Five ways a cancelled TV series can keep faith with its audience

A few weeks ago, Alex and I got bad news: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was being cancelled. And not just cancelled: the production studio isn’t even shopping it around. (In Terminator terms, this is like pulling the chip out of the show’s skull and incinerating it.)

This leaves us with a cliffhanger ending that will never be resolved. We have no idea whether John Connor will escape from the nightmarish future he jumped to, whether Sarah Connor has terminal cancer, what the hell Cameron is up to, or what Catherine Weaver’s master plan is.

The result for T:TSSC’s audience is mass frustration… just as it was for viewers of series ranging from Twin Peaks to Soap. And that points to one of the more series weaknesses of the dramatic TV series – one of the longest-lingering artifacts of broadcast-style, one-to-many communications.

No wonder it’s so durable: dramatic TV (I’m including sitcoms here as well) is notoriously expensive to produce, raising the barrier to entry sky-high. (Or Skynet-high, ha ha.) It’s centrally conceived and created. And so far, alternative models like independently-produced webisodes still don’t seem to be near the tipping point that would let them challenge the studios.

But that doesn’t mean dramatic TV is invulnerable… or that its hold on its audience is unassailable. Witness the rapid rise of so-called reality TV, with its often-lower production costs.

And nowhere are dramatic TV’s deficiencies on more vivid display than when a series is cancelled – something that often happens abruptly. For a series with an ongoing story, it’s especially deadly, with those narrative threads severed for good. True, sometimes resolution comes through a subsequent movie… but the economics of TV make that the exception rather than the rule.

Narration, truncation, frustration

For audiences, that can be extremely frustrating. (That frustration formed the basis of at least one episode of an anthology series and a subsequent Futurama parody: aliens who had been receiving TV signals from Earth wanted closure on the series they’d been following.)

And the issue isn’t just frustration. It’s the feeling of being jerked out of the suspension of disbelief by the reminder that it’s just a TV series, contingent on production budgets and ratings. And it’s the way the relationship between viewers and producers is poisoned, as we get the all-too-accurate message that it’s purely mercantile, and has nothing to do with the stories or characters that have inspired a genuine emotional connection.

That should worry producers, studios and networks. Because each time we’re burned, audiences become less and less willing to invest time and attention in a show knowing there’s a better-than-average chance that it won’t survive to a second season.

The terrain is slowly shifting, but it’s the fans who are leading the way. Save-the-show efforts, which started in late 60s with Star Trek, are now enabled, expanded and amplified by the social web. Fan fiction carries on story threads long after creative teams have disbanded (despite the odd heavy-handed cease-and-desist letter wending its way to the writers). And episode archives and show wikis create an often-encyclopedic library of information on a series that allow fans old and new to continue exploring the universe created by the show’s producers.

It’s time those producers started picking up their end. To their credit, a number of shows have taken tentative steps: enabling fan wikis, creating conversation backchannels during episode airings, and making directors, stars and writers available after or even during broadcast for online chats. (Battlestar Galactica went above and beyond, offering everything from podcast episode commentaries to an eBay-based prop auction.)

But there’s still little to reward faithful viewers once a show is cancelled.

Granted, there’s every reason for a show’s cast and creators to want to move on to the next thing as soon as possible: bills to pay, careers to advance, money to stop spending and a failure to put firmly in the past. But making even a “failed” series satisfying for your fans means they’ll be a lot likelier to follow you to that next thing when you find it. And it means you aren’t throwing away one of the show’s last remaining assets: that long tail of passionate, even consuming interest in your story.

So, for TV producers, here are five ways you can reward your faithful fans… and maybe even get a little more value from your investment:

  • Satisfy our curiosity. At the very least, find out what our most burning questions are, and answer them. (The UserVoice-style voting that everyone from Dell to President Obama has used to rank community interest in various questions or ideas can come in handy here.) What happens when John realizes that he has to let the human Cameron die so the Terminator Cameron can take her place, go back in time and save his life? Is Special Agent Dale Cooper doomed to be possessed by the evil spirit Bob forever? Did Terri get the bomb off her neck before it was detonated?
  • Free your unproduced material. Often, a lot of work has gone into an anticipated but unproduced season: season arcs, episode outlines, storyboards, even scripts. How about publishing that on the web, along with some context to frame how things would have played out?
  • Produce those unproduced episodes… old-school. It costs a lot of money to create an episode of TV, typically hundreds of thousands or even a few million dollars; the bills for those film or video crews, sound stages and post-production services add up quickly. Creating professional-grade audio, by contrast, costs a pittance. For a fraction of the tab for shooting an episode, why not take a leaf from entertainment history – specifically, radio serials? Turn those unaired scripts into podcast episodes – complete with sponsors and ads, if you want. And if you’re using the voices of the original cast, you can count on two things: an enthusiastic audience, and a stronger sense of verisimilitude… that we’re hearing the actual characters. (Compare that to the experience of the written and graphic novels that sometimes spin off of TV series: they’re better than nothing, and sometimes actually good, but rarely do they capture the sense that this is really the same universe as the original series.)
  • Wrap up narrative threads… new-school. The phenomenon of webisodes – online-only clips, usually short – points to the possibility that a series that’s been shot down can still manage a safe landing of sorts. Shoot a few scenes, using whatever sets you have left, that at least hint at how story lines have resolved.
  • Invite the community in. You probably don’t want to ask your fans to decide how characters and story arcs turn out – it doesn’t feel authoritative; this is one of the areas where the imprimatur of “official” still has real value. But how about giving your fans an arena for co-creating that doesn’t affect the central story line? Provide some assets like background video from key sets, insert shots, sound effects and incidental music; set some (liberal) ground rules around usage; create a space to aggregate their creations; and let your audience keep the universe you’ve created alive. Need some inspiration? Check out how a few folks managed to get hundreds of people to reenact War of the Worlds on Twitter last Hallowe’en.

Yes, I know: there is a maze of contractual complexity and conflicting business interests to navigate for some of this to happen. But producers can begin anticipating that as they structure their next series, and lay the track for handling – and even thriving through – the eventuality that the first season may also be the last.

Birds of a feather repress together

Birds of a feather repress together(man to female protegee) I like you, Lenahan. I sense in you things I see in myself… in particular, a spiritual quality that recognizes there must be more to human existence than the single-minded accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth at all costs. Which is why I’ve called you here today: to impress on you the absolute importance of ensuring that spiritual quality never, ever in any way, shape or form finds voice in this company.

Five social media lessons for avoiding disaster

I like to think there are lessons to be had from even the oddest event.

Take today’s “holy-crap!” story currently making the rounds of the digital watercoolers: that poor guy in Georgia whose house was torn down by mistake. Reports say the demolition crew went to the wrong location, reducing a half-century-old brick house to rubble. There’s also been some suggestion that overreliance on GPS coordinates may have played a role in the error.

What can those of us in the online world take away from this event (other than “never, ever leave your house”, which is probably wrong) (although come to think of it, many of us seem to abide by that advice)? How can we avoid our own inadvertent piles of smouldering debris? Here’s my list of five lessons… some of them, admittedly, a stretch.

  • Clear communications are critical. We like to pride ourselves on the clear instructions we give to our design and development partners: exactly what workflow we’d like, where a particular hierarchy is important, and where there’s space for them to improvise or suggest improvements. Being as clear as possible about the things that matter – and as clear as possible about the boundaries of any wiggle room – has saved us countless headaches, and saved our clients a lot of money.
  • The longer the workflow, the more likely it is to break down. In this case, the people actually wielding the backhoe were apparently subcontractors to the subcontractor hired by the contractor. Similarly, if you’re requiring your community members to jump through multiple hoops – page after page of registration forms, or several copy-this-url-then-paste-it-in-this-box steps – not all of them are going to make it.
  • What’s obvious to you may not be obvious to everyone. I’m not suggesting that you should be pitching your documentation and interface to the kind of people who’d knock down a perfectly good house without double-checking. But bear in mind that, if you’ve been developing an application or a web site, you’ve been down in the weeds for a while. Your prospective users haven’t. So you may need to guide them a lot more thoroughly than you might think. One way to get a handle on that: usability testing.
  • Confirmation screens can be life-savers. Would that the bulldozer and backhoe on that Carroll County property had been equipped with “Are you sure you want to knock this house down? y/n” dialog boxes. Before you let your users do something life-alteringly destructive, give them a chance or two to rethink things: “Do you really want to delete all your photos?” “Really remove your profile? You will be unable to restore it if you do.” “Are you sure you want to send this sex video to all 12,493 people in your address book?” And use unambiguous explanations on the buttons: “YES, I’m really quite impressive in it.” “NO! This was a private, beautiful moment between me and the cast of The West Wing, and I don’t want to cheapen it.”
  • People trump technology. It’s so tempting to put all your eggs in the tech basket, spending your entire budget on beautiful design and rich features. But a community relies on talented, dedicated animators. So just as relying unquestionably on GPS coordinators may have steered the contractors in Georgia wrong (the news reports are unclear at the moment), relying on technology alone to get your community off the ground won’t do you much good, either. In each case, what you need are good, smart people… with solid, sound judgement.

By the way, if you’re still worried that your house could be vulnerable to misdirected sledgehammers – or if you’d just like a handy reminder that crap happens – here’s the PDF for our “Please don’t demolish my house” sticker. It’ll look great just above your “Firefighters, please save my Drobo” sticker.


Censorship isn’t the only problem with China’s new Internet blocking software

There’s chilling Internet news out of China. And as bad as it seems at first glance for human rights and privacy advocates, there could be something more disturbing in the wings.

The Chinese government has announced that, starting in July, it will require all computers sold in China to come with Internet blocking software. The goal, authorities say, is to protect children from pornography.

Given that the software is being created and sold by a company with ties to China’s security apparatus, and that China hasn’t hesitated in the past to block access to web sites critical of its record on democracy and human rights, the government’s critics are understandably skeptical. Software that blocks access to pornography can easily be configured to block access to, say, Amnesty International.

So speculation is rampant that the software, dubbed Green Dam Youth Escort, will be used for censorship or surveillance — if not immediately, then whenever China’s next human rights crisis arises. And while its makers say parents will be able to deactivate Green Dam at will, the government could well be tempted to make using the software mandatory… or at least hard to deactivate, and less than forthright about what content it’s blocking and what information it’s collecting.

None of that is good news. But consider this.

Any blocking software needs to update itself from time to time: at the very least to freshen its database of forbidden content, and more than likely to fix bugs, add features and improve performance. (Most anti-virus software does this.)

If all the software does is to refresh the list of banned sites, that limits the potential for abuse. But if the software is loading new executable code onto the computer, suddenly there’s the potential for something a lot bigger.

Say you’re a high-ranking official in the Chinese military. And let’s say you have some responsibility for the state’s capacity to wage so-called cyber warfare: digital assaults on an enemy’s technological infrastructure.

You’re idly surfing the web on your home computer late one night, when it starts to automatically download an update. And it occurs to you that, somewhere out there, a single central point is making the decision about what goes into that update.

It strikes you: there’s a single backdoor into more that 40 million Chinese computers, capable of installing… well, nearly anything you want.

What if you used that backdoor, not just to update blocking software, but to create something else?

Say, the biggest botnet in history?

A botnet is a network of dozens, hundreds or thousands of computers, all running a particular piece of software that allows them to operate in concert, autonomously. In its most benign form, a botnet is just distributed computing, done with the full knowledge and permission of the computers’ owners. If you’ve ever installed the SETI@home screensaver, you were part of such a botnet — in this case, helping to sift through radio telescope data to find any sign of intelligent life on other worlds.

But the term is more commonly used to describe a nastier kind of network, where the software is spread by stealth, especially through viruses (the recent Conficker outbreak created a massive botnet). And as you might imagine, that kind of network is used for more malicious ends: sending spam, for instance, or launching huge attacks on other networks.

The larger the botnet, the more devastating those attacks can be. And they can bring down more than just web sites. Conceivably, everything from hospitals to electrical power grids could be targets. That, at least, is the premise behind warnings of cyber warfare.

Now, those warnings are often overblown. And while China has been accused of conducting cyber-warfare — including incursions into Pentagon systems — proving the involvement of the government rather than nationalist zealots is difficult at best.

Still, a botnet 40 million strong (plus the installed base already in place in Chinese schools and other institutions) at the beck and call of the military is potentially a formidable weapon. Even if the Chinese government has no intention today of using Green Dam for anything other than blocking pornography, the temptation to repurpose it for military purposes may prove to be overwhelming.

In the past, Western governments have either stood by or even encouraged efforts by activists to help people in China circumvent domestic online surveillance and censorship. One project, Peekabooty, even used distributed computing – a benign botnet – to create a network of outside proxy servers that would allow web surfers living under repressive regimes to access forbidden content freely and privately. (Alex discusses Peekabooty in more detail in her dissertation. Psiphon, a project of the Citizen Lab, carries on Peekabooty’s legacy.)

But a botnet within China might be able to use such a network to disguise its own activity, making it harder for targets to defend themselves from attack. Governments that would normally look kindly on a Peekabooty-style initiative now might even look on it as a digital fifth column, and an unacceptable security vulnerability.

You’ll notice a lot of mights and coulds in what I’m saying; it would be speculative even if I’d looked at the code behind Green Dam, which I haven’t (I’m not holding my breath for the Chinese government to make the code available). And I don’t want to feed either the cyber-warfare hype machine or the anti-China sentiment being pushed by self-interested parties.

My point is this: we’re excited by the potential of networked conversation and collaboration. It has tremendous potential when control is in the hands of many. But there’s a real danger when centralized control intersects with networked power. And those of us who see the positive power and transformative potential of the web need to pay attention to that danger.

Both because we may not like the way governments respond to it (or exploit it), and because we might have solutions of our own to offer. Anyone for a cyber-peace movement?