Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

The Fracturing

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?
Tags: fandom, internet, tv
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  • 82 comments

  • Season Four: GOOD or BAD

    To be clear: I have not watched "Journey's End" yet, because bibliolicious is out at a gig this evening. But I wouldn't wish to deprive…

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