Are TV Showrunners Paying Too Much Attention to Fans – or Too Little?

Well, well, lookee here, kids. The interwebs, which we’ve always seen as empowering fans, may in fact be taking away their power instead. Seems that all this fan attention has turned showrunners into diva-like creative gods. Personally, we don’t see anything wrong with writer-auteurs…but we may be a little biased:

house of cards

TV Writers and Showrunners Increasingly ‘Mute’ the Fans
by Drew Grant

Back in the day, television writers would get feedback about their shows in one of two ways: from the occasional review in a publication, or from the ratings. Then around the late ’90s, shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer ushered in an era of fandom; viewers were empowered by the Internet and its burgeoning fandom communities. Note that the people who were early adopters to message boards and listservs had a certain bias in what they favored: geeky, cerebral shows that rewarded vigilant, and recurring, viewings. Think Twin Peaks. Think, later, and for another generation,Lost. Think what we’ve come to understand as the (new) Golden Age of Television, co-created equally by its writers and its most passionate fans.

Today, the Internet is full of such super-fans, and sites like Tumblr make it easy to share fan art and fiction about favorite characters. You can’t go a day on a blogging platform without seeing a short loop of images from Sherlock, Doctor Who, Supernatural or Hannibal, if not all of them. Dozens of newspapers and websites, including this one, publish recaps that dissect the previous evening’s best programs. But do these fandom communities actually translate into better ratings? And how much do the creators of these shows take their fans, and what they want so vocally, into account?

The surprising answer: Not much. While television viewers have never had an easier time banding together and voicing their opinions on the programs they love, TV writers and showrunners say sweeping changes in the way that television is being delivered are actually drowning out those voices. For good or ill, keep typing—but nobody may be listening.

Surprisingly, new formats and new ways of delivering story are actually taking power out of fans’ hands. House of Cards issues an entire season all at once, on Netflix; when viewers see the first episode, the last is already finished. “Usually by the time we launch a season, I’ve already poured over these episodes dozens and dozens of times,” said Beau Willimon, showrunner for House of Cards. Though he frequently engages with fans online on social media, he said he rarely reads the increasingly ubiquitous recaps. “One thing I definitely don’t do is look to connect to any social media or articles or commentary in a prescriptive way as in, ‘We should add X.’ That has to be a discovery, and to approach it in any other way is pandering or schematic. We have to do exactly the opposite of what the audience is expecting.”

Since House of Cards is a long-format show not beholden to pressures from advertisers, Mr. Willimon may be speaking from a uniquely privileged position; one that bears more resemblance to the film industry than to the traditionally populist medium of television. TV—or whatever you want to call it—is no longer the bastard cousin of cinema. Series creators and showrunners are now their own form of auteurs, spoken about reverentially in hushed tones once reserved for Coppola and Von Trier. And auteurs don’t write by group consensus.

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