The guest writer on Boing Boing this week has been Craig Engler, who does something important at the SyFy channel (hopefully not choosing the name), not least, being the person who tweets for @syfy. He had a couple of really interesting columns giving an insight into how things work behind the scenes at a big US television channel. The one that really caught my eye was “How to REALLY save your favourite sci-fi show from cancellation”. It’s probably going to be a pretty relevant piece in the coming months as various shows (sci-fi and otherwise) don’t get picked up for next season. The campaigning is already well underway for several at risk shows, and a few that have already been canned like Legend of the Seeker have got massive money raising drives under way.
I’ve always been faintly cynical about the point of these campaigns, while I feel bad saying it out loud, my attitude has always been that it’s a bit of a waste of effort devoting so much time and effort to something that’s not going to have any effect. Do people think barraging network executives with thousands of packets of peanuts is actually going to somehow magically make their show seem more appealing to network executives?
Well it turns out my cynicism is fairly well placed. Craig Engler confirms that letter writing campaigns and the like don’t really work.
1) They don’t *want* to cancel shows, time and money has been invested in making and promoting the show and the chances are that it will cost them more money to cancel it and launch something else in its place than it would be to just keep it running.
2) Telling the network that you watch and love the show doesn’t really tell them anything they don’t already know. They have the ratings, they know how many people are watching. They have google and know that there are a number of people that not only watch, but are passionately devoted (obsessed?) with the show. But the fact that you really really really love the show, doesn’t actually make your single viewing figure count for anything more than ‘one’. Yes, you will probably contribute additional revenue via dvd sales and the like, but actually that probably doesn’t go to the network, so doesn’t help their financial bottom lines any. Networks make money by selling advertising to run inside a show, the amount of money they can make is therefore directly proportional to the number of people watching.
3) By the time they’ve announced the show is cancelled, you’re already too late. If the cast and crew have been released from their contracts, they’ve already moved on and are looking for the next project. In fact networks will often go out of their way to cancel shows early specifically so that people can find new jobs for the following season; if an actor isn’t available when pilots are being cast, they’re likely to be spending a year doing guest slots to pay the mortgage. Cancelling early also gives writers a chance to write a satisfying ending, rather than leave the fans on an unresolved cliffhanger.
Engler does offer a few suggestions for how to save your shows, but I didn’t really find his tone overly optimistic. The maths is quite straight-forward, more viewers equels higher ratings equals higher advertising revenue equals more likely to return. But each enthusiastic fan probably needs to recruit thousands of additional viewers, numbers usually outside of their reach. So rather than campaigning to the network, they should campaign people with that level of readership involved. People like Kristin at E!, or Michael Ausiello at Entertainment Weekly I know that I’ve started watching shows because they say I should, and I’m sure their voices have got shows like Friday Night Lights renewed that wouldn’t have made it otherwise.
This season there seems to have been a good commitment to shows, very few announcements have been made of cancellations beyond shows like Lost and 24 which are being ‘concluded’ rather than ‘cancelled’. Of the shows in danger (‘on the bubble’) at the moment, the only ones I would really miss are Trauma and Lie to Me. There are more that I watch (FlashForward and V most notably) but I really wouldn’t mourn their losses particularly. I know there are plenty of vocal fans out there for other shows though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some very disappointed and desperate fans on the internet in the coming months.