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Firefly & Serenity - Don’t DROP this ratings FLOP

Ho Lian-Yi

Friday 11 November 2005, by Webmaster

Some shows abruptly killed because of bad ratings are revived on TV and DVDs, thanks to fans who put up ads, hold charity drives and, of course, write petitions

SERENITY is a movie that almost never was - if not for fan power.

’Failed TV shows don’t get made into major motion pictures - unless the creator, the cast, and the fans believe beyond reason,’ creator Joss Whedon of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame said.

Serenity - which was released in the US on 30 Sep - is actually a feature-length adaptation of Whedon’s 2002 TV series Firefly.

Unfortunately, distributor United International Pictures has confirmed that Serenity won’t be making it to big screens here.

Despite good reviews, the film has spent only two weeks among the Top 10 box office movies.

So far, the US$40 million ($68 million) film, which has no recognisable names in the cast line-up, has made US$25 million.

But to satiate local fans, UIP will run a special screening on 21 Nov. Ticketing information will be announced later.

The TV cult space western was a ratings failure in the US, which saw the Fox TV network pulling the plug after just 11 episodes then.

But Firefly’s ardent fans, who call themselves the Browncoats, were not going to let their favourite show die a quiet death. Click to see larger image

This is not a unique scenario, thanks to the Internet. Nowadays, whenever a show is cancelled, fans start an online campaign to rescue it.

But the Browncoats succeeded because they didn’t merely submit a petition or write letters and e-mails to the networks.

Before Firefly was even cancelled, they pooled together enough money to buy an advertisement in industry rag Variety that said: ’You keep flying. We’ll keep watching.’

In 2003, after the show was canned, they donated some 1,600 pieces of clothing as part of charity drives for publicity.

They lobbied for the show to be released on DVD - which Fox did, with all 14 filmed episodes.

It sold more than 200,000 copies.

Movie studio Universal approved of a low-budget movie on the basis of strong DVD sales.

’I do feel like Browncoats have made a difference,’ one told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

’I think if we hadn’t been so vocal about wanting the TV show and wanting the DVDs, the movie wouldn’t have been made.’

Cagney And Lacey, The Magnificent Seven, Roswell, Quantum Leap, among others, all have had their lives extended by fan support.

Animated series Family Guy was axed in 2002 after three seasons of poor ratings. But Fox was caught by surprise when the DVD for its first season sold more than 2.2 million copies.

It is now back on TV for another season.

But fan power does not always pack the same punch.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has warned fans of other cancelled shows not to be too optimistic.

’For a live-action show to be revived would be a real long shot,’ he told the Christian Science Monitor.

’It’s much more difficult to get that production back up and running because you need actors who’ve all gone on to other things.’

While there have been successes because of it, many feel the Internet is a double-edged sword.

’It used to be that only the very special series merited a campaign,’ Dorothy Swanson, president and founder of Viewers For Quality Television told Salon.com.

’It’s not special anymore. Just about every show that’s cancelled gets a ’campaign’ because it’s the ’favourite’ of a group of people. TV critics are jaded about it.’

Just as fans are now quick to come to the rescue, TV show executives are even quicker to cut. A 1998 Salon.com story reported that a TV network typically gives a new series four weeks to get acceptable ratings before it cancels it.

It’s even faster now. This year, movie actor Chris O’Donnell’s TV debut vehicle, Head Cases, lasted all of two episodes before the axe descended.

Ultimately, shows that have been killed by the networks stay dead, regardless of what fans do.

When Farscape, a sci-fi show about an astronaut who was flung through a wormhole, was cancelled, fans donated thousands of dollars to pay for a 30-second television commercial - to no avail.


Trekkies - the very fan group that originated the high-profile fan campaign when they extended the original Star Trek by two seasons - raised around US$3 million ($5.1m) to go toward production costs to save Star Trek: Enterprise.

But network UPN was unmoved.

They then targeted Sci-Fi Network to pick up the show. It didn’t.

’This sounds cruel, but letters are ultimately meaningless,’ Syracuse University professor Robert J Thompson, who is also the director of the Center For The Study Of Popular Television, told The Houston Chronicle.

’They could get 10 billion letters. (But) DVD sales is a number that a TV show executive can respond to.’

But that can also be a blessing for hardcore fans of cult hits.

It used to be that if the ratings for a show doesn’t draw in enough advertising revenue, no campaign could suffice.

But DVD sales are now so profitable that networks are malleable to keeping a show with less mass appeal on air if it has a fanatical audience, so to have more episodes to be sold on DVD later.

S’pore fans much milder

NO one could think of similar fanaticism in Singapore.

Mr Paul Chan, Channel U’s vice-president of network programming and promotions, said fans here are pretty mild, and that the most they do is constantly write in to the forums.

’Maybe it’s because of culture,’ he said.

Ms Huang Shu Yin, StarHub Cable TV’s corporate communications executive, told The New Paper the cable broadcaster receives requests from individual cable channel customers to air selected television programmes ’on occasion’.

There was a brouhaha among football fans here when StarHub pulled live telecasts of Italian Serie A matches off our screens, but all they mustered was an online petition.

This was probably the closest they have come to a concerted campaign, but nothing came of it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.


Local Battlestar Galactica fans were successful in swaying HBO Asia to bring back their favourite programme.

HBO Asia is unique, however.

Being commercial free, it does not answer to advertisers, and therefore not as beholden to ratings.

After the space opera was shown on Cinemax in July, fans sent numerous e-mails asking for its return.

HBO Asia’s director of marketing communications, Ms Caroline Wong, said that was why they decided to have a Battlestar Galactica Marathon Special on the same channel from 2 to 6 Nov.