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The thing about the nineties was, it had the internet.

The internet made fandom different, and arguably its greatest impact was in media fandom; suddenly it was much easier for a single, focused fandom to develop. The resultant culture clashes between snooty literature fandom and monomaniacal media fandoms are still very much with us...but I think the internet also did something else. Something more fundamental.

A case study:

On the 30th of November 2000, uk.media.tv.angel came into being. At the time, in the US, the most recent episode was ‘The Trial’; season two hadn’t even started on sky, and all I had to watch was season one, which was about half-way through its butchered 6pm run on channel four. Google groups hasn't archived the group’s early days but I was there, and I can say that from the start it was quite the friendliest, funkiest corner of usenet you could find; inhabited by the coolest kids you could wish for, capable of turning from incoherent silliness to serious analysis on a dime.

I posted like a crazy person over the Christmas holidays, then went back to university just as season two was starting on Sky. I didn't have Sky at home, and I didn't know anyone who had Sky at home, so my only option was to strategically hijack the big-screen TV in the JCR - no easy feat on a Friday, when facing competition from the Friends fans. Sometimes I lost out, and had to rely on tapes kindly posted by brassyn. More often than not, though, I'd outwit my opponents, watch the episode, then rush back to my room to post about it.

Yes, on a Friday night. Yes, I am a hopeless case.

Thanks to the vagaries of scheduling, roundabout every Easter time the UK starts catching up with the US. I caught up rather faster, though, because it was at about this time that gagravarr started providing me with magic CDs. If memory serves, I went straight through from 'Happy Anniversary' to 'Epiphany' in a single evening, and was subsequently dismayed to find that the show was on hiatus in the states, and that there wouldn't be any more episodes for me to watch for about another month.

Still, I was hooked, and Angel became something that happened for me on an American timetable, not a British one. Buffy too and that show, although I never cared quite as much about it as I did about its spinoff, could be more exciting to watch because it had a better distribution network. In particular, there was the marvel of the wildfeed - the satellite transmission of the show out to the regional affiliates which happened before the official broadcast and which could, by people with the appropriate technology, be captured. It definitely adds a certain something to an episode to know that not only are you seeing it before most people in this country, you're also seeing it before most people in America.

In fact, on one occasion they sent out the wrong episode, which meant that I saw 'Villains' a whole week early. That was really fun; suddenly, the most arrogant posters in the US newsgroups learnt the value of spoiler space. It's really a terrible shame that, as US networks have moved to a digital broadcast system, the wildfeed encodes have more-or-less vanished.

In the meantime, the proportion of people downloading episodes was increasing. By 2002 (the middle of season three Angel and season six Buffy), the downloaders were in the clear majority. Somewhere along the line, umta made a pact not to discuss episodes 'ahead of time,' so as not to spoil those who were sticking to a Sky schedule (or, at least in theory, a terrestrial schedule). This worked just fine, but it did occasionally feel just a touch surreal to be discussing episodes that you knew, for certain ninety percent of the group had watched up to three months earlier.

And the trend was still upwards, and by now there are no more than a handful of people posting to that group 'live'. The internet is changing the way we watch TV; the internet has changed the way at least one group of people watches TV. Because it takes time to download an episode, there is no longer such a thing as a universal schedule, and different people get caught up at different rates. I'm sure that everyone has, at some point over the past few years, had the 'has everyone seen the latest episode of X?' conversation.

Obviously, this is not true in the US, because the US is the country of origin.

Not true yet, anyway.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, US TV is not a friendly place for genre right now. Angel, of course, has been cancelled, and I think the reason why is instructive: it seems to have more than a little to do with demographics. The WB, Angel's home network, goes after a specific audience. That audience is 'Females 18-34'; failing that, 'Females 12-32'; failing that, 'People 18-34'. Angel's best demographic (yes, even with Spike) is 'Men 18-34', and whilst the WB isn't against young guys per se, it's against them if they come at the expense of young gals. For lower cost, the WB can show a drama that gets more of the people they want watching than Angel does.

Combined with trigger-happy executives, this sort of niching seems to be one of the big factors shaping current US TV - and genre TV is an expensive (albeit often effective) way of reaching a niche.

Enter the cable networks. A significant proportion of the most talked-about genre shows of the past few years have come from networks like HBO (Carnivale), Showtime (Dead Like Me) and the SciFi Channel (Farscape). Of these channels, the last is certainly the most significant. It is also currently investing heavily in miniseries: look for Earthsea, Ringworld, and Red Mars, amongst others. And in the recent or relatively-recent past, from SciFi and other sources, we've also seen series like Dune, The 10th Kingdom, and Taken.

I think there's a pattern here, or at least a trend. There may not be a single, monolithic genre show before which all fans shall bow down in awe in the offing, but I think that limited or small-scale productions are going to become more common - and I think that subscription-based services are going to become more important in distributing them. In the short term, that means more channels like SciFi or HBO: you'll subscribe because you like the brand, in the same way that you subscribe to Interzone because you like the editor's taste. In the longer term, I can't help thinking that the traditional idea of a channel might be on the way out, and direct downloading might be on the way in. Call it TivoWorld: entirely personalised TV. It’s not a new idea, I know. But the thing that occurs to me about it is that, having caused so many schisms within fandom, the internet might be on course to mend them all - or at least make them a lot smaller. Why? Because I think that if TivoWorld happens, the nature of media fandom will have to change.

What makes a media fandom different from a literature fandom? In my view, two main things: volume, and regularity. A prolific author produces a novel every year, whereas a popular US TV show can run for seven-plus seasons at twenty-two episodes a season, spread out over nine months of the year. It is much easier to become engrossed in a media fandom than it is in a literature fandom, particularly if you start following news and rumours about the shows as well as just watching the episodes. There's just more of it, more frequently - and everyone gets it at the same time.

But in TivoWorld, that wouldn't be true. You'd have limited series, coming out over a relatively short span from a 'channel', and downloaded by people at various times thereafter, whenever it’s most convenient for them. To me, that sounds much more like a publishing schedule. It’s also true that despite everything I’ve said above, media sf is currently the sf of the mass market. It’s Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, not Greg Egan and Lucius Shepard. It’s conceivable that TivoWorld would allow an increase in diversity, and cater to a greater range of tastes. And all of that might mean, maybe, a more general fandom; one that sits back and engages with SF media as a whole, rather than focusing in on just one or two shows.

OK, so it's a stretch. A leap, even. Basically, it's pure wishful thinking on my part. The subdivision of media fandom into Buffy fans and B5 fans and Trek fans and all the brushfire fandoms that shoot up whenever Fox airs a new show drives me, on occasion, completely up the wall. There is no good reason to watch one of these shows and not at least try the rest; it's like the people who read Pratchett but claim they don't like fantasy, or indeed any dismissal of any category based on limited evidence. I’m in favour of anything that might open people to a broader range of shows, even if individually those shows are smaller.

Hey, I can dream, right?
 
 
 
 
 
 
It's funny, but media fandom always seems to have been focussed on one particular show. You're a Trek fan or a Dr Who fan or a B5 fan or a Blake's 7 fan or what have you. You may like other media sf, but it is the one show that defines your take on media fandom. Although literary sf may have obsessive Pratchett fans, or people who can quote every last word Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, or what have you, it has rarely if ever broken down into focussed groupings in the way media sf has done. Personally I tend to find this healthier, but then I've rarely had the patience or the attention span to watch a complete series of any show. Even with B5, which caught my interest more than any previous TV sf, by the middle of series three I was missing more episodes than I caught, and I never even began to watch series four.

As for the wider question of niche marketing producing a better quality of show: don't count on it. Every increase in channels has produced a concomitent decrease in the intelligence of the shows. The more channels there are the more they have to fight for viewers, and the way TV producers have always done that is to go for the lowest common denominator.
It's funny, but media fandom always seems to have been focussed on one particular show.

I agree, this has so far been the case. Perhaps what Niall is suggesting is that this phenomenon is not specifically related to the 'media-ness' of media products but to their delivery mechanism, and if that mechanism is changed so as to be more in line with, say, the publishing delivery mechanism that supplies us with literary product, then media fandom will change accordingly, and become more like literary fandom?
I think the big hole in Niall's argument is the cost of production; writing a book is a lot cheaper than making a TV show. That low cost means that low-volume, high-brow books can still be profitable; the market that buys Greg Egan books might well watch The Greg Egan Show, but it isn't big enough to make it economically viable.

-- Tom
Is there any reason to suspect that the cost of making a TV show could decrease? I think if you look at CGI then yes, there is. Of course, it remains to be seen if a CGI show could ever command the following that a 'real' show does - given that it will probably lack pretty actors, it could be a tall order.
then media fandom will change accordingly, and become more like literary fandom?

I'm not sure the two are so different, though. This suggestion seems to me to rest on a priori acceptance that there is a difference between the two fandoms (for there surely must be, since one of them involves reading and the other doesn't!), followed by a search for the basis of that difference.

It seems to me wholly unfair to suggest that a 'media fan' likes only one show, or that they are so rabid in their devotion to a single show that others they may watch and like are excluded from that fan's personal fandom. It is perhaps more accurate to say that most 'media fans' strongly prefer one show. Actually, I just stopped there to try and use myself as an example, and realised I couldn't say which show I consider myself to follow most avidly. Am I mostly an Angel or a Babylon 5 fan? Or am I still at root a Star Trek fan, because that's the first show I watched?

Most 'media fans' in fact watch a wide range of genre shows - your average Angel fan will probably also be a fan of Buffy and Firefly, but also any mumber of other shows - American Gothic, Carnivale, Farscape, B5. How is this different from reading many authors but having a favourite, whose work you will defend to the death?
Yes, the differences between the two types of fandom, and trying to pin down the reasons the differences are there, are things that interest me. I was trying to suggest a theory of why they're different, and a vaguely plausible mechanism by which they might become less so.

I think Harry Potter comes in again here, god damn him.
You may like other media sf, but it is the one show that defines your take on media fandom. Although literary sf may have obsessive Pratchett fans, or people who can quote every last word Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, or what have you, it has rarely if ever broken down into focussed groupings in the way media sf has done.

That's certainly how it appears to me - although having said that, Harry Potter and Tolkien have immediately sprung to mind as counter-examples. I'm not well-acquainted enough with either, though, to say exactly how much the films of both have affected their current semi-rabid states. Quite a lot, I assume; but my impression is that both did exist even before the films, and both were fairly analogous to media fandoms even before the films.

the way TV producers have always done that is to go for the lowest common denominator.

Yes, the question is really whether this strategy will ever break down. I think signs are there that it might; In the US, there's been quite a bit of flap about decreased ratings for many network shows this season, and it's at least partly attributed to young males choosing to read or surf the web because there's nothing on that interests them.
That's certainly how it appears to me - although having said that, Harry Potter and Tolkien have immediately sprung to mind as counter-examples. I'm not well-acquainted enough with either, though, to say exactly how much the films of both have affected their current semi-rabid states. Quite a lot, I assume; but my impression is that both did exist even before the films, and both were fairly analogous to media fandoms even before the films.

I'm very familiar with the Tolkien fandom, and it's extremely complicated! There are those who encountered the books in childhood, and are primarily book fen (though most have seen the films). There are those who encountered Tolkien first via the films, most of whom are now reading the books (though many are having trouble with Tolkien's style), but would count themselves as primarily movie fen. The majority of fen I'm acquainted with (which may or may not be a good sample) are those whose latent Tolkien fannishness from childhood book encounters was brought to the front by the films, and who would be fen of both the films and the books.

I don't have any measure of the actual numbers of active fen before and after the films, but Tolkien fanfiction on fanfiction.net went from a couple of thousand stories before the first film was released, to around 30,000 stories in LotR (as well as 1000 or so stories in the new Silmarillion section). Whilst Tolkien fandom did exist decades before the films, it was mainly limited to small clubs, often university affiliated, with rather little online presence. There was certainly very little fanfiction being written and distributed, partly because the Tolkien Society frowns upon it. I think it's fair to say that the films have not only expanded the fandom enormously, but also changed its flavour radically.
Hey, I can dream, right?

Of course you can.

I do think there's something in what you're envisioning, but personally I suspect that it's a long long way off. Several decades at least, if not more. It's not a change we're likely to be seeing any time soon (much as I'd like to).

The change in TV watching habits you're talking about is being noticed only by a very small group of media consumers. SF fans are often the technophilic bunch; the few who are right out ahead getting to grips with new technology. Most people don't want to watch TV like this, and wouldn't know how. So there currently isn't a huge drive from audiences to switch delivery methods.

And there certainly isn't a drive from the suppliers either. The downloading of programmes is something I suspect they're only beginning to grapple with, and I'm sure it's not something they like. They're going to want to maintain the current delivery methods they have and which make them money, and they're going to fight off anything that threatens that.

Basically, the current delivery methods of media are so entrenched in the minds of producers and consumers alike that it's going to take something pretty big to change it. And at present there is no incentive for this to happen (for incentive, read money) and there is incentive for media suppliers to resist the kind of change youo're talking about.

I hope it does happen. But I might be an old woman before it does. ;)
SF fans are often the technophilic bunch; the few who are right out ahead getting to grips with new technology. Most people don't want to watch TV like this, and wouldn't know how. So there currently isn't a huge drive from audiences to switch delivery methods.

This is true. On the other side of the coin, though, analogue broadcasts will switch off altogether over the next few years, it's more than just sf fans using Tivo, the BBC has already started releasing content from its archives onto the web, and broadband access is increasing all the time. Maybe it doesn't qualify as a huge drive yet, but I think it's significant.

They're going to want to maintain the current delivery methods they have and which make them money, and they're going to fight off anything that threatens that.

Well, they're going to try; but as the music industry is showing us, they're going to have a hard time of it. Apple's iTunes store is a big success - how long until iShows? It's not really that big a step up from traditional syndication, anyway.
DVD release of older films/television is another format that is more accessible to us technophobes.
The big question is - how would these shows be funded? DRM (*spit*) technology would have to be used to make sure that they weren't having the adverts edited out, re-distributed or otherwise messed around with. This would pretty much restrict them to Windows (and possibly - but unlikely - Mac) users. The kind of shows you talk about rarely get broadcast on FTA stations in the UK - so by downloading them you are essientially getting them for free. While morally it is a grey area - from a TV production company's perspective you are a non-viewer. You don't help sell advertising space and you don't subscribe to the pay channels they are on. There ain't no thing as a free lunch - and that may be part of the reason that genre TV is suffering right now.
The big question is - how would these shows be funded?


You'd pay for them, like you pay for books.

DRM (*spit*) technology would have to be used to make sure that they weren't having the adverts edited out, re-distributed or otherwise messed around with.


Probably true. Not the adverts bit - they wouldn't have adverts, because they're being paid for up front - but the prevention of piracy would probably require DRM. The only alternative i can think of would be to stream the shows, so you never have a downloaded chunk of media that you could pirate, but that's a bad solution on many levels, and it wouldn't stop people writing tools to rip the streams.

Ah, DRM. A good (or at least not *that* bad) idea with a bad implementation. The problem is that current DRM systems stop you doing things that you are legally entitled to do, and the law stops you getting round them, even to do those things . Basically, the law's got its knickers in a twist, and it needs sorting out; don't hold your breath.

This would pretty much restrict them to Windows (and possibly - but unlikely - Mac) users.


I think that's a bit bleak. TV companies would be shooting themselves in the foot by not making the programmes available to Mac users; supporting Linux et al would probably not be worth their while. Furthermore, in Europe (don't know about the USA), if this took off, the regulators would be in there like a shot to make sure people weren't being locked out by the technology.

-- Tom
Take the example of the music industry. The biggest providors of online music worldwide (until iTMS finally appears in Europe) only support WMA on Windows (the Mac version of WMP doesn't support the DRM). Of course the whole pay-per-download thing isn't working there either as songs are obscenely overpriced and set to get even more expensive (how do the music industry thing they can pursuade people to pay more for something of less quality?).

I think the best solution is to leverage the power of P2P networks by making them subscription based. It would have to be coordinated - and there would have to be built in protection against malicious/low-quality content being injected into the network - but it would be great to make P2P systems easier to use and find what you want. If the codecs the media use are open and for tracking only then everyone would get their due and people could consume as much as they want.

The trouble is that this is such a paradigm shift for media companies that it is unlikely to happen in the short term.....
It could, given enough support, work out just fine. IF they tackle distribution networks effectively (which they're far away from doing), they can fund a show easily with only a fraction of the viewers they have now.

A good long while ago, Brian Ford Sullivan (TheFutonCritic.com) did an interesting piece outlining a theoretical business model, basically chalking up numbers that said that you could do away with adds, double the income or more, if you managed to get something like 10% of 'The West Wing's viewing audience to subscribe, paying what amounts to not that much at all per episode. Sadly, I can't find the link. And let's face it, with media fandom the way it is, this would put power in the hands of the viewers. The viewers would ultimately have more direct control.

Probably completely unworkable, but I do like the idea. If only his archived rants were searchable...
When I got into Buffy fandom, it was just that. This was the show that inspired me, that made me want to go on the internet and find like-minded people. I might've watched the X-Files, and Trek in its various forms since I was a kid, but I'd never been a 'fan' any more than I was a fan of any other TV show I watched on a regular basis. I didn't and don't see why this means I should have to watch anything and everything that might be categorised as 'genre TV', not least because it doesn't seem to me that the percentage of good genre TV is any higher than that of TV drama in general. Now, certainly since then my fandom has expanded to cover a number of shows. I will give new things a try, based on the people involved or on a recommendation, but I have absolutely zero interest in 'engaging with SF media as a whole'. Why should I? I didn't start watching Buffy because I thought 'Gosh, a new genre show, I must check it out', I did so because I saw an enthusiastic preview in The Guardian.
I share this unease at having to identify as being a genre fan. There are probably more eloquent things I could say about them but my brain isn't functioning too well today.
Now, certainly since then my fandom has expanded to cover a number of shows. I will give new things a try, based on the people involved or on a recommendation,

Well, exactly. That's what people should do; if having tried they don't like, then fine. But how many posts have you seen on usenet, over the last five years, arguing that Buffy is unique and different and not at all like other fantasy shows? To me, that's like arguing that 1984 is unique and different and not like other sf novels - it's a ludicrous position.

but I have absolutely zero interest in 'engaging with SF media as a whole'. Why should I?

See, I would say you have done that, precisely because you listen to recommendations and try things out (and go to cons!). What I mean by 'engaging with' is not 'subsuming your life into', it's simply having a broad interest rather than a narrow interest.

There is this form of TV that particularly interests me. Sure, I like The West Wing, and 24, and the one episode of The Sopranos that I've seen, but on average, the chances of my liking a show are higher if it has some kind of genre element, so I wonder - why is this? What is it about this form that's attractive to me? Working out why I watch what I watch (and why others watch it) interests me.
OK - so where's the genre aspect in Sex and the City?
To me, that's like arguing that 1984 is unique and different and not like other sf novels - it's a ludicrous position.

But, as you sort of touch on there, isn't your argument here based on the idea of SF as a unique genre - i.e. if you like this SF, you'll probably like some more SF. This doesn't necessarily follow. Homicide: Life on the Street was brilliant. Cop shows in general do nothing for me. I hate hospital shows; early ER was great. I'm even capable of liking some romcoms. Most are horrible dross.

Is the point perhaps that 'media fans' look for quality first, genre second (the high crossover of 'Angel'/'TWW' fans, for example, being a case in point), while the SF lit fandom is more doggedly about the 'SF' part than it is the 'lit' part? This is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of TV SF&F being far more successful in infiltrating the mainstream than written SF has managed.
But how many posts have you seen on usenet, over the last five years, arguing that Buffy is unique and different and not at all like other fantasy shows?

Honestly? Maybe I don't read the right newsgroups, but I can't think of a single one.

See, I would say you have done that, precisely because you listen to recommendations and try things out (and go to cons!). What I mean by 'engaging with' is not 'subsuming your life into', it's simply having a broad interest rather than a narrow interest.

My understanding of what you meant by that was what you were saying about Eastercon, that you'd like to see panels which addressed SF media as a whole instead of being focused on one or two shows. That's what I have little interest in.
You see, you talk about TV and everyone's interested... :D


It is much easier to become engrossed in a media fandom than it is in a literature fandom, particularly if you start following news and rumours about the shows as well as just watching the episodes. There's just more of it, more frequently - and everyone gets it at the same time.

That's not true, downloaders are ahead of the game, surely?

My point to you would be that 'media fandom' has a FAR wider scope than the literature fandom, is more attractive to the majority... and is more indicative of the Age. Yes, people still read, of course they do, because the pictures are better in your own head...
You see, you talk about TV and everyone's interested...

(1) This was a deliberately discussion-generating post. (2) We're talking about the differences between media and book fandom, so there. (3) Are you challenging me to write a much-discussed book post? Because I can and I will, you know. Just you wait...

That's not true, downloaders are ahead of the game, surely?

Well, that's sort of my argument. The 'old' situation was that everyone got it at the same time; the 'new' situation is that they don't, and I was suggesting that if this goes on fandom may change.

has a FAR wider scope than the literature fandom

You're right that it's more attractive to the majority and is more indicative of the age (although whether those are good things can be debated, of course), but I don't see any justification for this statement.
(3) Are you challenging me to write a much-discussed book post? Because I can and I will, you know. Just you wait...

I am, and I will... :D

I don't see any justification for this statement.

Go to Milton Keynes over the Bank Holiday Weekend. Go to Birmingham 3 times a year. There are HUGE events out there pulling in thousand of media fans, that are a lifetime away from a media con, and a millennium away from Eastercon. The people who go and get their signatures are a new breed away from the media con-goers, they are the people who watch genre TV and are not on newsgroups. These are the people who might get downloads but are just as likely to watch on the BBC/ITV/satellite. This is the huge unquantified void between media fandom and traditional fandom that needs to be counted.
It seems that a lot of what you're driving at is already in the works. Namely tracking watching habits of particular viewers, then recommending new shows based upon those recorded habits, from the central database.*

Turning that central database from archived episdoes of 'M.A.S.H.' to something more like realtime (S2 of show X?!) is a consistent evolutionary path.

Frankly, I think that will need to happen because the forces of fandom and selective viewing are partioning the market, and the last thing big programming purveyors want to lose is their economy of scale.

This will lead to some interesting 'social engineering'/'marketing' of shows - and we are already seeing many of its techniques being tested & proven now.

I fully expect to be 100% monitored for commerical interests, and have spam directly beamed to my retinas by age 40...Futurama-style. ;-)

*The alternative, assuming that the natural human instinct of curiosity isn't fully capitalised by such viewer-track data matching ... is full consolidation of the programming market and reduction of choices to bring down costs.

In my more ironic moments, I romantically imagine that this bearing down of costs will lead to 2020 programs that are little better than 1970s Dr. Who episodes with hokey-FX, paper mache/hoover monsters, and surplus costumes. ;-)