Fanning the Flames - Broadcasting & Cable

Fanning the Flames

Using guerrilla tactics, devotees protest canceled shows
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They sent bouquets of pink roses to Today
star Katie Couric and Fox News anchor Rita Cosby. And more flowers to Sci Fi Channel chief Bonnie Hammer and CNN's Paula Zahn. On every card, the plea was the same: Help us save Crossing Over With John Edward. The admirers? Fan group SaveJohnEdwardTV.com, the latest media-savvy posse trying to rescue a beloved show. They want a reprieve for Crossing Over, nixed by Universal Television in broadcast syndication and scratched from the Sci Fi Channel lineup.

Touching, sure. Successful, rarely. "The audience the industry listens to is the Nielsen audience," says Don Ohlmeyer, veteran producer and former NBC West Coast chief.

But fans—don't forget, the word is a shortening of fanatic—are a persistent breed. Well informed and schooled in modern guerilla tactics, they take their message to the street—and the suites. Learning that letters from unknowns are trashed in a post-9/11 world, fans of Angel,
canceled by The WB, sent postcards rather than letters in protest.

Another tried-and-true tactic to spread their message: the Internet. Many groups distribute information and take donations online. "We know there is a slim chance this will achieve what we want," says Lisa Rowe, Webmaster and leader of SavingAngel.com, "but we feel like it is time to take a stand."

And these hardy campaigners aren't deterred by defeat. They just up the ante. In 1988, fans of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman
held vigils trying to save their show. When The WB's short-lived Tarzan
disappeared into the jungle this season, loyalists sent baskets of bananas (which Warner Bros. sent on to a homeless shelter).

On occasion, a fan crusade can nudge waffling executives to give a show one more season. CBS did it with Cagney & Lacey
in 1984, and The WB followed suit in 2001 with Felicity. Fan letters helped keep Designing Women
in production after CBS decided it wasn't a perfect fit. Those success stories fuel the fire of the faithful.

Like all crusaders, they just want to help studio and network executives see the light. "There is an interest. I'm not sure why some executives are not paying attention," says SaveJohnEdwardTV organizer Marcia Secaur, who works at a Cincinnati brokerage firm. She accepts that Crossing Over
may be history but says Edward isn't. "Maybe he could have a talk show or have other guests and do interviews."

That's enough to make the Crossing Over
guru misty. Says Edward, "I am moved by the amount of people who have been touched by my work and the show."

Now fans have fixated on The WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer
spinoff. When The WB clipped Angel
last month, viewers flipped. "I am a 41-year-old freelance Web designer. Why be devastated?" asks SavingAngel.com's Rowe. "There seems to be a growing lack of quality television these days, especially scripted dramas."

Through its Web site, Saving-Angel.com rallied fans and raised more than $17,000. Now they are winging their way to Hollywood. The group placed ads in trade papers and planned a rally March 12 outside Warner Bros. headquarters. They sent flowers to The WB chief Jordan Levin. And, for the next two weeks, a mobile billboard will roam Hollywood proclaiming, "We'll Follow Angel to Hell ... Or Another Network."

Some canceled shows aren't the worst
program on a network, fans point out. Angel
may not produce American Idol- or Survivor-caliber numbers, but it is a decent performer. Sniffs Rowe, "The WB shouldn't be scoffing at consistent ratings in any show it has."

Often, it is sci-fi and fantasy shows like Angel
and Buffy
that enjoy particularly strong cult followings. Naturally, there's a louder roar when the axe falls. When The WB considered dumping Roswell, fans sent mini bottles of Tabasco sauce (the characters loved the stuff). The show lasted one more season on The WB and one more on UPN.

Such devoted fans are great, but Nielsen ratings are better. Says Sci Fi's Hammer, "The bottom line is the money you spend on the original versus the money it receives." Fans, she says, can be a factor but don't close the deal.

Some groups take cues from the fans of sci-fi series Farscape. The save-Farscape
efforts impressed everyone. After Hammer was quoted talking about "broadening" her net's appeal, they sent cartons of bras. "The tone, the cleverness, and the pure classiness blows me away," Hammer says. But it's not changing her mind; Sci Fi canceled the show.

There is, however, an internationally produced miniseries in the works, which could land on Sci Fi. You might want to write Bonnie a letter.

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