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Sunday, August 25

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Last time, I wrote about how Internet fans influenced the rating, dialogue, and marketing techniques of Snakes on a Plane. I also used the word phenomenon. Turns out, not so much. Snakes barely beat out Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (in its third weekend) for first place with a take of $15.3 million, far less than predicted. In my defense, I wrote my column early in the weekend, well before box office numbers were released. In its second week, Snakes dropped from first place to ninth, taking in a measly $5.86 million. Ouch! I'm sure DVD sales/rentals will go through the roof.

Television producer-television watcher interaction can be much more immediate. Anybody with a computer and an Internet connection can write an opinion about that character's crisis, that plotline's feasibility, that show's overall theme. But what happens when The Powers That Be directly communicate with fans, and these creators change or incorporate viewer suggestions or critiques into their weekly episodes?

One of the most notorious show runners to cater to his fans is Rob Thomas, creator of cult fave Veronica Mars. He regularly reads and posts at particular fan sites. He includes shout-outs, or inside jokes, in several episodes of the series; they range from a flyer on a bulletin board, to the name of a suspect, to extras in the background. After a convention in Houston, Thomas wrote a specific series of scenes after a viewer asked if two characters would ever have a storyline together. And Thomas admitted that negative opinion about one of the secondary characters caused him to veer in the opposite direction. In a New York Times article, [registration required] Thomas expressed his regret about the changes:

Mr. Thomas conceded that his awareness of the fans' reactions had occasionally influenced the way he wrote "Veronica Mars." Fans hated a second-season character played by Tessa Thompson, he said, leading him to overcompensate in an effort to make the character likable. "I feel like I sold out a little," Mr. Thomas said. "She became a little saintly by the end. If I had to do it over again, I'd leave her a little more complicated."

Around the time of Smallville's Season 5 finale this May, writer and producer Steven DeKnight visited several web sites and invited fans to leave him feedback about the show on his MySpace page. Although a few people offered praise and constructive criticism, most people who left messages were concerned about which female character was the best: Lana, Lois or Chloe. There was also general vitriol about the Lana/Lex(Zod) and Clark/Chloe kisses. Yes, really. After several pages of flaming, DeKnight replied:

I agree about everything resolving too simply in Season 6. I'm going to push for Clark to remain trapped in the Phantom Zone until Season 7, Chloe to fall for Lionel, and Lana to accidentally kill Lex because the sock in his mouth prevented him from saying their safe word.

Actually, I have heard a rumor that Lana may in fact date Jar Jar next year. It might even be my directorial follow up to that damn exploding baby.

I have to be on my game next year? I was planning on phoning it in, maybe recycle some old episodes of Undressed. Now you're telling me I have to actually work? Crap.

His humor diffused the situation (for the most part), and the thread remains open, with all comments still in place. Who knows if or how this feedback might affect the adventures of Lois and Clark and Lex and Lana and Chloe — my guess is not much — but it permitted people to tell DeKnight their thoughts directly with the notion that he would read them… and maybe even respond.

It's not only CW dramas that have the higher-ups mixing with the plebes. Lost caters to the Internet crowd by offering exclusive mysteries and content only available online, and The Fuselage, "The Official Site of the Creative Team Behind Lost (Sponsored by J.J. Abrams)," features a VIP section where actors, writers and producers post messages for fans of the ABC show. The team members reply to general threads or comments that fans post in the other Fuselage forums. For the most part, the VIPs are treated with respect, and the boards are encouraging and affirmative. During the second season, however, criticism toward the series became more pointed and prevalent. After the finale, creator and writer Damon Lindelof took a particularly critical poster to task:

On a personal note, Pryce…I really don't care if you believe we've "pulled it off" or not. Your negativity stands out as a harsh contrast to the spirit of what is essentially a fan board…

So all due respect, either keep watching and try to be nice every once in awhile… Or as I've suggested before, go check out CRIMINAL MINDS. It's awesome and they solve THEIR mysteries every week.

To the rest of you wonderful people, I appreciate your love and support wildly… We really do it for you. Yes. Even YOU, Pryce.

Which begs the question: should "fan boards" only permit positive commentary? Should people be allowed to present viewpoints that aren't 100% Grade A-for-Asskissing certified? Does mingling, even if only virtually, with The Powers That Be increase or decrease the validity of offered opinions?

Audience/television interface doesn't only apply to scripted shows. Website TVgasm — a site that recaps several television series — good-naturedly mocked for several seasons the eerie precision of Julie Chen, journalist and wife of CBS head honcho Les Moonves, during her hosting activities on Big Brother. Its writers dubbed her Chenbot, and offered a variety of merchandise celebrating the nickname. After a montage of clips featuring her catchphrase "But first…" popped up last year, Chen took notice. She mentioned her nickname in magazines and on her other job, The Early Show. She even drank from a Chenbot mug on air. However, it wasn't until the August 24 episode of Big Brother that TVgasm actually impacted the series. Chen announced that the name of the Head of Household competition was "But First." Writer B-Side joyfully freaked out in that week's live blog:

And by the way, the site that popularized this catchphrase — that made it a catchphrase? TVgasm.com. And where the hell did that catchphrase come from? It came from a little joke that J-Unit and I had back with Big Brother 3. And we used to say it all the time, when we would just watch, before TVgasm even existed. And who, how — could you even imagine a joke you that have with your friends becomes part of the show? Like, literally part of the show. The power of TVgasm, everyone. Changing pop culture, affecting pop culture. We're a powerful beast. You can't deny us!

After the glow wore off, however, fellow blogger Hannah pointed out that Chen and CBS have yet to give actual credit to the site for its influence. Perhaps they have trouble saying the name "TVgasm" aloud without snorting. B-Side remained hopeful that they might someday get a site shout-out, but he felt "like [he] won a million dollars or something."

Should television show runners, producers and writers listen to fans? If so, how much? Is it part of the creative process for the people making the shows to consider the wishes of their audience? If the answer is yes, how much of what the fans want or demand should be factored in? No one works in a total vacuum, but catering too much to public opinion could decrease the weight of a character's choices or a particular story arc. The Internet can be a useful litmus test for those who bring new stories into out living rooms every week, but the pH level is tricky and almost impossible to measure exactly. Praise can transform into backlash instantaneously, leaving bewildered television writers and creators wondering where did their love go.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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