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Work with fans, not against; tv execs

Teghan Barton

Congress 2012 Correspondent

Continuing the Big Thinking Lecture Series, Tuesday night Don Tapscott spoke about how we are at a crossroads of the end of the industrial state and the future that lies before us to achieve. What this future looks like is unknown, but Tapscott is confident that it lies in the hands of the tech-savvy youth who value openness, collaboration and collective thinking.

The lecture was incredibly engaging and I left with my mind full of questions and possibilities. Tapscott spoke to the fact that the current form of information and entertainment dissemination is the “best technology the 17th century can provide”, that those at the top or in the centre merely push out standardized forms of knowledge to a passive audience.

This is the format that contemporary film and television studios work under; they want their viewers to sit obediently in their living rooms, at the assigned time and watch the program. Do not talk about it, do not express your love for it, but please continue to watch fervently until we tell you not to. This approach comes in direct conflict with the realities and expectations of fan culture.

Fan culture, or fandom, is a primarily online community made up of thousands of unique ‘fandoms’; with a fandom being based around a specific movie, television show, book series, computer game, etc. There is a fandom for every media product. People from all over the world gather in self-organized spaces to celebrate their fandom through fanfiction, fanart, filk, etc.

The fanart element has been targeted lately by copyright laws and conglomerate companies, with everyone from individual users to online storage facilities being attacked. This ‘War on the Internet’ is responsible for the recent shutdowns of Megavideo, MegaUpload, mininova, and the frequent attacks to torrenting giant thepiratebay.

The issue here is specifically in regards to screencaps, not the ‘illegal’ hosting of movies, shows, etc. Fans all over the world make and share screencaps of their beloved programs with other fans all over the world. They then turn these images into beautiful and fun fanart which you would see on tumblr. These expressions of love are completely harmless and nearly all of it is produced with reverence to the original source material. It is not a group of digital thugs stealing “property” and yet, cappers and artists are under attack.

Shutting down screencapers, their hosting sites, and the people who make harmless fanart is ridiculous, both from a business standpoint and a logical one. When a television show becomes successful, communities pop up in all corners of the internet and fans celebrate its existence. Through this celebration, loyalty is born and free advertising; people will continue to watch and they will bring in other consumers via digital word-of-mouth. The power of fandom is not something to be overlooked…just ask Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, or Barack Obama.

From a business standpoint, it makes no sense. Screencaps and fanart are not the actual product, so there is no lost money on them. I could have frame-by-frame screencaps of an episode of The Good Wife, but it doesn’t mean that I can watch the episode or share it. Fanartists have already consumed your product; engaging with the content on another platform doesn’t change this.

In fact, people engaging with a narrative in this manner actually increases the success and viability of that product. The fact that producers have not acknowledged this indicates that they really have no idea how fandoms work or how sites like livejournal and tumblr are actually incredibly useful tools.

Viewers fulfill their end of the media contract, they consume the product in the (passive) manner in which producers prefer, and yet when they dare to take their engagement one step further, they are attacked with lawsuits.

If network-style producers want to survive the tidal wave of change that is coming their way (and it is coming; the way we produce and consume entertainment will be vastly different in the coming years), they need to stop fighting with their key supporters.

Engage with your audience, let them know you value them. Actually, scratch that, producers need to actually start caring about their audiences first before they can show it. Viewers are not mindless drones waiting patiently for meaning to be pumped into their lives via your “products” and producers can start by accepting that fact.

Work with these communities, encourage fanworks, provide them with the materials. If networks are so bent on stopping file-sharing, then they should be offering HQ screencaps available for download on their own websites. It’s a small thing compared to the vast number of issues facing the industry, but it is one thing that would go a long way.

As Tapscott says, producers need to change their products into a service. Network producers see their shows as a product and behave accordingly but the rest of us, the passive audience, see it as a service.

Photo courtest of tumblr