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We Fans Will Have The Power (angel mention)

Scott Nance

Friday 2 December 2005, by Webmaster

A technology revolution is happening on television. Network executives aren’t likely to be too happy about it, since, according to a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it will ultimately give science fiction fans more power over the television shows they watch.

Fans have been using the Internet for years, and increasingly they have been going online to organize and mount often savvy campaigns to save favorite scifi series that come under the network axe.

Using the Internet to raise large sums of money to advertise and advocate on behalf of series, fans have developed means and methods that rival political campaigns in their sophistication.

Sadly, these efforts have often brought only heartbreak as the network suits ignore them and go ahead and cancel such series as "Angel," "Star Trek: Enterprise," and recently, "Threshold."

Still, all this work has not been in vain, says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program.

Writing in the online forum called "Flow," Jenkins says fans now generate more publicity for new TV shows than big corporations, and their growing influence promises to create new alliances between viewers and producers — taking networks and the folks that run them out of the equation.

In an essay titled "I Want My Geek TV," Jenkins describes how fans, producers and television networks currently tug at the global entertainment fabric when new shows are introduced, extended or canceled.

Jenkins envisions a future in which the global TV market is powered by fans.

The fans’ efforts to influence networks break down the "walls between program producers and consumers as they make common cause against the networks," Jenkins writes.

Jenkins predicts fans’ power will grow; they will soon become "niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments."

Jenkins outlines a world of subscription TV, in which "viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband."

This sort of business model takes the middleman out of a transaction between providers and consumers in a phenomenon known as disintermediation. The Internet has facilitated much such disintermediation. Remember the time when you had to go to a travel agent to book air travel? Those days are gone; you can do it more easily and conveniently at your home computer by visiting Expedia.com or its many competitors.

Nearly two years ago, this column offered a different but similar concept for disintermediation, in which series producers would offer series directly to viewers on DVD.

Broadband is another possible delivery method, but online download is still not as easy to accomplish as is simply putting a disc in a player and sitting down to watch. Enhancements to Internet technology may make delivery of episodes online easier to manage, however.

The BBC, MIT noted, has announced it hopes to launch a version of subscription TV next year: all BBC-aired programs will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date.

Other networks have also experimented with distributing their content online. Ironically, CBS was offering downloads of entire episodes of "Threshold" only weeks before the network pulled the plug on the promising series.

Despite such experiments, however, networks are not likely to want to share power with the fans, Jenkins notes. He cites the case of "Global Frequency," (GF) a science fiction/adventure series whose pilot episode, though hugely successful among fans, was killed by network execs.

Based on a comic book series by Warren Ellis, GF features a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who respond to crises caused by the collapse of nation states and the emergence of global capitalism.

"The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights; but, due to a shift in management, it got dumped," Jenkins writes.

An unauthorized copy of the pilot was leaked and began circulation, becoming the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production.

"Global Frequency" had a following before it even reached the air, but WB chose the "same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids’ computers," Jenkins writes.

Citing copyright issues, WB never aired "Global Frequency" on TV.

Despite such efforts by networks, fans should continue to gain more power—if they continue to fight.

Ultimately, technology is on the consumers’ side; just ask all those sad travel agents.

If Jenkins is right, the future may be a whole lot more kind to scifi fans than has been the past.