Anyone who doubts the growing power of the Web and the blogosphere only needs to talk to television executives at CBS, Sci Fi Channel and BET, whose recent programming decisions have influenced by passionate and opinionated viewers with high-speed broadband connections.
The Web, with its sheer speed and enormous reach, has upped the ante for viewers looking to express their opinions on a show cancellation or storyline change to seemingly unreachable network executives. Whereas years ago it may have taken weeks or months to generate enough letters and or phone calls to catch the attention of a broadcast or cable network executive, today that same person could have virtually hundred of thousands of protest e-mail messages in his Inbox in a matter of minutes.
And that does not include the thousands of posts that a show can generate in the message boards and chat rooms created by networks about particular series.
Believe it or not, network executives do read the e-mail and board posts — and in some cases, like that of CBS’ Jericho, such messages are successful in affecting the fate of a show.
The drama about the survival of a small Kansas town after a nuclear bomb attack won a reprieve from the TV trash bin in June, when hundreds of thousands of Jericho fans deluged TV executives at Black Rock with e-mail and boxes of peanuts (based on a symbolic line from the show) in a successful attempt to save the show for a second season.
On the cable side, fans of the sci-fi space drama Farscape in 2002 deluged Sci Fi Channel executives with hundreds of thousands of e-mails in a failed effort to stop the cancellation of the beloved series … or so it seemed then. After seven years and thousands more e-mail missives and message-board posts about the series, Sci Fi Channel officials said there was enough continued interest in the series to green-light 10 new Farscape Webisodes that will air on Scifi.com in 2008.
Meanwhile, a 31-year-old blogger and lawyer from Austin, Texas, took the Web’s growing influence on what we see on television a step further last month when she spearheaded a movement that ultimately forced BET to alter the on-air look of its user-generated video show, We Got to Do Better.
Take the experience of a show that was supposed to be named Hot Ghetto Mess and was loosely based on a popular Web site of the same name that some critics believe shines a negative light on African-American images and behavior. Lawyer Gina McCauley, through her blog What About Our Daughters (www.whataboutourdaughters.com), targeted its advertisers even before the show aired. As a result of her efforts, State Farm Insurance pulled its ads from the show before its July 25 premiere, according to published reports.
Then, two days before that premiere, BET renamed the show We’ve Got to Do Better and pulled all video references of Hot Ghetto Mess off the 30-minute show. All due to the constant pressure McCauley and other bloggers exerted against it.
The powerful influence McCauley and other bloggers had on the fortunes of Hot Ghetto Mess certainly caught BET executives off guard.
“Part of [the controversy] shows you the power of the Internet, that one small group who takes a position can rile up some other people,” said BET CEO Debra Lee.
But McCauley says her efforts are just a sign of the times. “For the first time, BET had to deal with a free-market capitalist who understood how to leverage the power of a blog,” said McCauley. “So in that sense it’s new, but hopefully what I’ve been able to demonstrate to people is a model that they can follow in the future.”
While the Jericho and Hot Ghetto Mess situations are the exception rather than the norm, TV Guide television critic Matt Roush said viewers can no longer be seen as just passive players in the television world.
“The fact that the fans of Jericho received a momentary triumph is pretty watershed, as is possibly the BET situation where somebody on a blog complained so loudly and to the right people that it scared [advertisers] from the show,” he said. “Viewers now have outlets to allow their frustrations to at least be voiced if not heard — whether they’ll be taken seriously depends on the situation.”
Network executives need to understand the growing influence of the blogosphere. But, proceed cautiously. It’s one thing to listen to the needs and wants of fanatic viewers. It’s quite another thing to give them the keys to the asylum.