February 3, 2008
Fandom in the Age of Franchising (1 of 2)

I finally started watching Friday Night Lights over Thanksgiving. Several people, including C3's own Sam Ford (see his post on FNL) had been hounding me to give the show a shot for months, but I had been resolute in my resistance. I had so little time for TV as it was, so why would I spend it on a show about high school sports? What did I know about football, or even Texas, for that matter? It wasn't until someone literally shoved the DVDs in front of me that I gave it a chance and immediately fell for the way it's able to convey with such astute, human tenderness a culture that had once seemed to me so alien and unwelcoming.

So I count myself amongst the "fans, critics, and even network suits" Virginia Hefferman mentioned in her New York Times Magazine article who had come to think of Friday Night Lights as necessary television. And, as a member of C3, a fan of many media properties, a consumer of transmedia content, a blogger, and a once-reader of fanfiction (back when I had time to read any form of fiction), I agree in general that entertainment and art are becoming increasingly collaborative and that fan engagement is gaining greater prominence as a marker for success.

I very much encourage the recognition that fan production and participation has value. Hefferman's article seems to present all of these things in a fairly positive light, as well as laud Friday Night Lights as one of the best and most essential shows on television. However, reading the article as someone on both sides of the Friday Night Lights and fan engagement/transmedia equation, I can't help but feel that I've somehow been slapped with the blame twice over for the show's floundering ratings.

What immediately strikes me as fundamentally problematic about the article as a whole is that it seems to be trying to answer several different questions at once. Why Friday Night Lights doesn't generate as much fan-produced content and whether or not transmedia extensions and ancillary goods such as video games and action figures are necessary for a show to gain a following are two adjacent, but ultimately different, questions. Further off still is is the question of why Friday Night Lights isn't seeing ratings that reflect the quality of the show.

As much as I would like to think that fans and fan production have a direct impact on show ratings, the structures of both fan communities and the television industry make the relationship between the two much fuzzier and far too convoluted to propose a direct correlation. Highly successful shows like Desperate Housewives are scarce enough in fan-produced content to be listed alongside Friday Night Lights in the Yuletide obscure/rare fandoms challenge (the relative obscurity of the fandoms are determined by "fandom activity levels in places like LJ, Yahoogroups, and fiction archives, taking into account Google searches, LJ interests, and the recommendations," according to their FAQ), while relatively obscure shows like Farscape and cult hits like Stargate: Atlantis have highly active fandoms. As for the relation between ancillary products and ratings, I'm a little dubious about what should come first -- putting aside the question of whether product tie-ins and transmedia stories would work for such a focused, character-driven show, would it even make sense to create them for a series that doesn't already have an extensive fanbase to buy the stuff?

More troubling to me is the tendency in the article to flatten product tie-ins, transmedia storytelling, and fan production into the same sort of practice. Not only are they not the same type of activity, but they tend to cater to different kinds of fans. While there is certainly overlap, the kind of fan engagement that results in buying an action figure is not necessarily the same kind that comes from playing a video game, which in turn is not necessarily the same kind that results in writing a piece of fanfiction. These are distinct audience practices with distinct social and cultural logics and, while they can all be present at once, I find it difficult to attribute their existence or lack to any one thing.