an extra-special reason not to send crap. See, those powerless people? Even though they’re powerless, they have something you don’t. In whatever, small way — they have access. The personal assistant to Susanne Daniels, President of Lifetime Networks, talks to her all day, every day. The mail gets delivered in the company each and every day.

Now when I worked at a network, occasionally, very impulsively — someone very big would ask the "little people" what they thought of something. You know, to be populist.

What do you think they’re going to say if they’ve spent weeks dealing with your crap?

That’s right. It’s only natural. It’s only human. They are going to HATE YOUR SHOW. And they are going to be GLAD IT WAS CANCELED. They will not defend the show, because you have MADE THEIR LIVES HELL.

I have seen this happen with my own eyes. It’s even happened to me.

When SPACE went on the air, we bought Doctor Who. We polled the online fans on our website asking where we should start the series. Like, 90% said, "Play it from the beginning." So we did.

And the show’s ratings were abysmal. I’m not talking bad. I’m talking, test-pattern bad. It was a colossal mistake. The kind you make when you’re new and just starting out.

So because we’d taken such a bath in the ratings, the decision was made not to buy more.

And the letters came by the bushel. Now. Keep in mind that this was for our lowest-rated show by a wide, wide margin. If the people who wrote the letters had all watched the show, and gotten their friends to do the same, maybe it would have been a different story. But they didn’t. But the failure, you see, the anger — well, that was on us. Except...not. Because the person who had the power to buy more or not was insulated from the mail by secretaries and all the little people.

Now, thank God, no one sent TARDIS’s or scarves or anything — but the mail in and of itself was...offputting. Extremely offputting. It was angry, and arrogant, and full of "you stupid this’s" and "you screwed up that..." and it was just really hateful, and unpleasant. I’m serious. From that day to this, I’ve never seen more unpleasant fan mail.

So we decided we hated Doctor Who.

It took me years — til the new series, as a matter of fact, to get the bad taste left by the Who fans out of my mouth.

That, ladies and gents, is a backfire.

Which brings me to

2) Learn how to Translate your FanLang.

FanLang is fan language. It can be the in-jokes from the show, jargon, whatever. Or it can be phrases like "squee" or other stuff that comes from the world of the show. A passionate fan letter is great. It’s fun. But it’s not going to be the most effective way to influence a decision to continue or cancel a show.

There’s something you have to accept and account for right off the top: the people you’re writing to approach the series in a completely different way than you do. To them, it’s product. It’s a commodity. It’s a delivery device for eyeballs. Your eyeballs. And if the show’s in danger of being canceled, the problem is that they feel that your eyeballs aren’t enough. They need more.

Don’t get upset or shirty about this. After all, TV is still a monumentally good deal for you. The compact is that you get to watch this piece of entertainment that costs upward of a million dollars, and all you have to do is let someone try to sell you soap every ten minutes. That’s a sweet deal, even if that model is breaking down.

Because they view the show as a commodity, emotional appeals or ultimatums are not going to work. Not unless they’re framed in language that a network person is going to respond to.

Remember the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Picard was preparing for that diplomatic misson where he had to say the greeting exactly right or there’d be big heap trouble? It’s like that. As you sit down to write the letter of support, keep that in mind. Remember — you’re trying to speak to them in language they’ll find useful.

But here’s the trick: that doesn’t mean complaining about ratings or talking about demographics or whatever other empirical measurement you stumble upon. One of the most tiresome aspects of the online debate between the crazy Old Battlestar Galactica fans and the crazy New Battlestar Galactica fans is when the fans of the old show starting using "ratings data" to prove their point that the new show was an utter failure that no one ever watched.

The interpretations and analyses were crazy-making and offputting because they quoted figures out of context, and missed the barn of common sense.

Any network or channel will have reams of empirical data on the show. They do not need you to provide empirical data. And they will not take kindly to you trying to frame empirical data. It’s not your strength, so don’t go there. You are trying to be the human face behind the empirical data.

3) Attach the Show To The Channel’s Core Values

Believe it or not, every channel has a vision of themselves. Who is their "typical viewer?" Who are the viewers they want. The cynical thing is to say, "young," these days. But that’s not always the case. Beyond the viewers, there are certain types of people, certain modes, if you will, that the channel finds attractive. Remember — it’s all about positioning themselves to their advertisers. They want to be able to say that their viewers are like this, or like that...so before you write your letter, you may want to do searches or research a little bit on how the network tries to present themselves. What did they promise to advertisers at the last upfronts? Has the network programmer/president ever given an interview in Variety or the Hollywood Reporter?

When you write your letter, you want to attach yourself to these core values. Using the Blood Ties example, rather than say, "I think Henry is hot," or whatever, a positive thing to say would be, "The thing about Blood Ties that I like is that Vicki is the strong, central lead. She’s not the sidekick — she’s the one driving the action. She’s not in the traditionally female role. It’s nice to see that, and to see the men following her lead for a change. I think that’s very empowering for female viewers."

See, Lifetime is television for women. If you did a little reading about their planning, you’d quickly find that they’re trying to get away from their staple: women done bad/in peril movies.

What’s also good? Mentioning that the show moved you enough to recruit other people to watch it. Tell any sort of anecdote that fixes you in the mind of the reader as more than a stat. "I love this show because it’s the one thing my daughter and I watch together..." "It sounds silly, but the way I get through my workout is by telling myself that I get to watch show X after."

You are their viewer. They have a picture of you. Do you fit their picture? Show them that you do. Demonstrate that this show affects you, and makes you feel warmly toward the channel. Convince them that though the numbers may not be over the top, you are exactly the kind of viewer they want, and they should think twice about losing the show. Be funny. Be thoughtful. Show how this show enriches your life, and how it enriches their channel.

4) Don’t Threaten; Show A Willingness to Work With the Network

It’s the easiest threat to make in the world: "If you cancel this show, I’ll never watch your channel again." It’s also empty. They know it’s empty. All they need is one show that you like, and they know they’ll get you back. Don’t even try to deny it.

Making an empty threat is worse than keeping your letter positive.

Don’t point to, or blame, other shows on the channel.

Again, I’m going to go to a Blood Ties example here. A lot of Blood Ties fans are looking at the fact that Army Wives took BT’s spot, and did great ratings, as somehow a slight of the show. So you’ve got people saying, "I hate that show, I’ll never watch it, etc etc."

Well, that’s just silly. Because they’re trying to get people to become habit viewers. So if they think you’re someone who is only there for one show and if that show goes, so do you, well, then they’re not losing very much because apparently the show didn’t draw huge numbers of people like you and you say you’re going to leave anyway.

Far MORE effective would be to demonstrate that Blood Ties made you decide to TRY Army Wives. Show knowledge of the other shows on the schedule. Sample them. Tell them you’ve sampled them. Explain to them what you liked and what you didn’t, and return to your point: what you feel Blood Ties has that those other shows lack.

And keep their perspective in mind, too: in the case of Army Wives, it’s Lifetime’s most successful series premiere ever, and it’s held its numbers. So yeah, they’re going to be over the moon about it. If you come out and say that you hate, hate, hate their big popular successful show — well, does that sound like you’re in touch with their viewership, or out of step with it?

(Substitute CBS and their slate, or F/X and their slate here.)

By showing that you’re willing to sample their other fare, and are aware of what they’re doing, you’re proving that you’re an engaged viewer. They want people like you. A lot.

No matter how popular CSI is there are people (like me) who just hate it. Do you think CBS is going to give up on getting people like me to watch their network? Hell no.

So if you write and say, "Congratulations on Army Wives. I watched it, I liked this and this, but it’s not really my cup of tea. I prefer shows that have X and Y, and that’s why I like Blood Ties, etc, etc," then, my friend, you’re making a case.

In the case of Blood Ties, again, this fall they’re looking at running 10 episodes back-to-back twice a week in October. They’re also going to package it on a night with a show about Psychics. (it actually sounds fun: a "psychic challenge" - why didn’t I think of that?) That means they’re trying to "build a night."

Sample the shows before and after. Put that in your letter, too. Show appreciation for the show by saying you tuned in the lead in and the lead out. That’s speaking their language.

5) Don’t Stop With the Network

One of the most effective groups in the United States when it comes to TV is an odious little outfit called the Parents Television Council. The PTC is famous for pouncing on any show that it thinks runs counter to its conservative Christian agenda.

It organizes people to write sponsors every which way to Sunday. And it makes sponsors nervous. It doesn’t matter that they’re not in the majority. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If you note the kinds of people who advertise on the show you like, and were to write three letters to their company or their Ad Agency, that could make for a huge impact.

Again, it would help if you could explain why you like the show, what about it appeals to you (in a social standing, not plot — remember, they may not have seen the show.) The idea "strong female characters," or "enjoyable action," or "witty interplay," or "interesting allegories for world events," or whatever it might be... what you’re trying to say is that it’s a good thing that they’re associated with that show...being associated with that show makes you feel warmer toward the company. If you can describe their commercial, and show that you actually watched it, and absorbed its message, that’s better. Heck, if you suggest that you like this project so much that you went out and tried their product for the first time to show your support for the show — hell, that’s even better!

6) Get Beyond The Internet

This is the hardest thing for fan communities to grok. No matter how big your numbers are online, you are still not fully representative of the audience.

A successful TV show pulls in tens of millions of viewers. And 90% of them, even still, are not chatting online about it. They’re not going to Television Without Pity, they’re not haunting newsgroups or fan sites, and they are not on Aint It Cool News.

Remember the fuss over the "online wave" in politics last year? The Net Roots? Well, they got Joe Lieberman to lose the Democratic nomination, but they didn’t succeed in defeating him in the general.

Online fans tend to vastly overestimate their impact. When you’re organizing an online campaign, especially if it’s through a show’s website, you’re already preaching to the converted. You need to take the message out. That might mean everybody getting three people outside - who they don’t know from online, to watch the show and see if they’ll write a letter.

In the old days, when organizing was much harder, this stuff was taken for granted. But just as I was amazed when I saw university students in my class not willing to research beyond "googling," so am I surprised by fans who think that as long as they get the people who are chatting about the show online rallied, they’re done. They’re not. That’s your base. You gotta expand your base. And the only way to do that is at the Water Cooler, at the Gym, in the line at Starbucks, at the bookstore, at the movies, at daycare, etc, etc, etc.

7) Remember that Everyone Is Unsure, and Exploit that...BUT... Know When You’re Being Unrealistic.

This is a weird, transitional time for the TV industry. Broadcast models are breaking down. They’re still figuring out how to factor in Timeshifting and PVR viewing (which I’m convinced helps genre shows more, since people are more likely to record those kinds of shows to watch and rewatch later), there’s also the question of DVD sets and paid downloads...in short, that uncertainty means that there’s a chance for a lot more second guessing — provided that there is a baseline level of support.

I mean, nothing was going to save The Black Donnellys. And Studio 60 was toast too, by the end. And Veronica Mars had 3 seasons. At a certain point, they do have to go with the business analysis. And that’s when you’re going to hate them. They know that.

And sometimes...well...admit it. X-Files went on three seasons too long, right? I’m bummed Firefly never caught on, but not as bummed as I’d be if I’d never gotten to see it at all. The fact that there are only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers and one season of Freaks and Geeks doesn’t make me love those shows any less.

If there is the slightest bit of wiggle room for that "on the bubble" show...following the steps I’ve outlined above will help you make more of an impact in your letter.

Finally, one more: please, please, please appear rational, and make your arguments dispassionately. You don’t have to leech all emotion out — certainly not — but the argument you’re making for saving the show cannot be primarily an emotional one.

I remember somebody getting mad at me once because I said that "Dead Like Me" was gone, gone, gone — because people had been cast in other shows. Well, this person didn’t want to hear that. At all. I was telling her something she didn’t want to hear, and as far as she was concerned, I was attacking her. She wanted to grasp at straws.

At a certain point, you gotta stop grasping at straws.

Read this article and read the comments. They’re hilarious. Really.

Don’t be like that, okay?

Good luck saving that show. Whatever it is. I mean it.