Behind the Screens - By Eric Buchman
 
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You’re supposed to watch TV shows, not try to write them. Remember?

Falling for a TV show takes a leap of faith. Will the cast members you like most stick around? Will the writing hold up over time? Will the network keep ordering new seasons? There are many ways for a show to break your heart, and it’s totally outside your control. Or was, anyway.

For decades, TV fans were almost completed insulated from the people who make TV. If your favorite show faced cancellation, you could write a letter. Or send Tabasco sauce. But organized campaigns to save struggling shows required a fair amount of effort and a lot stamps. They didn’t happen often.

Technology has changed all that. Organizing a campaign to save your favorite show is now just a couple clicks – and a few seconds – away. For better and worse.

“Successful” efforts to save shows are so common, it makes me wonder just how in endangered these shows actually were. It’s hard to tell the difference between a real grassroots effort to save a show and one driven by marketers to boost ratings.

Take ABC’s Happy Endings, for example. When the show was moved to Friday nights in 2013 (not a good sign for a show aimed at young people who aren’t home on Friday nights), fans panicked. They started a legitimate campaign on social media to save the show. ABC then took the unusual step of actually acknowledging the fan campaign in commercials on the network itself.

The network aired promos that basically admitted the show was on the verge of cancellation and implored its fans to take action, to prevent that from happening. It was the equivalent of holding up an adorable rabbit and screaming: “Stop us from killing this bunny!”

It was a vexing move. It was also an unsuccessful one, as the show still got axed. I truly believe ABC was hoping to help the show by backing the fan campaign. A better way to help the show, though? Not cancelling it.

Happy Endings Cancellation

Technology has made “save our show” campaigns a ubiquitous part of the modern TV experience. It’s a great development, but the empowering of viewers doesn’t stop there. Superfans are now using their newfound powers to not just save their favorite shows – but also to change them. This, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is not a great development.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this piece discusses a recent plot development on Grey’s Anatomy that you’ve probably heard out whether you’re a fan of the show or not.

Within 48 hours of Meredith Grey tearfully pulling the plug on her lover McDreamy last Thursday night, a fan had taken to Change.org to start a petition to un-pull that plug. As of this writing, the petition has nearly 90,000 “signatures.”

The Internet is fast, but TV production is slow.

Despite the hefty number of supporters, the petition has been met with a great deal of ridicule due to its over-the-top rhetoric, which I won’t rehash here. OK, I’ll rehash it a little. I was particularly struck by the petitioner’s need to point out how “FINE” — her word, her all-caps — Patrick Dempsey looked before his character died, and how his handsomeness made the character’s death even more emotionally devastating. What?

The Grey’s petition is not the first of its kind. In December, a Walking Dead fan turned to Change.org to bring back a deceased character on that show. (Heads up: Don’t click on the link if you’re not caught up on season 5.)

Both petitions seek to “undo” a fictitious character’s death, but that’s about all they have in common. The Walking Dead petition is short and respectful in tone. The Grey’s Anatomy petition is neither of those things. The Walking Dead petition closes with a heartfelt appeal to the actress whose character got killed off. The Grey’s petition closes with a veiled threat to Shonda Rhimes and a demand that Patrick Dempsey change his mind about leaving and return to the show.

The Walking Dead Bring Back Dead

Guess which one the show’s writers and producers give more thought to?

In truth, neither petition is going to achieve its goal. The Internet is fast, but TV production is slow. It’s also incredibly complicated. The decision to kill off a popular character is not made lightly. Do TV producers ever mess up? Sure. TV is both commerce and art, and the two don’t always mesh very well. But you know what else does go well with art? Crowd-sourcing plot points.

The barrier between content creators and content consumers has never been thinner. But just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should. Because angry tweets tend to represent exactly 0.4 seconds worth of effort, they don’t really carry much weight. Social media might allow easier access to writers and actors, but that access is diluted. In a weird way, after all the progress we’ve made technologically, the best way to get an entertainer’s attention is still through old-fashioned snail mail. I’m being totally serious.

Technology has made “save our show” campaigns a ubiquitous part of the modern TV experience.

That doesn’t mean social media doesn’t have any influence. Of course it does. You just need to wield that tool wisely. Positivity carries much more weight than negativity. If there’s a character on a show that you feel deserves more screen time, champion them online. Quote them. GIF them. Give them the Tumblr treatment.

I’ve worked in a half-dozen different writers’ rooms and I can say, without a doubt, that there’s nothing more satisfying that writing for a character that you know fans really love – especially someone who isn’t a star of the show.

It’s also OK to vent. Venting can be very healthy. It can be fun. Being a TV viewer doesn’t mean you have to take every plot development in stride. But when that venting crosses over into outright hostility with personal insults and outlandish demands? Well … viewer discretion is seriously advised.