It’s a great time to be a fan of television.
Not only are viewers enjoying a golden age of “Peak TV,” but they have a stronger voice through social media in efforts to stave off cancellation of favorite shows.
Although grass-roots campaigns have played a role in saving shows since way back in the 1960s, rarely have fans enjoyed a year like 2018. “Last Man Standing” returned to broadcast TV a year after it was canceled, while “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Designated Survivor,” “Lucifer” and “The Expanse” all were rescued by new networks or streaming services.
“Timeless,” resurrected after cancellation in 2017 partly due to a fan campaign and the No. 1 ranking in USA TODAY’s annual Save Our Shows poll, couldn’t win another season, but the NBC time-travel drama got a two-hour finale (due Dec. 20) after a crowdfunded publicity campaign and another first-place finish in Save Our Shows.
More: NBC’s ‘Timeless’ Repeats as Winner of USA TODAY’s Save Our Shows
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“It’s pretty special,” says “Timeless” star Matt Lanter, during a break in filming last month. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of another project that has so much fan passion, where people are spending their own hard-earned money to fly banners and (put up) billboards in Times Square. It’s wild. It’s humbling.”
Canceled shows’ revival prospects have improved for a variety of reasons, including fan campaigns amplified by social media and powered by online fundraising, says Michael Sparaga, director of “United We Fan.”
That new documentary (available Tuesday on demand and streaming services, including iTunes, Amazon and YouTube) charts the history of show-saving crusades.
At the start, the fan movement was best known for rescuing shows before they were canceled. Bjo and John Trimble are credited with a letter-writing campaign that helped the original “Star Trek” series get a third season, adding enough episodes to enable the syndication that helped the franchise build a fan base and become an entertainment giant.
“Cagney & Lacey” was canceled twice in the early 1980s, but ratings growth during summer reruns – an unlikely proposition in today’s TV environment – and a fan effort led by Dorothy Swanson saved the series. Swanson went on to form Viewers for Quality Television, an influential audience group that advocated on behalf of quality broadcast programs that weren’t ratings hits in an era when big audience numbers were all that mattered.
“I don’t think (fan influence) has ever been stronger,” Sparaga says. “In Dorothy’s best year, she maybe influenced networks to change their minds on one or two shows with fan pressure. That’s a massive thing. But this year started with ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine,’ ‘Designated Survivor,’ ‘Lucifer’ and ‘Last Man Standing.’ I’d never seen anything like that.” (Lifetime canceled stalker drama “You,” and the series is moving to Netflix for Season 2, the streaming service said Monday.)
Swanson, who presided over VQT from the mid-‘80s to its dissolution in 2001, praises contemporary fan efforts, “which can organize so quickly on the Internet and have an influence,” especially when instant mobilization is required after a cancellation. However, she says, the greater number of program outlets and changing financial realities in the TV industry play a big role, too.
More: Ahead of December finale, ‘Timeless’ stars name their favorite time-travel episodes
More: NBC rescues ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ one day after Fox canceled it
“United” details the history of fan efforts to support their favorites, from the Trimbles’ groundbreaking “Trek” campaign to VQT’s endorsement of quality shows like “St. Elsewhere” to more recent campaigns on behalf of “Veronica Mars,” “The 4400” and “Longmire.” It also details creative efforts to persuade TV executives – with bottles of Tabasco sauce for “Roswell,” peanuts for “Jericho” – and a Subway sandwich campaign on behalf of “Chuck.”
Crowdfunding, a more recent phenomenon, marshaled “Timeless” fans, also known as Clockblockers, to pay for billboards and banners that drew attention to and built support for their effort to save the drama.
Some fan blocs have become more focused, coalescing around issues of representation. Kaily Russell, a “Person of Interest” fan featured in Sparaga’s documentary, was inspired in her effort to save the show by a relationship between lesbian characters. When writers killed off one of those characters, her interest faded.
Swanson says passion and devotion are crucial to any effort to save a show. Technology offers advantages but it can make support so easy that it can sap intensity.
“You need a lot of people who will voice their feelings very loudly,” she says. But she doesn’t think viewers can just “click and sign a petition and think that’s going to matter. Back when I was doing it, a letter written by a person stood for 15,000 to 25,000 people who thought (the same thing) but didn’t write. Today, (“United” director Sparaga) said Kaily would probably have to get 500,000 clicks to save ‘Person of Interest,’ because it’s just so easy to click. You need to do something passionate. Whatever you do, make it passionate.”