We all like TV shows. We all like some TV shows more than others. Unfortunately liking a particular TV show is hardly a universal sentiment, so every season at least one of your favorite TV shows ends up “on the bubble.” What does that mean and what can you do about it?
Being “On The Bubble”
As TV By The Numbers and The Cancellation Bear explain shows are internally rated relative to each other’s network performance among other factors. If a show performs well above this relative threshold, it’s guaranteed to stick around for next year; if it falls far short, sayonara programa. But what about shows that hover just above that threshold, or just below?
That’s a grey area that puts the show at the mercy of a true wild card scenario. Depending on how razor-thin the margins are it could literally be decided by a coin flip behind closed doors for all we know. Production costs, how cozy a relationship the network has with the production studio, the specific demos the show targets, advertisers’ specific feedback and predetermined future scheduling/new program orders can tip a show’s fate one way or another. Audience feedback and response is just one additional factor, but it could be enough to help tip the balance and if nothing else no feedback means no help.
Back in the old days, before virtually anyone could contact any given television producer instantly in the space of 140 characters or less, letter writing campaigns were the primary means for an audience to have their voice heard. That, and telephone campaigns, but seeing tons of letters brought in Miracle on 34th Street-style makes a powerful visual statement.
This is how fans preserved the original Star Trek for a third season and perhaps even as the cultural force it is. Traditional letter-writing worked as recently as Stargate: SG-1, doubling that series’ run when it hopped to SyFy (then still Sci-Fi). When Stargate: SG-1’s run was up for cancellation a second time, the fandom went double-down on their efforts employing a more ‘net-based strategy, though this time to no avail (after 10 years on the air a show’s time just has to come). iO9 has more on (more or less) successful letter-writing campaigns, including a few that went a little nuts going the extra mile (including one that literally went nuts).
What Not to Do
Letter writing and even spamming mailboxes with non-perishable food items is one thing, but fandoms do what fandoms are wont to do, so inevitably campaigns have gone overboard. How a fan expresses his or her enthusiasm for a show is his or her own business, but once people start breaking out wallets it’s probably time to seriously reconsider priorities.
Star Trek gives us the ur-example of how to save a show, so it’s natural that it once again shows us how it shouldn’t be done. On the eve of its fourth season Star Trek: Enterprise was on the bubble, and massive behind-the-scenes negotiations between all parties involved in its production made sure that fourth season saw the light of day. But only just by the skin of its teeth, and it was clear that a fifth season would need massive fandom support. Enter TrekUnited, a grassroots organization dedicated to actually soliciting funds from the fans to pay the network whatever difference it needed to make Season 5 a-go.
And the fans did pay, to the tune of $140,000 in actual hard-cash fan donations and about $3 million in total from overall pledges, including third-party corporate backing. Too bad Paramount Studios already told TrekUnited that Star Trek: Enterprise was a done deal, there would be no more episodes, Fin had already been scrawled on the end title card. At that point, people started questioning if it was a funding campaign to get more episodes on the air or really a funding campaign to better line certain people’s pockets.
How to Save Your Show
First of all, if there’s anything to learn from the Star Trek: Enterprise/TrekUnited debacle, it’s don’t spend your hard-earned money. The networks and TV production studios - ultimately funded by such deep-pocketed entertainment mega-conglomerates as CBS-Viacom, Walt Disney, Comcast, FOX/Newscorp, etc. are more than rich enough and they don’t need any charitable contributions from you. Throwing money at them so that they can put that money into a TV show isn’t going to convince them to save it. The problem was never whether or not there was enough money to go around, it’s whether or not advertisers were convinced to throw more money at it than it costs to make. That distinction is what the Star Trek: Enterprise fandom forgot.
If you really want to put your money where your mouth is, buy whatever products you can that results in a direct money transfer from you to the people actually making the show. Buy the DVDs, buy episodes from Amazon or YouTube, buy the merch, whatever. It’s a much, much more effective tactic than blindly throwing money straight at the network itself. DVD sales, after all, are what fueled renewed interest in Firefly and Futurama, giving the former a theatrical movie and the latter a brand-new run on Comedy Central.
But spending money period shouldn’t be necessary to show your support for the show. Again, let the advertisers and network execs worry about that for you with their deep pockets. Yes, being able to own the DVDs or digital copies to watch whenever you want is pretty nifty, and nothing shows greater support than showing off the merch, but it shouldn’t go any further than what your own enthusiasm and funding is able to support on a healthy level anyway and it shouldn’t be any different whether the show is on the bubble or the most-watched thing on television.
If you’re on an absolute shoestring or non-existent budget, or you already have the entire DVD collection and even the Hallmark tie-in promotional tree ornaments sitting in a closet somewhere, there are other means to bring the issue to attention. In fact we live in the age of bringing issues to attention, and if it works for Dafur it should be a good shot for a TV show too.
The best means of all is to be a Nielsen family and just swing your influence around to jack up the ratings of whatever show you like. Supposedly this is how two college roommates were able to save [adult swim]’s The Venture Brothers by intentionally gaming the system (The AV Club had an article about this ages ago but thanks to their wonky search function I’m unable to find it, so just trust me on this). Even if you’re not a Nielsen family the new reality of digital media provides a few means for you, too, to game the system. Nearly every broadcast and cable network now has streaming support on their corporate websites allowing you to view past episodes, recently aired episodes or in a few cases even future episodes or simul-casting/live streaming. Use this to your advantage. The signal being sent out to your TV is unreadable and undetectable by the networks (unless you happen to have the aforementioned Nielsen recording equipment) so it’s pretty much a non-factor ratings-wise, but networks do register IP hits like anybody else. Playing episodes in your browser is a super-cheap and easy way to make your views count. Even if you’ve already seen the episode on its “live” over-the-air showing, go on your computer and log in those hits. You can even go do something else and just have the episode play in the background on mute. Remember, signals bombarded into the air intercepted randomly by your rabbit ears don’t count, but IP hits do.
And then there’s the good old-fashioned letter writing campaign, or its modern day equivalent, the Twitter campaign. Hunt for the accounts of the cast and crew and see if they’ve got any news to share. Tell them your support for the show directly, and chances are if your show is on the bubble, they’ll know it, and they’ll tell you how you can show your support - usually through key hashtag phrases or other things that might get the interns working the networks’ Twitter feeds to notice. Oh yeah, and say your thoughts to the networks’ official accounts directly.
Know That It May All Be For Nought
Keep in mind that the ultimate decision maker is the brain inside the network exec head honcho, and he or she might have his or her own economic justifications and reasonings for killing a show. Maybe the network wants to go in a different direction, or the dedicated fandom still isn’t big enough, or the demo or advertising structure just doesn’t work out.
Even after all that effort your cries might not get heard. Twitter campaigns do work - to a degree. Or maybe not at all. Letter writing campaigns are even less effective and don’t have the impact they once did in today’s digital social media climate.
At the end of it all, you can only do your best, and sometimes a show is just beyond saving. All things come to an end, and the most effective fans either learn to celebrate their enthusiasm without having to see new episodes dance across their screens or simply learn to move on. But doing nothing doesn’t exactly guarantee the networks will reverse their course either. They can be swayed, and showing them the proof that people watch is the number one way to sway them.