The Internet Effect
hen the writers of The Simpsons began lurking on the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup in the mid 1990s, the distance between the production of a television show and its fan base shrunk immeasurably. Though the debt was never directly acknowledged, the show began to include inside jokes within episodes, using phrases and abbreviations used by Internet fans. The fans responded excitedly, because their favorite show was directly addressing their concerns, and more importantly, addressing the fans themselves.
Prior to Internet message boards, television writers connected to viewers in a much more removed way: through fan mail, reviews, Nielsen ratings, and network focus groups. But as television writers and viewers have connected through the Internet, the writing of shows has changed to reflect its audience, and oftentimes the writing of a television show becomes a discourse with its viewers. Credit Television Without Pity and its message boards, which bustle with postings immediately after a show airs, but more so its snarky recaps. These lengthy and comprehensive accounts cover every aspect of a show, from acting to plotlines to the fashions of its characters. Though meant to be humorous, they can also be taken as an indirect address to the creators and writers of shows. And they have been. Certain shows over the past five years of TWoP have maintained a close call-and-response type relationship with the viewing audience of these recaps and of the message boards.
FOX’s 2001 comedy Undeclared, for instance, utilized TWoP to help try to save the show from cancellation. The show, which came from the creators, writers, and talent of the acclaimed but canceled Freaks and Geeks, aimed to continue the same brand of humor found in its predecessor, only this time set in a contemporary college dorm setting. From the beginning TWoP and other viewers revered it, even as the show failed to find a large, mass audience. And as a result, the TWoP recaps of Undeclared began to be a loving tribute to a program that not enough people were watching.
Shortly into the show’s run, FOX cut the season order down from 22 to 18 episodes. Frustrated in much the way they had been with the response to Freaks and Geeks, the writers of Undeclared turned to the Internet to connect with the show’s loyal viewers. Series creator Judd Apatow and writer and co-star Seth Rogen invited TWoP’s Undeclared recapper to interview them for the site to discuss their frustration with the network.
As it became clear that cancellation was imminent, the writers began to change the course of the show in acknowledgement of its loyal fans—connecting the male and female leads, Steven and Lizzie, though that had not been their original intention for the first season. And in the series finale the British ladies’ man Lloyd was finally referred to as “Heath,” which had been TWoP’s nickname for star Charlie Hunnam (due to his uncanny resemblance to Australian actor Heath Ledger). In the case of Undeclared, TWoP and other sites became a safe place for the show’s creators among fans, and it was a place where they could find comfort in knowing that their labor was not falling on deaf ears.
While Undeclared represented a quality show covered by TVWoP, FOX’s hit The OC is recapped as the “so bad that it’s good” train wreck that it is. When The OC debuted in 2003, people loved it for its backstabbing bitchiness, awkward pop culture references, and its ability to guide a storyline exactly where the viewers wanted it to go. In November 2004 when its second season premiered, fans were in an uproar over how much had changed. The writers had clearly grown sick of the staid equilibrium that they had achieved in the first season, and began to introduce new characters that would serve to break apart all the relationships that fans had loved in the first season.
As ratings began to decline, series creator and writer Josh Schwartz turned to TWoP to read what the fans had to say. He found thousands of angry fans on message boards turning against him and the direction of his show. The full-length recaps of the episodes had become brutal. The recaps had become lengthy attempts to figure out the lapses in logic and the implausibility of many plotlines. As a result, Schwartz began to pull away from the secondary characters of the second season and switched focus back to the way things used to be. Not only did “the way things used to be” become a theme for the second half of the second season, Schwartz has admitted to planting references to TWoP throughout this transition.
Sandy and Kirsten, the adult leads and fan favorites, began to face marital discord, when a long-lost flame emerged needing his legal help and personal support. Sandy came to a moment when he could either help this woman, thus jeopardizing his marriage or return to mend his relationship with Kirsten. In his attempt to relieve his life of the other woman by driving her to safety, they ran into a washed out road on a California highway. The improbability of such a turn of events led Kirsten to react just as the viewing audience would respond at this point: “Right, the conveniently washed out road,” mocking the shows own plot conveniences on which they had become so reliant.
In the DVD commentary for the episode “The Rainy Day Women,” Schwartz admitted that this scenario had been a plant for TWoP. As the season progressed other references were made to TWoP jokes, such as making fun of Marissa Cooper’s bad taste in hats. Now halfway through its third season, The OC is back to equilibrium: nearly all the relationships that existed in the beginnings of the series are back to they way they were. Yielding to the desires of fans, Schwartz used TWoP as both a way to subtly interact with fans and as a gauge to understand where plotlines should go.
The inclusion of TWoP into the writing process of a show begs the question: What place does the viewer have in the creative process of television production? Is this the next logical step, as McLuhan puts it, of television as a “cool medium” in which an audience must bring more interaction to the entertainment process or does viewer response just muddle the artistic vision of a television writer? Only time will tell.
By: George Jenkins
Published on: 2006-02-01