October 21, 2011
C. Lee Harrington on Fan-Producer Collaboration

From Chuck fans saving their show by buying sandwiches to the recent news that a couple of cancelled soaps will get a second life on the web, collaboration between media producers and fans has led to some interesting new business models in recent years. I had the pleasure to talk with media scholar and soap opera expert, C. Lee Harrington about her thoughts on fan/producer collaboration.

Sheila Murphy Seles: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into media studies?

C. Lee Harrington: I was trained as a social psychologist (PhD in Sociology) and came to media/fan studies somewhat indirectly - I shared a passion for daytime soaps with one of my graduate advisors and managed to parlay that into a 20+ year career focusing mostly on TV studies and audience/fan studies. My interest in fan studies was really jumpstarted by an MIT workshop on fandom that Henry Jenkins facilitated in the early 1990s - I believe Textual Poachers had just been published and I was in the midst of co-writing Soap Fans, which was informed directly by Henry's work.

SMS: What are you currently working on?

CLH: For the past few years I've been working on an ongoing project on aging media audiences/fans. Half of my colleagues here at Miami are gerontologists and my mind started wandering during an evening presentation about how people evaluate their own life journeys through larger cultural norms about how lives "should" unfold. I started wondering about long-term soap opera actors, some of whom have played the same role for 20 or 30 years, and what it was like for them to grow older in two "versions," one their own and one their scripted character. That led to the launch of this broad ongoing project, which by now includes an empirical study of aging soap actors and their also-aging fans, a couple of smaller psychological pieces on aging/fandom/life narratives, a conceptual paper on the age-related structure of 20th century fandom, and my most recent publication, a look at the future of media fandom given demographic changes. Major findings from the last two papers are captured in the C3 White Paper, "Aging and Media Fandom." All of this work is collaborative, I should mention.

The piece I'm working on now draws on organizational theory, gerontology and media studies to examine whether (and/or the extent to which) older audiences can be considered niche audiences, and what that would imply for programming.

SMS: What are some of the most interesting examples of collaboration between content creators and fans you've seen recently?

CLH: I remain fascinated by the Hoover company's "save All My Children" campaign. A Hoover exec (Brian Kirkendall) pulled ads in protest of news of AMC's cancellation, announced the move on Facebook, and the number of fans "friending" Hoover rapidly escalated. Soap Opera Digest jumped in, declared a "buy Hoover day," and fans started contacting other ABC advertisers to jump into the fray. The show was ultimately cancelled but this was great for Hoover AND great for the fans. One reason it resonated so strongly is that Hoover initiated it and it was authentic - Kirkendall's mother and wife were huge fans of the show. Oprah ended up on YouTube explaining why OWN couldn't "save the soap genre" by taking on AMC and its sister show "One Life to Live." I think of the more withering-away deaths of "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns." Fans were certainly disappointed but there weren't comparable corporate and fan efforts to save them.

SMS: Do you think these collaborations have the potential to become a new norm, or at the very least an acceptable option for media production?

CLH: I think so......with explosion of social media it's a new landscape.

C. Lee Harrington will be participating in a panel discussion entitled, "Collaboration? Emerging Models for Audiences to Participate in Entertainment Decision-Making" at our Futures of Entertainment Conference on November 11.