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Online Fans Represent TV’s Vocal Minority

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Does Eric Millegan's fate in the Bones finale still have you fuming? Can't stop talking about Hugh Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard, and Anne Dudek's powerful performances in the House season ender? Pondering Swingtown, looking forward to Sanctuary, and can't wait for the boys of Entourage to return?

Like many fans, maybe you're expressing those thoughts online… and maybe the people behind those shows are reading. During various sessions at the Banff World Television Festival, TV writers, directors and producers commented on their reaction to that kind of  audience reaction.

Martin Wood, currently executive producing and directing the upcoming science fiction show Sanctuary, reflected on the number of fansites and social networks his previous series, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, spawned. "You learn that the majority of your audience is not responding on those things," he warned in our interview. "So a relatively small number of people are being very loud about what they want. If you respond to it the way you think you should, it's not necessarily the best thing for the show."

House writer David Hoselton echoed those comments during his festival session on the craft of writing in response to an audience member question. "(House creator) David Shore doesn't care about what people say on the Internet. He doesn't want to hear it; he doesn't want to know about it. He doesn't want to pander to that audience, whatever it is. The idea is that out of an audience of 20 million, I don't know what that represents, half a million or something like that? He wants nothing to do with it."

However, Hoselton confessed he has to browse forum comments the day after his own episodes air, sifting through the "three pages on Chase's pants" to find the insightful ones… until he has to back away when they turn into online fights. Still, "there are these incredibly intelligent, observant people who catch every mistake you could possibly make," he laughed.

Creator Doug Ellin of Entourage, on the other hand, believes that the online commenters who complain about his show's unbelievability simply aren't familiar with the craziness of Hollywood. "People who know the business think it's realistic," he claimed during his Master Class.

Searching for fan reaction online isn't necessarily an ego boost. In fact, it can often be an ego deflater. But Alan Poul, executive producer and director of Swingtown and Six Feet Under, sees the benefit to even negative reactions.

One storyline that meant the most to him was in the "notorious" episode of Six Feet Under, "That's My Dog," which saw David carjacked and held hostage – and the audience polarized. While Poul is very proud of it, the episode led to some harsh fan reaction, some saying "you have broken your bond with the audience," he recalled during his festival Master Class.

"It's hard to get anything made. It's just as hard to make something that's mediocre or bad as it is to make something good," Poul pointed out. "You can't do your job well unless you invest, you attach, you bond to the material. Therefore everything you make is your baby. So when somebody attacks your baby, you go into maternal protection mode."

"My first reaction is: 'those bastards, how dare they?' Then I try to be open minded and look for the person's point of view … before I trash it," he joked before getting serious. "Somebody cares enough. That's much better than indifference. You have to honour that."

Bones creator Hart Hanson also looks at negative comments as a sign of fan passion, something his show, sitting somewhere "between a cult hit and a real Hart Hansonhit," needs to survive. He faced a virtual firing squad after the controversial season finale, when he dared turn naïve "squint" Zack Addy (Eric Millegan) into a serial killer's apprentice, sending him into a mental hospital and out of the regular ensemble. It was a storyline Hanson admits was too compressed, but not one he regrets overall.

"Oh boy, when you mess with an ensemble," Hanson began before trailing off. "To be honest, it was great." Not only was that one of the highest rated episodes, but the number of hits to the show's website doubled. "The network doesn't care if comments are good or bad. They count the hits."

"Do we listen to the fans? Oh, no," Hanson said adamantly during the audience Q&A portion of his Master Class. Besides, given the outcry over the finale, "Right now, if we listened to them, I'd have to quit."

He even tells his actors not to look at message boards. "They're really mean about every one of our actors. The ones who have an axe to grind will write and the ones who love them won't. Our Internet presence is fairly negative. But we don't care about that, because they're all watching."

Hanson says "we don't know who they are" because the demographics of the show are so broad, though actor David Boreanaz (Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and novelist Kathy Reichs clearly add their own fandoms to the mysterious but loyal mix.

"No, we don't listen to them," Hanson reiterated. "And they're really vociferous and passionate and we are very, very glad they're there."

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About Diane Kristine Wild

  • Elyse

    Concise, and pretty much on the mark. As a fan myself, I visit many boards and realize that oft times you have a handful of very vocal fans pressing for their agenda. However, this saves me from watching any soap operas 😉

  • Lucy

    I am puzzled as to why they ignore online fans. Do they think no one else feels the same way? How do they determine fan opinion? I would think that the online fans are those who care most about a show and want it to succeed. Wouldn’t they be considered an emotionally invested focus group?

  • RealDeal

    I’m an avid House MD fan(Robert Sean Leonard is the reason). I do the whole TiVo/rewatch and fanfic thingie. With that said, I prefer that the writers speak their truth. Part 2 (Wilson’s Heart) of the season 4 House finale was absolutely awesome. I have been rewatching it three times a days since it first aired. That particular episode is a testament to the quality of the writing, directing and the actors because no matter how many times I watch I cannot get over how a random event, no matter what the caused can change the entire landscape of Houseverse. I loved watching Wilson’s emotional unraveling, Wilson and Amber saying farewell, House’s realization that his decision to call dial-a-Wilson led to the death of Amber. I loved the House/Amber hallucinations, and the white light bus scene where Amber tells Housee “well you can’t always get what you want”. And yes, I do worry about what the House/Wilson relationship will look like when S5 starts but I think that’s the point. It’s not my story. It’s David Shore’s and so far, he’s been doing an awesome job telling it.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Lucy, I think “ignore” is the wrong word – they listen but aren’t writing specifically to what the people who yell loudest say they want. Online fans are a self-selected group of people, not a random sample of the entire fanbase of a show. Ratings, critical response, advertiser reaction, offline fan interactions, etc. are all part of the feedback loop that are equally important.

    But more importantly, for one thing, as many writers will say, you can’t write well if you’re not writing what comes from your own heart and interest.

    For another, what fans say they want and what they actually respond to are two different things. Do you hook up two characters because some of the loudest fans are clamouring for it? Then what? Is there any way to satisfy their desire to have a happy ending and a television series’ need to have a continuing dramatic storyline? Whose opinions do you listen to when there is never a fan consensus about what the “fix” to the show’s “problem” is?

    I’m with you, RealDeal, and that’s “my” show too – I’m happy to go wherever the House writers take me. Until I’m not, and then I’ll stop watching and not just complain about it online 😉

  • http://jesterz.net/b2ev/ Alice Jester

    Online fandoms are the double edged sword. Yes, they are a select few of the true audience that watches, yet these are usually the most avid fans, and of course, the most critical. While I wholeheartedly agree, the writers and creators cannot make decisions based on what these fans want, they do have to appreciate the passion their work envokes by reading what these groups have to say. They have to appreciate any comments, positive or negative, because it not only means that people were watching, but that they care. It is likely why the network counts those number of hits. Buzz is buzz.

    House and the other top rated shows have a much different online makeup compared to smaller shows out there. For example, in covering Supernatural, I’ve found that the fanbase online is a little more representative of the people watching the show. One reason is while it doesn’t get stellar ratings in the US, it has a huge International following, and the Internet is the only medium to get these worldwide fans to bond. I don’t see such International communities as active as that for most big network shows. In the end, I don’t think the Supernatural writers take creative direction based on what the fans say either, but they’re more in tune to what’s being said because of the large International online base.

    Anyway, great article, and its great to hear that writers still stick to their own heart and interest. That’s what makes a show successful, ratings or not.

  • Susanne

    Personally I don’t care what they do. I don’t care if they don’t listen to me. It still doesn’t prevent me and other from expressing negative reactions. Personally I think the new team is boring but that is my opinion and it looks like that I am stuck with them

    For shipping things especially on House my main problem is that they have multiple ships going on and they always toy with them not only on the show but in interviews as well. I don’t take them seriously half the time but I still think that it is cruel to tease the viewers. It is like watching a game of handball and watching the ball bounce of from ship tp ship which is frustrating sometimes.

    But at the end of the day it is their show and good on them for following their instincts.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Yeah, the forums are for the fans anyway – they’re not a request line straight to the writers. Whether they’re reading or responding or ignoring shouldn’t affect the satisfaction fans get in discussing.

    I think the writers’ dilemma is that while online fans think they represent the majority of fans, they rarely if ever do. If you read TWoP back in the day, you’d have thought all House fans hate Cameron. Read another forum and you’d think all House fans love her and want her to have House’s babies. The web allows people who feel strongly about the same aspect to cluster, and people who don’t agree with a particular online community’s most vocal members generally just don’t visit the forum. But because online fans are such invested fans, the writers have to respect the passion, if not the ideas on how to “fix” shows that the majority might not think need fixing. They don’t owe us any more.

  • hl_lover

    I agree with your posted interpretations of the interviews and comments in your article, DK, but what I don’t agree with, and am offended by, is the broad dismissal of online fandom by David Shore of “House”. It is quite obvious that the fandom is indeed being monitored and there is some influence on what happens on the show. Hugh Laurie’s more ‘attractive’ wardrobe, beginning in Season 2, and the special attention to his eyes in many scenes, is an example of playing up to what female fans would like to see…with positive results for the show.
    It is one thing to try to maintain some distance from the vocal online majority and to follow your own dream as a writer and producer, and I applaud that, but to speak in such a dismissive, condescending manner concerning the online fandom, the first group to rush out and buy DVD sets the same day they are released (along with other merchandising), is off-putting, to say the least. A ‘half million’ DVD sets sold is nothing to sneeze at.
    It’s apparent why he claims that he has based Gregory House M.D. on himself!

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    Keep in mind that was a direct quote by David Hoselton, not David Shore. On the other hand I admire the Houseness of House so can’t help but get a kick out of the Houseness of his creator, too.

    And to think that changes in the show came from the online fan base overlooks the fact that they get feedback from multiple offline sources as well. That’s the egoism of the online fanbase – thinking that their opinions are the only ones that matter because they’re the most visible.

  • Jair

    I didn’t get the impression that David Shore, who was not actually interviewed for the article, but just referred to by one of his writers, was any more dismissive of on-line fandom than the other people interviewed. Bones’s showrunner had more concrete things to say about on-line fans and in a similar vein to how David Shore’s position was represented. I think groups of on-line fans get a sense that they are “the” fans, and it comes as a rude shock that the showrunners look at a bigger picture than their personal canon.

  • http://varkentine.blogspot.com/ Ben

    This sounds about like the way I would like to think writers and showrunners feel about their online fans.

    I once said that if I had a show, I would tell an intern to check online at the end of the day, and give me a sense of reaction to that week’s episode.

    You don’t have to tell me which fan said I should be put in the electric chair for doing something they don’t like to “their” show.

    But I think it’s perfectly fine just to get a rough idea what they think of the direction you’re going.

  • Dorothy

    L. Frank Baum wrote his Oz series based on fan letters. The reason Dorothy is a recurring character is that fans wrote in after she wasn’t in the second book, saying that they missed her and wanted her back. Baum tried to listen to his fans as much as possible, so Dorothy was in all the other books. This was in 1900.

    I don’t think all writers should write that way, but it’s cool that some do.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    I think many TV shows react the same way to an overall response their show, but they can’t tell what people in general think about the show just by listening to the most vocal people – especially because there are factions who don’t agree.

    And of course TV is a different beast from writing a novel. What we’re reacting to in an episode is something that was planned and shot months before, and many future episodes have already been shot or written. With 24 or so episodes a year, they’ve got to be confident in their own storytelling skills and get the next one done instead of worrying too much about how fans reacted to something they wrote 6 months ago.

  • Pamela

    Referring back to your comment, Diane, about the lack of drama inherent in a happy coupling on TV – real life “happy” couples deal with drama all the time. Why is it so hard for TV writers to get that? Everyone has challenges in life, and it takes talent to write that kind of couple drama well and make it compelling. Breaking up to make up is only one possible choice, and probably the easiest and cheapest, and dare I say, laziest one for a TV writer to make.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    But I’d counter that getting a couple together is only one possible choice, and not necessarily the best creative choice. If you’re talking a show like Bones, where they’re clearly teasing a romance between the two leads, Hart Hanson has said they want to draw that out as long as possible but eventually they’ll probably get them together. But there is a history of people losing interest when a pair with sexual tension gets together so it does have to be done well, and at the right point in the show – not as soon as fans clamour for it. The clamour is what the writers want, in fact.

    If you’re talking a show like House, they tease a little with any and all pairings, and there’s vocal factions online who want House with Cameron or House with Cuddy, but I’d say the majority of fans don’t want either. They’ll never be able to satisfy everyone so I’d rather the writers satisfy themselves. It’s worked for them so far.

  • Dan

    No mention of Lost? Of course, I can understand since that would kind of go against the point of the article. But Lost is one of the few shows where the writers listen to the fans and it’s worked wonders.

  • http://unifiedtheorynothingmuch.blogspot.com Diane Kristine

    The Lost writers weren’t at the Banff festival. This is a compilation of quotes from everyone I heard address the issue there. But I suspect the Lost writers, like other writers, re-examined the direction of their series because of input from many sources, not just the most visible online fans.

  • Susanne

    That is a good point about couples. However we don’t really know what the majority of fans want in America and world wide. Some have their preferences, some are hardcore fans of one couple, some don’t want anybody hooking up, some don’t care and watch for other things besides romance like one specific character of the medicine aspect of it like House or the legal aspect like Law and Order SVU or for drama aspects while there are somes who just watch for entertainment and to get away from a hard days work.

    I agree that there is a long history of sexual tension fizzling out once a couple gets together and there is a history of people thinking “oh there together now but it is so dull” I don’t really like it when House tease muliple couples. I don’t mind if its just one couple on the show. I don’t mind if they just tease one ship all the way through until the end but to play with muliple ships like House/Wilson, House/Cameron, House/Cuddy or any other ship is just insane to be honest. It is like going on a merry -go-around. I used to ship House/cameron but very quickly did I get sick of the constant merry-go-round with other people that I just stopped caring all together. When I go online it drives me nuts that shipping wars start and everyone starts attacking one another. One of the main things I have noticed is that not many males go online on these forums. A lot of the forums mainly consist of women with a few exceptions.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/06/16/1041122.php SF

    What I have read online has surprised me with its wide range of views from every perspective on all possible topics relating to a show. Therefore, fans online seem to me to be a perfect cross-section. There is a bonus that some opinions are presented with the most wonderful language. One fan wrote something like this about House in Season 4, ‘He is cautiously re-evaluating how he moves through the world and how its rude and buffeting winds affect him.’ Or about Cuddy, ‘She is riding the back of the tiger (House) as she tries to maintain her hospital and her reason without getting eaten alive.’

  • Mary

    This quote from “The Uncertain Art: Thoughts of a Life in Medicine” by Sherwin B. Nuland seems relevant to this discussion:

    “Writing is not an exercise in discretion; it is an exercise in the clues to our lives. In this sense, the story belongs to the storyteller, because the storyteller is the truth seeker.” (pp. 89-90)

    It would be as foolish for me to tell David Shore how to tell us the story of Gregory House M.D. as it would be foolish for me to tell Hugh Laurie how to act it. I can only appreciate the wonderful storytelling they (along with many others) have brought us so far, and hope that we will at least have a few more years of it yet to see.

  • Grace

    Well, I am a House/Stacy shipper and I won’t be happy until they are together again in the finale season MANY years from now.
    Oh and Wilson HAS TO forgive House relatively soon into the 5th season. :)