Cult television shows and the power of positive letter-writing
They live among us. They could be neighbors, co-workers, a distant relative, or a close friend. They look for any "in" to talk about their pet subject. They make your eyes glaze over at parties or at the office coffeemaker as they wax incessantly over their obsession.
First-time parents? Pet owners? Sales people hoping to win you over to their pyramid sales scheme?
No, they're fans.
The above description is extreme, but who hasn't encountered someone they thought was a little too enthusiastic in their adoration of this musician or that movie star? And who hasn't secretly worried about their own ability to determine if they've crossed that thin line between being a connoisseur of cool to being that person others shake their heads at while saying, under their breath, "get a life"?
There are many levels of fanaticism and degrees of acceptance or dismissal. It depends on the object of the fanaticism and the medium. Sports fans are acceptable, especially if they're of the all-American, apple-pie variety. But fans of pro wrestling, the now-defunct XFL, or roller derby are less so.
There's stoic acceptance of those who lay flowers at the Dakota building on the anniversary of John Lennon's murder, or sing George Harrison songs at Strawberry Fields in Central Park. But Graceland, home of the late Elvis Presley, teeters between being an eyeball-rolling shrine to those who believe the King still lives and being accepted, tongue in cheek, as kitschy cool.
Those who spend hundreds of dollars a year for an HBO subscription in order to see The Sopranos or Sex and the City are au courant. The person who spends the same money at a Star Trek convention is a called a loser. The "L" is capitalized if the attendee goes to the convention in costume.
Who or what to blame for this stratified approval of fandom is as difficult to find as a pint of Romulan ale.
Fan clubs, fanaticism, fandom -- whatever the name -- are not new, though the rise of mass media, particularly television and now the Internet, plays a significant role in how swiftly the fires of fandom can flare into all-out fandemonium.
In television, the first groundswell of "fan action" occurred in 1967, when NBC canceled the Star Trek series. Fans inundated NBC with protest letters, saving the show for a third season, but not a fourth. However, as anyone who keeps up with popular culture knows, this was not the end, but the beginning of a TV and film franchise. It was also the birth of an enormous fan base that many regard as the prime example of fans gone over the edge.
Tabasco Sauce and Couch Potatoes
A subsequent letter-writing campaign swelled around CBS's Cagney & Lacey in 1982. This effort ushered in the show's eight-year run and led to the formation of Viewers for Quality Television, according to Howard Wen in "Revolt of the Couch Potatoes" (Salon.com in 1998, www.salon.com/21st/feature/1998/08/24feature.html ). Today, Web rings, authorized and unauthorized fan sites, newsgroups, and simple e-mail can rally fans in the click of a few keystrokes. Although an online campaign failed to save another CBS drama, Brooklyn South, a more recent campaign by Roswell fans convinced the WB (which then carried the series) to renew the show. The campaign was a double whammy of sorts. Instead of just flooding the network with e-mail, fans decided online to snail mail bottles of Tabasco sauce to WB execs. The ploy was clever in that it provided the networks with tangible evidence of the show's fan base; media observers say network execs take greater stock in snail mail than in e-mail, because snail mail takes more thought and effort to execute. The campaign also brought a bit of playfulness to the ordinary complaint letter. Tabasco sauce is the beverage of choice for the alien teens on the series.
Playfulness aside, what kind of person goes to the trouble of buying Tabasco sauce and mailing it with a message that says, "Save my show!"?
The psychology of fans is the subject of countless books, articles, and films. Television fans in particular are overwhelmingly labeled as the most pathetic of the lot. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community laments the role of television in the erosion of what Putnam calls "social capital," or the decline of civic engagement. Even television is not kind to TV watchers, as Jane Rosenzweig astutely observed in the May 7, 2000, issue of The American Prospect: "One of the great ironies of TV is that its heroes are rarely seen watching it, except when they're depressed."
Researchers who focus on the pathology of fandom say it's rooted in loneliness, the inability to foster relationships, poor self-esteem, an indistinct sense of self, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or the inability to separate reality from fantasy. In its most benign representation, the fan is a person who immerses himself in a fictional world. Who can forget Barbara Adams, the Star Trek fan from Little Rock? Adams turned heads in 1996 when she appeared for jury duty selection for the Whitewater trial wearing her Starfleet Commanding Officer's uniform (she was not selected). In several newspaper accounts and in the 1997 documentary Trekkies, she says she has modeled her personal conduct on the philosophy of Star Trek and wears her uniform to all formal functions to remind people of the "Starfleet ideals of intergalactic tolerance and peace."
From the dark side of the spectrum come names like John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman. Hinckley contends that he shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as a tribute to actress Jodie Foster. Chapman gunned down John Lennon in front of the Dakota building in 1980, hours after he sought Lennon's autograph. His explanation for his crime? Low self-esteem.
As a result of these often-cited representations of fans and fandom, some local fans quoted in this article asked that pseudonyms or only their first names be used.
Surely, there's another definition for fandom, an explanation that does not rest on a disturbed psychological profile. At least that's what I hoped when I was approached last summer by a small but enthusiastic legion of local fans distressed by the rumor that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell would be dropped by the WB and picked up by UPN. The netlet had left Austin airwaves the year before -- although UPN officials insisted that Austin could receive the network over the air from Fredericksburg. Star Trek: Voyager fans already knew this was not true. When UPN disappeared with little warning, they were unable to finish watching the last season of their favorite show.
Gang of 12
The Buffy and Roswell fans wanted to know what I knew (not much) and copied me on e-mail messages sent to one another and to fan sites. Information was shared on who to address letters to, as were experiences with Time Warner Cable representatives. Dora Smith, an Austin Roswell fan, went so far as to locate FCC and franchise rules and station carriage guidelines. In the process, she discovered an FCC ruling that suggested that UPN should have been present in Austin via KBEJ in San Antonio.
"UPN needs to get the message that they're not getting the coverage they think they are. Fredericksburg is not coming in, and if KBEJ is supposed to be here, why isn't it?"
In the meantime, the Star Trek fans had already dealt with the loss of UPN. Thanks to a KVC-13 (which carried UPN) station representative unfamiliar with blind copying e-mail messages, over 100 Star Trek fans received the e-mail addresses of other like-minded fans who had originally written to KVC to voice their complaint. The response from the KVC representative was of the standard, "Thanks for writing. We feel your pain ..." type. But it didn't matter. The Star Trek fans began to e-mail each other, and before long, a core group of 12 viewers found a way to gather each Wednesday night to watch the newest episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
"Steve [Martin] was getting a tape from a friend in Boston," says Frank, an original member of the Voyager gang of 12. "He was working under contract with a company in North Austin, and got them to loan us a conference room. That was great -- highback leather chairs, a large screen. I eventually got a dish network system, canceled my cable, and started providing the tapes. When Steve's contract ended, we bounced to a couple of other places, but kept on watching."
When the Voyager series was coming to an end last summer, the gang of 12 wanted to have a special farewell screening. They wrote me for suggestions on how to get a screener copy of the last episode. As it turned out, the industrious group didn't need my help. Within a few days, not only did they get a screener (without commercials), but Tim and Karrie League graciously opened the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown for a Voyager finale screening in June.
"We really weren't sure what to expect," Frank says. "I mean, it was just 10 or 12 of us regular viewers."
The group got their answer when the Web site used to collect reservations stalled. Reservation requests flooded the site, overwhelming the site's server. A second and third screening were promptly added.
Enedelia Obregon and her family were among the attendees. She and her family missed the prior season, yet were willing to pack up the kids, drive from the comfort of their Northwest Austin home into downtown Austin in the middle of summer, and find parking to see the finale.
"We gotta see how it ends! I want to know if they get back home, and I think everyone else does, too," Obregon says. "It's like being in the middle of a good book and not getting to read the end!"
The response was repeated when the gang of 12 organized a premiere screening of the new Star Trek: Enterprise series at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown in August.
I shouldn't have been surprised when I first heard from Buffy (then Roswell) fans. I'd called them out, so to speak, in this paper's "TV Eye" column, where I said I suspected there were closeted Buffy fans out there. On a subconscious level, I think I needed to know they were out there. I'd already gotten lots of ribbing from family and friends, and one exasperated "You've got to be kidding!" from a colleague. Surely, I wasn't alone.
"Hello, I'm (don't print my name). I'm 47 years old, and I watch 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' --"
Turns out I was right. I got e-mails from the younger, target demographic, but also from middle-aged men and women, sharing favorite moments from the show and lamenting its possible loss in Austin. But there was something else expressed as well: embarrassment.
"I've been very careful to protect my respondents' anonymity," says Sharon Ross, a Ph.D. candidate in the Radio, Television, and Film department at the University of Texas. She's writing her dissertation -- that's right, her dissertation -- on the representation of female friendships in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess. She has been collecting and analyzing viewer responses from a detailed questionnaire she began distributing in 1999.
"Part of the reason for the anonymity is because Buffy, in particular, is regarded as a teen show," Ross says. In reality, "Buffy (and Xena, now in reruns) have extraordinarily strong fan bases and many crossover fans of various genders, ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations," she says. "The other reason, I think, is the fear of being labeled some kind of nut who doesn't have a life," she continues. "That's the unfortunate legacy of Star Trek fans, who've unfairly been made fun of for their devotion."
When Time Warner announced its change in channel lineup, adding KBEJ, the UPN affiliate in San Antonio, to its basic cable package, it seemed time for celebration. All that letter-writing and phone calling had paid off. Although local fan action was not directly credited, Time Warner alluded to its effectiveness in a flier with the new channel lineup and a cutline that read, "Buffy Is Back! That's Killer."
I proposed that all three Star Trek, Buffy, and Roswell fan groups meet. I wanted to see who these people were. How "out there" would they be? As it turns out, they were the most delightfully ordinary bunch of people I've met. The youngest was 22, the oldest near 50. They were semiprofessionals, students, mothers, and fathers. Single, married, short, tall, chatty, or politely reserved, they didn't match the stereotype of the quirky, socially arrested fanatic.
The Roswell fans in attendance were the liveliest of the group, including several twentysomething women and one gentleman named Richard, who admitted to being a little self-conscious about being the only male Roswell fan, and twice his group's age.
"I can't even get my kids to watch the show," he said. "I watch it because I'm interested in the Roswell story [a longstanding conspiracy theory that involves a downed spacecraft and the capturing of aliens outside the small town of Roswell, N.M., in 1947] to begin with. I like how they do such a good job of working with the relationship between the alien people with the earth people and how they learn to deal with each other."
The local Roswell fans not only participated in the Tabasco sauce campaign, but were part of an elaborate letter-writing and telephone campaign to Time Warner Cable that included recruiting family, non-Roswell-watching friends, and even out-of-state fans.
"I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer," says Carol, a middle-aged fan of the series. "I love the writing, the stories, the ensemble aspect of the show. But I have to admit to feeling a little silly about getting so worked up about being able to watch a television show."
There was something to get worked up about, and it involves the fundamental question of who owns the airwaves. Technically, the networks are only borrowing the airwaves from the American public. This fact has been lost in the flurry of media conglomeration, relaxed FCC rules that benefit media moguls, and a public predominantly oblivious to it all. So, in some small, if unconscious, way, maybe the fan fight to demand that UPN return to Austin was a method of taking back what was rightfully theirs to begin with.
On another level, it seemed that something fundamentally necessary was also accomplished.
"More and more there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed," wrote cultural critic Walter Benjamin in his 1955 essay, "The Storyteller." "It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences."
The three fan groups I met are devoted to three distinct shows. Star Trek is set far in the future. Roswell and Buffy occur in the present. Buffy is rooted in vampire lore, while Roswell is fueled by the contemporary mystery of whether aliens from other planets live among us on earth. However, the overriding similarity among them all is in their strong internal mythology, and ultimately, each show's unique ability to imaginatively address what it means to be human. We may live in the Information Age, but information is not communication on a deeply meaningful level. As Benjamin writes, "The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new."
"The Star Trek series has all the basic hallmarks of great art and literature," writes Donald Montgomery, a fan who attended the Star Trek: Voyager screening at the Alamo Drafthouse last June. "Lush character personalities based in the realities of real human existence, scripts of depth, action, and pacing appropriate to the medium, and my favorite part, the fierce devotion to a positive outlook and a happy future for us real humans. There is genuine uplift here, which is so rare in this day of mindless repetition and vulgarity."
I listened to each fan's explanation as to why he or she follows Buffy, Star Trek, or Roswell. Some admitted to having a crush on this character or that actor. But more than that, I heard the excitement in their voices when a favorite episode turned out to be the favorite episode of another, formerly faceless fan. I observed the delight in finding a like-minded soul, and the pleasure of retelling morsels of the tale, and the warm generosity of bringing newcomers to a series up to speed.
Could it be that with all our computers, beepers, wireless messaging, e-mail, voice mail, faxes, and cell phones, all created to bring information to us as fast and furiously as possible, that the need to admire the embroidery of a well-crafted story is stronger than ever?
There's a difference between taking stories literally and taking them seriously. The fans I met had both feet on the ground and a firm grasp of reality. When someone admits to being a fan of a highly imaginative project like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Star Trek series, Star Wars, and most recently, The Lord of the Rings, it's assumed they are unable to cope with the real world. In reality, perhaps they are coping in the most human way possible.