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August 29, 2006

Fan Activism in a Networked Culture: The Case of Stargate SG-1

This is a piece that I originally posted on my blog that I thought would be interesting to the C3 readers as well:

Last week, on the eve of its 200th episode, the Sci-Fi Channel announced that it would not be renewing Stargate SG-1, ending a run that extended across 10 seasons. The series began on Showtime, where it was canceled after five seasons, and then, as the result of fan activism, got picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran another five season and spawned a successful sequel, Stargate: Atlantis.

One might imagine that the series was dying a natural death after a run which is far longer than the vast majority of series -- science fiction or otherwise -- in the history of American television or that the network and creative artists are performing a "mercy killing" of a series that might be well past its prime but as far as its most hardcore fans are concerned, the series is "not dead yet." They are seeking to rally the troops one more time and their efforts to do so demonstrate the potentials for audience activism within networked culture.

The Modern Minutemen, er, Minutepersons?

The first thing that strikes you when you look at the fan community's efforts to save SG-1 is the speed with which they were able to respond to the news of the series' potential cancellation. The contemporary fan is a modern day minuteman -- ready to respond at a moment's notice to information that threatens their community, whether it is a cancellation notice or a cease and desist letter. Reader Sara Goetz, a graduate student from California, wrote me the day after the Sci-Fi Network announced its verdict with the following news:

The SG-1 fandom is no stranger to fan campaigns, having lobbied to bring back a beloved actor four years ago (with some question as to whether his return was their responsibility or his and the studio's - I wasn't in the fandom at the time and can't do more than speculate). Additionally, with the recent cast additions of two actors from the late, lamented Farscape, a large number of fans have carried over and feel a strong sense of deja vu. As sci-fi fans are practically trained to do now, we moved into action as soon as the news broke yesterday afternoon. The experience of the past is informing the current action, and while I don't know how much success SG-1 fans will achieve, we'll certainly be heard.

This is a powerful illustration of a point I make in my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide: As a fan community disbands, its members may move in many different directions, seeking out new spaces to apply their skills and new openings for their speculations and in the process, those skills spread to new communities and get applied to new tasks.

In other words, each new campaign is not only important in its own right but also represents an educational opportunity that develops new skills and knowledge which will then inform all subsequent fan efforts. There's a tendency for both academics and journalists to compartmentalize fandoms rather than seeing fandom as an interconnected network. Fans move between series and as they do so, knowledge gets transmitted from one fan community to another.

At the core of the fan community were seasoned veterans who knew what needed to be done and quickly rolled up their sleeves and took control over the situation. News of the network decision spread across discussion lists, fan websites, blogs, and Live Journal pages and as it did, people began weighing different tactics, collecting relevant information, and assigning tasks. This is a beautiful example of how knowledge communities work to pool resources and tap networks in order to achieve their goals. The striking thing is that there is no one approach being advocated here. The goal is to get the word out to as many different people as possible through as many different means as necessary. In that sense, fan communities are adhocracies not bureaucracy: some people have taken charge of different aspects of the process on a largely volunteer basis but no one is trying to control or orchestrate the movement as a whole.

Learning to Speak the Industry's Language

One can see the consequences of this effort if one visits this site which has emerged as one of several central clearing house for people involved in the campaign. The first thing I notice here is a pretty savvy analysis of the factors which led to the show's cancellation, one that shows a deep understanding of how and why networks make the decisions they do. The analysis factors in issues of demographics, scheduling, and audience behavior. Here's some of what they say:

The complicated US Nielsen ratings system has baffled fan commentators on many genre shows. There may not be one single cause contributing to the ratings slide, but more likely a combination of factors, such as:
First, the SciFi Channel dismantled its three-hour SciFriday block of original programming - the showcase of the network. The airing of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Battlestar Galactica not only helped SciFi compete, but win tough Friday night ratings battles. This year, SciFi chose to hold back Battlestar Galactica, which won't air until October 2006, reducing their three-hour block to a two-hour block of programming.

Any fan with Tivo or a VCR could have told the SciFi execs it's common sense to watch the three-hour block and record the shorter two-hour block for convenient viewing later. Taking that third hour out of the equation removed an impetus to make SciFi the network to watch live on Friday nights.

An additional ratings factor is acknowledged by Mark Stern, SciFi Channel's Executive Vice President of Original Programming. Interviewed by Mary McNamara for the May 8 issue of Multichannel News, Stern "believes some of the show's tech-savvy, toy-loving, time-shifting audience gets missed in ratings compilations. 'Part of it is the DVR,' he explains, citing digital video recording devices. 'Nielsen's sampling is not representative of the larger universe yet. They're sampling 3% and the larger [DVR] universe is something like 10 to 13%."

Second, new timeslots for the shows have put Stargate SG-1 in direct competition with the cable ratings powerhouse Monk, and locked both SG-1 and Atlantis on SciFi in a head-to-head with Monk and strongly performing new show Psych on parent channel USA. Ironically, Bonnie Hammer is President of both the SciFi *and* USA networks!

The ratings of both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis have dipped and there is no guarantee that without their strong lead-in, Battlestar Galactica will fare any better when it finally airs in October. With all the advantages of the original three-hour programming block behind it, its ratings were only on par with those of Stargate last season. No one can predict how it will perform solo. SciFi Channel's Farscape was equally beloved of the critics but was unable to sustain a financially viable audience.

Such fan analysis does important work as a form of informal media literacy education -- teaching consumers how network television reaches its decisions and what kinds of arguments will be effective at getting them to reverse course. The fans have monitored trade press discourse and reached out to sources into the production company and have some awareness of the conflicting interests between the network and the production company, offering their own views on the negotiations that impact the economic viability of the series.

At another site, one can see a range of potential tactics identified -- including addresses for key decision makers and suggestions that a strong sign of support for digital downloads may help them demonstrate their clout through the marketplace. A major argument has been that the series fans are so tech savvy that their numbers may not be adequately counted by the Nielsen Ratings which tend to only measure viewers who watch the broadcast as it is aired and not those who watch it via digital recorders or downloads.

Mobilizing the World

The second thing one notices is the international nature of the fan response with the site including templates in many different languages -- from Spanish to Croatian -- that fans in those countries can use as models for writing letters to key decision-makers. The Sci-Fi Network may have made its decisions in part in response to declines in viewership in the United States but because the series is internationally syndicated, the decision will impact fans world wide. Fans in many different countries are working together to respond to the program's cancellation, exerting pressure not only directly on the network and production company but also through the networks in their own country which air the series. The coordination of these efforts across different nations (not to mention languages) suggests the global composition of most online fandoms.

Grassroots creative artists -- who might otherwise turn their attention to the development of fan fiction and fan art -- are deploying their skills towards supporting the save the series campaign. The resource page lists an array of different materials designed to get the word out to the fan base.

Downloading for the Cause

More generally, you can see the fans are deploying such social networking sites and web 2.0 applications as MySpace and Flickr as tools for identifying potential supporters and pulling them into the cause. They also recommend using Bittorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies to identify fans that are downloading the series and solicit them for the cause. They write:

many fans are savvy when it comes to the P2P file sharing power of bittorrent. Whatever your personal stance on the legalities of downloading episodes via torrent, there's no denying their popularity.
This is particularly true for overseas fans who aren't hurting the ratings of first-run episodes of the show in the US, and who might not get to see the current season for a year or two.

We could turn the power of peer-to-peer file sharing to information sharing. Check out the busy torrent sites such as Mininova, IsoHunt [which links many other torrent sites from its database],TorrentSpy, TV Torrents, #eztv @ EFNET.

Wherever you see a Stargate-related download, jump in and make a comment about the cancellation of the show and the paramount importance of:

(1) watching episodes LIVE

(2) spreading word of the cancellation as widely as possible on and offline

(3) pointing people to this website for more information.

(4) pointing to the $1.99 legal downloads for US fans from iTunes!

Often, there are thousands of downloaders for Stargate episodes and people will check comments in case there's anything nasty in the file they're saving.

This approach shows recognition of the potential of such sites for social networking as well as the ways that illegal downloads may render invisible the level of interest in the series.

All told, both the tactics and the analysis behind it shows an extremely sophisticated understanding of the current media landscape and the various points by which grassroots communities may leverage their power to exert pressure on corporate stakeholders in the series. Activists of all ilk can learn a lot by dissecting how these guys are approaching their effort to save their favorite series. As a long time fan, I can't help but contrast this with the now relatively primitive snail-mail efforts that kept Star Trek alive in the 1960s: new media has given fans a lot more resources to mobilize in a roughly similar situation.

I have limited personal stakes in this particular series. Ironically, the Sci-Fi channel is not available in the MIT dorm where I live so I have only seen a few episodes. Be that as it may, I am really going to be interested to see how this campaign takes shape and what, if any impact, it may have.

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