Joss WhedonThe Power of Fandom in the Whedonverse
Friday 15 April 2011, by Webmaster
Joss Whedon, critically acclaimed television auteur and creator of the hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), is not only a master of storytelling, but he is also an excellent catalyst to investigate the internal workings and politics of the television and film industry. Within the film and television industry there are a number of key struggles and relationships involving power. The internal politics of the industry warrants much discussion and analysis in its own right. Issues of production, financing, distribution, and marketing could have easily been the basis for articles and discussions. Whedon’s career and body of work provide a constant for us to look at during a period where the industry moves into an arena completely changed by the arrival of new media like the Internet. The Internet has changed the way people live and work and, without doubt, this includes the internal politics of the film and television industry. The changing face of the industry has also brought to the forefront the value of creators such as Whedon, the auteur’s role within the television industry, and, arguably most importantly, the audience, the latter being the fans who watch and support the shows that ultimately give the creators their power.
Although the creators and the mass media companies/networks both fall under the same umbrella of production within the industry, they do not always share the same values and interests. One such power struggle is the commercial and creative control over a property, including issues of auteurism. In television, it’s widely accepted that the director isn’t necessarily the auteur; the role of auteur is instead embodied by producer(s), executive producer(s), or show runners. The producers or show runners are the ones who have to make the day-to-day decisions, both large and small, It’s these decisions that ultimately lead to the power struggles between creator and media companies.
My aim here is to examine how these relationships have changed. The issues that have arisen include how the audiences’ relationship with the creator has altered; how the audiences’ relationship with the media companies has evolved because of new media, and how that has affected the relationship between media companies and creators.
In 1992 the motion picture Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released in cinemas across the US, directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui and written by an up-and-coming, yet relatively unknown television writer, Joss Whedon. Whedon would go on to create a number of critically acclaimed works including the television series based on the Buffy movie, and the Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It would be Dr. Horrible that would earn Whedon a Vanguard Award from the Producers Guild of America. The award saw Whedon join the ranks of previous winners James Cameron and George Lucas as he was recognized for his achievements in new media and technology. The original Buffy film and Dr. Horrible don’t mark the totality of Whedon’s work, nor do they mark the beginning or end of his career. What they do show, is how a creator’s control has changed.
Instead of a strict comparison between the two products, the changes will be examined chronologically. Using Whedon’s work and career as a catalyst to understand how the varying relationships within the television industry operate, and how the changing context led to the creation of Dr. Horrible.
While serving as a staff writer on Roseanne and Parenthood, Whedon wrote the script for the original Buffy. Having tried and failed to sell his script to any of the major studios, it was finally picked up by Fran Kubel and Kaz Kuzui (she directed; both produced). Here, it seems, Whedon ceased to have creative control over the film, with rumors that he eventually left the set and never returned when he saw how his script was being interpreted. Whedon openly acknowledges that the film was not what he had in mind and makes a sharp distinction between the script and the film. As a writer selling a script, Whedon had surrendered his creative control to the Kuzuis, something he would actively rectify when given his second chance with Buffy on television. Although having no involvement with the show, the Kuzuis would continue to receive royalties from Buffy and the merchandise surrounding the property. The political economy of the film and television industry means they would continue to reap the rewards. These rights would later be exercised in May 2009 when the Kuzuis announced their intention to relaunch the franchise without the involvement of Whedon. This news was met with a substantially negative response.
Buffy wasn’t the only time Whedon felt a script of his had been misunderstood and wrongly interpreted. In 1997 Alien Resurrection was released, with Whedon having written the screenplay. Critically and financially Resurrection wasn’t a failure, yet Whedon was still unhappy with the treatment of his script. It was this disappointment that led Whedon to proclaim, “The next person who ruins one of my scripts is going to be me.” Whedon wanted more control. The Buffy film would be one of Whedon’s most disappointing ventures, though it would also ultimately offer him the opportunity to have creative control over his work.
On March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on the WB network. Gail Berman of Sandollar Production saw the potential in the premise of the film and approached Whedon about adapting it for television. As showrunner he would have principal responsibility if the show failed. Academics have labeled Whedon a hyphenate; this term is used not only to encompass Whedon’s role as creator and writer but also that of executive producer. His responsibilities would also include hiring writers and directors and casting actors, while also interacting with network and studio.
Buffy would go on to be a critical success, among a host of honors making Time’s list of “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time.” The quality of the show was widely acknowledged as was Whedon’s role. For the most part Whedon had a healthy relationship with the WB. In the fifth season of Buffy, however, Whedon was to witness his first real difficulty in terms of the political economy of the television industry. Although Buffy aired on the WB, it was produced and distributed by the studio Twentieth-Century Fox. Buffy and Whedon would be in the middle of a multi-entity disagreement over finances that would put the future of the show in jeopardy. Fox produced Buffy at a cost of $2 million per episode; the episode would then be sold to the WB at a cost of $1 million per episode. Fox would produce the show at an initial loss, with the balance recovered through reruns and merchandising. It would be this arrangement that would later fuel the disagreement between network and studio.
With the WB’s five-year contract for Buffy coming to a close, Twentieth-Century Fox was expecting a large increase in the amount that it received from the WB in the new contract. Jamie Kellner CEO of the WB, however, took a hard line stance in the negotiations, refusing to pay Twentieth-Century Fox the $1.8 million an episode it demanded and played down the importance of the show to the network. These negotiations would ultimately lead to what is arguably one of the biggest coups ever seen in the television industry, as Buffy would switch to one of the WB’s biggest rivals, UPN.
The dispute was settled when UPN signed a two-year deal for Buffy with Twentieth-Century Fox. The Chicago Tribune reported that the deal would be worth “$2.3 million per episode the first year and $2.35 million the second.” What this brings to the forefront is the value of audience. UPN had a predominately young male audience and hoped to expand its audience and re-brand its image by capturing Buffy, which was known for having a strong female demographic. It was hoped this move would ultimately improve UPN’s overall performance. What Buffy also had was an established fanbase, one that was vocal, active, devoted, and enthusiastic.
Although there would be some individuals who self-identified as Buffy fans, this would ignore those who self-identified as fans of Whedon in general rather than any of his works in particular. This would be supported by the existence and prominence of fan sites such as www.whedonesque.com. The site is run by fans, although Whedon and other writers have been known to post and visit the site. The site offers a direct interaction between fans and creator. Although it would seem naive to use a single website as an example of the mass, it is noteworthy that the site was listed in by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 100 greatest websites.
Although I set out to discuss how the relationships involving creator, mass media, and audience have changed, I will look at audience instead under the classification of fandom. Some would claim that “fandom” and the “general audience” are not representative of each other. Even though it would be wrong to assume that every member of an audience is a fan, it can be argued that the lines between the two types of audience are becoming blurred; the mainstream market or viewer is increasingly resembling that of fandom. Before the 1990s, only a minority of an audience could be considered fans
Before the 1990s, it could be argued that only a minority of an audience could be considered fans, with an even smaller amount being considered a fan in terms of participation and engagement. The definition of the word fan simply means, however, “an ardent devotee; an enthusiast.” I do agree with a number of academics who in retrospect of the early studies in fandom note that rarely do fans merely love a show, watch it religiously, and talk about it, but engage in no other fan practices or activities. It is fan participation and consumption that make fan communities and fandom so interesting. Fans can now communicate with other fans who are located thousands of miles away and chat about the newest episode of the show. The “Internet Fan” is a very different animal, compared to both the casual audience and a casual “ordinary” fan. What is relevant to this study is how a fan operates within the community, specifically how a fan participates.
Like most fandom surrounding television shows/films/books or other texts with narrative structure, fandom surrounding the works of Whedon has spawned a large number of news sites, fan sites, fan fiction, fan art, fan video, and fan film. These examples of fan participation exist in a gray area between legal and illegal with regard to copyright and intellectual property laws. Twentieth Century Fox, the copyright owner of Buffy, would be wary of any productions involving the series that could damage the intellectual property, or any profits made from the exploitation and use of their property and characters. Whedon, however, has a different stance: “I love it. I absolutely love it. I wish I had grown up in the era of fan fiction,” only stipulating that such productions be true to his characters. Fan-made texts are not a phenomenon original to the age of new media; fan texts existed prior to the rise of the Internet. New technologies have, however, made it easier to create, post, and find these texts. From being circulated among a small group of fans or posted in a fanzine or screened at conventions, fan texts now have an almost unlimited audience. The creation of fan texts opens up a wealth of tricky questions, including those touching on morality and legality. It would be PR suicide for studios or networks to ban outright the use of copyrighted text or to take action against that which was already created; although the legal owners would protect their property their actions would inevitably antagonizing the fanbase. By alienating the fans, they would also be alienating the audience the industry depends upon to purchase merchandise based upon the original text. Here the importance of keeping fans happy can best be seen; the most active audience is also the most enthusiastic.
A more interesting facet of fan participation is its evolution and mobilization into social movements, of which the fan community surrounding Whedon’s work is a superb example, with well-organized campaigns to save both Firefly (2002) and Angel (1999). The Firefly campaign had substantial influence on the future of the franchise and fandom’s involvement with the Writers Guild of America Strike (2007-2008) (itself in part a strike demanding that writers receive acceptable remuneration for work posted online), and a number of charitable ventures. The mobilization of fan communities alters the triangular relationship in profound ways.
In order to understand the reason for the intense fan participation with Firefly, it is important to take a look at the political economy and problems surrounding the show and its cancellation. Whedon’s first show on a major network, Firefly debuted in the fall of 2002 on Fox, to be cancelled after only 11 of its 14 produced episodes had been broadcast.
Whedon’s relationship with the network was not smooth from the start. Fox asked Joss to reshoot scenes of the two-hour pilot because it wanted more action and humor. Whedon eventually made a standard one-hour pilot to launch the series. As well as asking for a new pilot the network also asked for a number of creative changes. It is here we can see again the struggles between an auteur and network for creative control. Whedon spoke contentedly at the time of the changes that Fox demanded: “Your initial vision is always there but you have to make it work within the context of what you are doing, and within a budget.” It is, however, widely accepted throughout the fan community that Fox’s creative interference was one of the factors that led to the shows cancellation.
A second factor was Fox choosing not to air the episodes in their intended order. This reordering led to plot holes and an incoherent narrative flow that some would argue alienated viewers, even those who had tuned in every week. Fox’s broadcasting of the show clashed with Whedon’s narrative and the way he intended fans to experience the series.
A third factor leading to cancellation involved the actual content of the show. Comparing it to other programming in the fall of 2002, TV Guide commented: “Bucking the timidity of a TV season lacking in originality, Fox’s funky Firefly may be guilty of overcompensating. You don’t get more offbeat that this.” In a media industry already operating in the vein of “narrowcasting,” the appeal and audience surrounding Firefly was almost too narrow. Whedon had captured an audience that was small albeit enthusiastic, but for Fox this was not good enough.
Whedon’s experience on Firefly would be one of the reasons he would begin looking for another medium in which to express himself. The film industry (up until this point) had failed him as a platform of expression, and Whedon’s television productions had failed to capture a broad mainstream audience. Firefly and later Dollhouse (2009) would have only limited runs. Through new media Whedon would in two different ways express himself creatively. He would later go on to utilize a different medium with the release of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but first he would take another crack at Firefly thanks to the film industry. In 2005 Serenity was released, a major motion picture sequel to Firefly produced by Universal Pictures. But how exactly did this happen?
Taken from within the show’s narrative universe, “Browncoats” was a nickname for the “Independents” (among whom were two of the show’s main characters, Mal Reynolds and his second in command ZoŽ) who resisted rule by the Alliance. Many fans of the show began to identify themselves as Browncoats. Some Browncoats would argue they are much more than just fans and identify themselves as fan activists. Fan activism is not a new phenomenon; during the 1960s Trekker’s protested the cancellation of Star Trek, and there have been more recent campaigns, such as that to try to save Jericho.
When Firefly was cancelled in December 2002, the full potential of fandom was realized. Fans of the show transcended existence as a participatory audience and moved into the realm of a social movement. This is not the only example of fandom surrounding Whedon emerging as a social movement, as will be shown in looking at the Writers Strike.
Social movements are not a phenomenon created in the age of the Internet. A more accurate term would be e-mobilization: a social movement in which members of a common interest group use the Internet to organize and recruit others to campaign for a cause.
Browncoats engaged in a number of strategies to campaign for the renewal or continuation of Firefly. There was, for instance, a campaign to raise money to put ad in the television and film trade magazine Variety. Its purpose was to market the show, something Fox was doing wrongly, if at all. This effort by fans is especially interesting in terms of the political economy of the Internet in which the fans often bypass the media industry and work directly with the creator and his production company. In this case the Browncoats were in direct contact with Joss Whedon and his production company Mutant Enemy. The campaigns were not enough and Firefly was cancelled. The fandom, however, refused to accept the cancellation but instead challenged it. They began their campaigning once again. Mobilizing on forums and message boards, the Browncoats began campaigning with hope that another network would pick the show up, much like the UPN picked up Buffy. Instead of an ad the Browncoats’ aim was to show that an audience existed for the show by sending postcards to UPN. They wanted more than just a petition; their actions could be more accurately described as guerrilla marketing. Their campaign towards UPN also failed, so they redirected their letters to Universal Pictures.
The Browncoats campaign had led to the DVD release of Firefly, which later became number one on the DVD presale chart on Amazon.com and was, along with Family Guy, the first failed TV series to become a popular hit thanks to DVD. The marketing finally caught the eye of producer Mary Parent of Universal Studios. As Joss Whedon notes in the fan documentary Done the Impossible (2006), the fans were marketing a film that had not even been made yet. The marketing and DVD sales numbers, Mary Parent admits, were part of the reason she wanted to be involved with the movie; fan efforts had shown the studio that the property could make money. On September 30, 2005, Serenity was released. The fans had got their film. Parent, although influential in release of the film, acknowledges that Serenity is “a movie by the fans.” The Browncoats, much like Whedon, are hyphenate producers
The Browncoats, much like Whedon, are hyphenate producers, are in fact a hyphenate audience. Just as Whedon is a writer-producer, the Browncoats are audience-marketers or audience-producers. Although they were not the actual marketing team or producers, they had effectively engaged in the sphere of production. Their influence in the relighting of the project cannot be denied; neither can their efforts to publicize and market the film. “[They had] done the impossible, and that makes [them] mighty.” Just as the “Independents” attempted to fend off the Alliance in the show, the fans stood their ground against the political economy of the media industry, in particular, the Fox television network. They succeeded, and the “might” of fandom became ever more visible. In terms of fan activism and social movements surrounding the birth of Serenity, there was no conflict with the media companies; Universal was happy with the free marketing the fans offered, and the fans and Whedon were happy they got their movie. What is extremely interesting is what would have happened if the three factors had not aligned and ideologically?
On November 5, 2007, the television and film industry came to a standstill as the Writers Guild of America strike began. The strike was to last for 100 days and would cost Los Angeles an estimated $2.1 billion dollars. The strike also cost the striking writers an estimated $285 million in wages. This begs the question: what meant so much to these writers that they were willing to put their financial stability on the line? And more importantly, what did the strikes have to do with new media and the triangular relationship involving the media industry, the creators (including writers), and the audience (or fandom)?
First, one should look at who was involved. The parties on strike were the trade unions for television, film, and radio writers, represented by the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE) and Writers Guild of America West (WGAW), who were striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The two parties, the WGA (both East and West) and AMPTP, were gridlocked in renegotiating the renewal of the MBA, Minimum Basic Agreement. The parties had differing opinions on a number of matters, but it was the issue of residual payments over the distribution of texts through DVDs and new media that was the cornerstone of the disagreement. This is a clear example of the economic conflict between the media industry (AMPTP) and the creators (WGA). Despite being the author of the scripts, the writers take only a small percentage of the profit a series makes from distribution through new media and DVDs. Although it would be easy to discuss DVDs and new media separately, they are governed by the same agreement. So because of the relevance to this essay, it is appropriate to look at the strike itself and the mobilization surrounding it, as well as the reasons for the strike, looking specifically at the issues surrounding new media.
Before looking more closely at the reasons for such a strike it must be pointed out and acknowledged that although neither Whedon nor his fans created the strike, they both were actors within the strike. Their actions are a perfect example of the triangular relationship between the media, creator, and audience.
Since the dawn of the VCR, a television show (or film) is not limited exclusively to its original broadcast. The birth of home videos had created a new market through which to profit by selling a text. This led to a debate about what the writers/creators who had created the script for the original broadcast should be paid for additional sales in the home entertainment market. A minuscule 0.3%-0.36% residual payment was agreed to, due to the untested nature of market. The intent was to renegotiate the agreement when the industry had a more informed understanding of what was at the time a new market. This level was maintained with the advent of DVDs, and the industry was intending to maintain this with a 0.3% residual payment for new media as well. Although the intent was to revisit the level of payment, it never was, with the result that the striking writers were asking for a residual payment of 0.6%-0.72%. Residual payments were of profound importance to writers, who often spend considerable time between jobs. The residual payments offered a level of financial support.
Creators were asking for 2.5% of the receipts received when a text is rewatched not just on the Internet, but via other forms of delivery systems such as mobile phones, iPods, and other handheld devices. But as mentioned before, the AMPTP had only offered the 0.3% that had been established for the video and DVD market. Under the current contract the writers were entitled to 1.5% for texts for which the audience had to pay, with 2.0% being paid for post-1984 work and 2.5% paid for pre-1984 scripts for texts that were available for free. The media companies were not willing to offer any residual payment for texts that were being offered for free, because they argued no profit was being made. The writers argued a profit was in fact being made from advertisements either present on the website or preceding the streaming of a show. This is similar to the financial structure of the television industry, where advertisements constitute a high percentage of the networks’ profit. The clearest example being the advertisement space sold during the Super Bowl. A 30-second spot in 2010 cost between $2.5-$2.8 million. The climate of broadcasting was changing and this had brought the industry to a standstill.
The Writers Strike was just like any other strike; as in any other industry, the writers put down their pencils ceased writing, and took to the picket line. With all WGA members on strike, only unregistered writers and those writing for sports and reality television were at work, which shut down many shows. New episodes of television shows began to dry up and many went temporarily off the air. The strikes were disgruntling audiences, especially fans, whose favorite shows were threatened. As seen with the Browncoats, fans are not a passive community.
Many fans of Joss Whedon’s shows, although identifying themselves as fans of his work, also identify themselves as “Whedon” fans. What this shows is the understanding the audience has about the creation of the shows of which they are fans, and the role of creators/writers within that. This understanding is a result of the rise of the Internet, which made possible a more direct relationship between creator and audience; the creator is no longer just a name on the credits or a special guest at a convention. Creators nowadays are often as involved in the fandom community as the fans themselves. This partly explains why fan organizations such as “Fans4Writers” were formed in support of the writers during the strikes.
Fans4Writers was a group of fans of TV shows, movies, actors, directors, producers, and anyone involved in the team effort of crafting media. Fans4Writers, although not directly related to Whedon and his fandom, is a movement in support of all writers and for all fandoms. What is interesting in terms of Whedon’s fandom, however, is that the Fans4Writers campaign was set up by the people behind www.whedonesque.com, a number of Browncoats and people who had run the “Can’t Stop Serenity” events and various Whedon-related charity events.
Fans4Writers could have used new media and forms of e-governance such as petitioning in order to show their support. E-mobilization has, however, been criticized for its lack of effectiveness and authenticity. Even those inside the Browncoats’ campaign realized that to be noticed, the online fandom community needed to be more than an online presence; they needed to engage in grassroots activities. The Fans4Writers campaign was a perfect example of media convergence, between new and old media, online and offline. Not only taking to the picket lines themselves, but through a number of other campaigns, utilizing the Internet as a means to “capitalize on [the] potential for recruitment, fund-raising, organizational flexibility and efficiency.”
Fans4Writers split their efforts into three categories: educating, protesting, and morale boosting. Education means simply that, educating those who were unaware of the inner workings and rationale for the strike, protesting to both networks and advertisers. Fans4Writers most publicized activities fall under the classification of morale boosting. Food4Thought used donations to keep morale high on the picket lines by providing food drops.
On February 12, 2008, 92.5% of the WGA voted to end the strike after a three-year deal was agreed. Although exact figures of the negotiated deal are not widely known, Michael Winship of WGA East describes the deal as “We’re receiving a percentage of the distributor’s gross…which is very real money, as opposed to what people refer to as creative or Hollywood accounting.” Although some would consider this new and what seems improved deal as the successful outcome of strike, it was not its only success. On July 15, 2008, Joss Whedon and his production company Mutant Enemy released the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was a critical and commercial success, winning “Best Internet Phenomenon Award” at the 2009 People’s Choice Awards and “Outstanding Special Class—Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs” at the 2009 Primetime Emmy Awards. What did the venture mean for the television industry, the Internet, and social media, and what would it mean for the future? Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Dr. Horrible was a three-part series released at first for free on Hulu.com and later on iTunes at a price of $1.99 per episode and $3.99 for a “season pass”. Dr. Horrible was for a time the number one video on iTunes, and its initial release saw distribution service Hulu’s site crash along with Whedonesque.com. Beth Negus Veveiros on the market industry blog, Chief Marketer, poses that marketers launching a campaign could learn a lot from the mantra “WWJWD. What Would Joss Whedon Do.” Besides using media establishments such as iTunes and Hulu, Dr. Horrible was an independent venture with no involvement from any mass media networks. Filmed in six days, the production cost $200,000 with many of the cast and crew working for free, to be reimbursed when the project became profitable. Whedon had struck deals with both the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild (SGA), and both the writers and actors were positioned as profit participants, with Whedon serving as studio.
As Whedon points out, the success of this production model was in direct opposition to the model the AMPTP was taking. He explains, “After I make back my production costs and everything’s paid out, when we’re into pure profit, which at this point we are, I win. So—and this was the whole thing during the strike —why try to offer us nothing, when all we’re asking for is a percentage? You can’t say that 99 percent is ever a ad number.” The model of production had created a buzz of interest within the industry. Web-based products were grabbing the interest of the industry, with Dr. Horrible making an estimated $2.4 million within a year, the project was being cited as proof of the potential of such distribution.
Arguably one of the reasons Dr. Horrible was such a breakthrough success because of Whedon himself. Although other web-based products have been successful as we will discuss in the concluding section, none were as high profile as Dr. Horrible. Lisa Rosen poses the question whether the success can be repeated by others, or if the success of Dr. Horrible can be put down to Whedon’s fan base, his critical support, and his recognition as writer and creator.
A creator’s relationship with the media can be limited, however we have seen through new media that creators have been offered almost total freedom, Dr. Horrible being a clear example. Dr. Horrible can be seen as a new industry model and form of broadcasting, one posing the question where does the industry go from here.
As we have seen that since the deregulation of the media, the mass audience has fragmented. The 1970s saw the three major U.S networks taking 90% of prime-time viewership; by 2002 it had fallen to 40%. Cable television offered much more variety and diversity; by 2002 cable had 60% of prime-time viewers. Television production now existed in an age of demographics and narrowcasting, the creation and marketing of shows had to attract a much more specific, niche audience. I would also argue that audience appeal and fans of genres and the understanding of audience is equal to the understanding of demographics. The existence of the Sci Fi (later SyFy) Channel, aimed at fans of science fiction stands next to the BET network aimed at the demographic of African-Americans.
With the rise of a participatory and enthusiastic fan community, the power now lies in balance and flux between industry and audience. Dr. Horrible and Firefly/Serenity are prime examples of off kilter works succeeding in an environment flooded with reality television, mainly because of the devotion of their audience, however small. The rise of the hyphenate producer, the rise of the Internet and the transition of fan communities into the virtual world, has brought creator and his audience closer together. The Browncoat and Writers Strike showed us that fans were in direct contact with the creators, just as we can see the creators participating online too, including posts on Whedonesque.com. The Internet has created a vast range of ways for an audience to participate with and experience television.
The Internet has moved the fan communities from the margins of the television industry into the center. Having grown in power the industry was now taking notice; consumer power had become a discussion point at industry conferences in recent years. The rise of fandom and audiences on the Internet has allowed a creator more creative freedom. Niche television is able to survive because the power of a participatory audience is clear for all to see. Universal Pictures green lighting Serenity is a perfect example of the studio understanding the value of the audience. One could argue that social media have altered the way in which fandom operates, from an audience to a community. It is therefore interesting to point out in the TVAddict’s 5 Things that Transformed Television this Decade, at number three listed along with the likes of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook is Whedonesque.com, a site we have referred to numerous times throughout this work.
Whedonesque.com, though not the source of all Whedon-related web activity and participation, is, however dominant within the community, having been involved with a number of campaigns and efforts of fan participation. Those involved with Whedonesque.com are prime examples of what I describes as hyphenate audience. The creation of fan texts and fandom’s participation in the marketing and production of texts means the lines are becoming blurred between amateur and professional. Academics have struggled to provide an accurate name to describe this type of audience, some choosing “prosumer,” others “inspirational consumers” or “influences.”
Dr. Horrible showed that a production, marketing, and distribution model can survive outside of the networks and the media industry. The problem, however, lies in the reason for its success, which is arguably Whedon himself. Many put the success down to Whedon’s ardent fan base, arguing that although web-based, On Demand, direct-to-DVD products are viable outside of the industry, Whedon is only one of a very small number who could succeed because of his niche yet loyal audience. The likelihood of successful web-based product without a big name creator of actor is yet to be fully realized. Other online successes of The Guild and Sanctuary, have all have the anchorage of known stars, Felicia Day (Buffy, Dr. Horrible, and Dollhouse) and Amanda Tapping (Stargate SG-1) respectively. One could argue that without a pre-existing fan base, be it of the star or creator, a web-based product could easily be lost within the plurality of the Internet, and fail to capture an audience.
Although not the basis for this essay the use of the Internet to market a text has been touched upon. Most shows currently airing have a least a minimal advertising presence of online. One would assume shows that have limited appeal would have a greater presence online in order to create and maintain an audience. This, however, is not always the case, and some would argue the lack of advertising and marketing on Web 2.0 and social networking could have an effect on the success of shows. Dr. Horrible was able to be a success partly due to fan marketing just like Serenity, so the marketing of niche products cannot be undermined. Fox’s lack of advertising for Whedon’s most recent television venture Dollhouse was arguably one of the leading factors that led to the shows cancellation. While Fox had accounts on social networking/media sites for all their shows, efforts to advertise and promote Dollhouse paled in comparison to the efforts to promote Glee and House. Now that the importance of the audience has been understood, especially that of demographics and fandom, the mass media must now improve their efforts in order to capture these audiences.
The success of web-based products could lead some to believe that eventually the Internet would replace television as a means of broadcasting; however, it would in fact seem that web-based products are in fact reinforcing television as a broadcasting model, the Internet purely acting as a gateway. Web shows, Quarterlife and The Sanctuary made transition from the web to television, because of the success of these ventures, Hollywood is getting behind this projects, increasing their budget and increasing quality. Recent reports suggest that the sequel to Dr. Horrible may not be web-based, but instead may debut on television or film.
In conclusion we can see that the closing gap between viewer and television and television and the Internet, the environment is changing. Re-configuration being a good term, as television as we can see is not being replaced but is more accurately having to reassess the way it interacts with its audience and the creators. The industry must respect the power and influence of the audience; now that audience is much more fragmented, viewers are becoming used to having television on their terms. As we have seen through fan mobilization: upset them, and they will respond. In terms of our triangular relationship, creators have gained even more creative freedom, partly because of fan support and secondly they have alternative outlets if the industry does not satisfy their creative needs, through the new models offered by new media. What is clear is the potential for both the fandom and creator to employ their power to satisfy their own needs, and if the industry is to maintain its presence, it must be willing to allow both these actors to participate, while utilizing new media themselves to strengthen their own position.