My So Called Modem

With more and more TV-related sites going up on the internet, on-line efforts to save My So-Called Life could serve as a blueprint for fans of faltering shows.

by Steve Rhodes from the May 31, 1995 San Francisco Bay Guardian

In March, Sueann Ambrom of the Paramount Technology group, told a broadcasting industry Futures Summit, "We're looking at the intersection of online and TV. What does online bring to TV, and what does TV bring to online?" So far, the answer seems to be: The online community is bringing a lot to TV, but TV hasn't figured out what to bring online.

The networks have been flocking to the major online services and the internet since last year. CBS has an area on Prodigy and a Web site called Eye on the Net , ABC and NBC are on AOL and Fox is on Delphi. Locally KPIX, KGO and KQED have World Wide Web sites. Some of their sites have flashy graphics, but (like too much of what they put on the air) there isn't much content. (and KQED is the best of the local sites). Often fan created web sites are more interesting and creative than what the network or tv production companies have put online (one exception might be the P.O.V. Web site, which includes a schedule for the PBS series of documentary films and a report on what the P.O.V. team learned from their tenure last year on AOL).

The Ultimate TV List is a web page with links to internet resources on 294 shows. An increasing number are official sites from production companies or networks, but most are unofficial fan Web sites, episode guides, newsgroups, mailing lists and FAQs. If you want to be able to understand the doctor speak on ER or learn the guitar chords for the Friends theme song, you can pull up the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). FAQs are created in the hope that people won't ask the same questions over and over again on mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups. The conversations that take place among people from all over the world about TV shows can be pretty amazing. It is a way to keep tabs on every rumor and news item about a show. Important, trivial and humorous details about a show can be found in the FAQ:

25. AbFab on Sesame Street?

There are two muppets on Sesame Street (a PBS childrens show) modelled after Edina and Patsy. The two run around saying, "Sweetie" and "Darling!" Sort of a modern day, feminist Bert and Ernie. Let's hope for our children's sake that they don't drink, smoke, or snort coke.

After Aaron Barnhart had been the keeper of the FAQ for for a while, he decided he wanted more of a challenge. In January of 1994, he started Late Show News which he calls "a weekly sheet on late night television." It now has 7000 subscribers and thousands more read it on Usenet. Late Show staffer Christine Schomer says "Late Show News is highly respected and widely read here at Late Show. Speaking for myself, I am quite impressed by Aaron's insight into the overall mechanism of late night talk shows." Barnhart now also writes regularly on late night television for the Village Voice. In June of 1995, he participated in a discussion in ClubWired.

'Life' Support

The internet and on-line services have given fans of low rated shows a new way to organize to save the shows. When San Francisco writer Steve Joyner heard My So-Called Life was in trouble on ABC, he spent last Thanksgiving weekend writing a proposal for a campaign, Operation Life Support (OLS), to try and save the show. He wanted to let fans know the show needed to be saved and to raise money to take out an ad urging ABC to save the show.

Joyner says, "I'm not really a person who likes tv at all," but he was intrigued when he heard a report on NPR about My So-Called Life. He liked the show, but "was almost afraid to bring it up and talk about it with my friends since it was just a tv show." He was able to find people to discuss it with online.

He sent the proposal for OLS November 30 to people who had posted about the show on ABC's message boards on AOL and other on-ine services. Information was also posted on the My So-Called Life web page. Within a week, he had received more than $1000 in pledges. A New York Post reporter who was on-line wrote a December 7 storyabout the campaign. More media coverage followed.

A computer was installed on the set of My So-Called Life during the last three weeks of shooting, so they could read all the mail and messages about the show. On December 15, the cast sent a note: "Thanks for the messages of love and support. It means EVERYTHING to us and it really is making a difference!" Joyner says the all of the support helped boost their spirits despite the low Nielson ratings.

By January 26, when the last episode aired, OLS was getting hundreds of e-mail messages a day, $6000 had been contributed, and they were able to take out ads in Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Joyner thought it had accomplished its goal, but people wanted the effort to continue.

MTV started showing My So-Called Life episodes on April 19. It was unprecedented for a show on hiatus to be shown on a cable network and Joyner doesn't think it would have happened without OLS. A week into the run, MTV aired an interview with Joyner along with the OLS toll-free number. They received 25,000 phone calls and their operational costs skyrocketed. The group of volunteers from all over the country could not keep up with the response.

Joyner says they became "more of an information broker" providing news on the show people weren't getting from their local papers. OLS volunteers set up an auto-response E-mail system and a fax-on-demand service and are working on a self-published book, Fighting For 'Life': The Story of 'My So-Called Life' and the Effort to Save It, which will be out in June. With the money raised from sales of videos of the show and other contributions, OLS took out an ad in USA Today on May 11.

On May 15, Joyner learned, just two hours after the producers did, that My So-Called Life had been cancelled. He felt it was important that the people who had worked so hard know what happened before they read about it in the papers, so he quickly composed a message with a subject line that read: CLAIRE DANES BRINGS DEATH TO 'LIFE.

Joyner's note sparked a lot of criticism about Danes, the 16-year old star of the show, from some of My So-Called Life's loyal fans. Others defended her and were critical of Joyner for his message, which stated that Danes did not want to return to the show next season.

Joyner says he would have worded the subject of the message differently if he had had more time to reflect on it, but he stands by the substance of what he wrote. Danes says she would have gone back to the show had it been renewed and was been hurt by what has been written about her.

ABC unveiled its schedule on AOL on May 16. It was very different from what happened the previous day when NBC announced their schedule. On NBC most of the people in the chat rows (small groups of on-line chatters) were wondering if someone from ER or Friends woud be online. There were as many as 300 people in the ABC auditorium, and it seemed that most of them were there to see what had happened to My So-Called Life.

ABC rattled off its schedule and started bringing on stars from new shows on to answer questions. When Joe Busch of ABC finally mentioned something about My So-Called Life, people in the chat row I was in responded angrily.

While Busch praised the show, the AOL members heckled him, calling him an "asshole" and lusting for his blood.

Things got even worse when Busch noted that My So-Called Life's appeal was too "narrow" for it to survive on ABC. Reactions from the crowd ranged from stunned to hurt. They argued that it had done well in its limited run on MTV and mentioned the massive organizing efforts to save the show. Most of all, they couldn't stop talking about their dissapointment even as ABC trotted out stars like thirtysomething's Timothy Busfield, visiting cyberspace to promote his new sitcom from Dreamworks, The Champ, which is already line up as a mid-season replacement.

Joyner says on-line services and the Internet are "a great learning and communication tool, but these information and communication companies don't seem to be doing well in this new medium. They have to realize there is an online culture. They can't just respond like they would with a corporate memoradum. This really impacts on people."

Joyner is pessimistic about the networks and thinks the Nielsons are outdated. "It seems that 150,000 or 200,000 letters don't make a damn bit of difference. They aren't willing to stick with a prestige show anymore."

Operation Life Support's efforts have inspired fans of other shows to try their own on-line campaigns. NBC Vice-President for Scheduling and Programming, Preston Beckman, received e-mail from about 150 supporters of Earth 2 after he posted on NBC's AOL board asking for feedback. NBC still cancelled the show, but he earned the respect of many Earth 2 fans for responding to their questions. He is now seeking input on the next season for the show Sisters on one of the message boards.

Beckman says, "I find these online services valuable but realize that they do not reflect the typical viewer."

Late Show News
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Aaron Barnhart participated in a discussionon late night television in Club Wired on June 2, 1995.

Radio and independent producers may be able to better use the internet. Real Audio, a system for delivering sound in real time over the internet recently was introduced. While cable systems are still struggling to produce video on demand, radio on demand will soon be available. Nation Public Radio is starting to put their news programs on the web and will have pages devoted to Ira Glass' excellent year long series on a Chicago high school and middle school. Annaliza Savage is selling her documentary on hackers, Unauthorized Access, on the web and Paper Tiger TV (a video collective I'm a member of) will soon have their catalog online.

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Tom Tomorrow