The Long Tail of Fandom: Why this time Joss Whedon’s show isn’t cancelled

Once again, Joss Whedon’s latest television show, Dollhouse, like Buffy, Angel, and Firefly before it, was on the verge of cancellation. But not this time. Why? I think it is the recognition of the long tail of fandom.

According to the Washington Post’s TV blog:

Fox ordered a second season of “Dollhouse” which, some industry navel-gazers note, may be the lowest-rated series ever to get a renewal in the history of broadcast TV….

A case of the tail wagging the dog you say? … Not at all. Because, starting this season: Broadcast TV is the new tail.

This season it’s all about that “other stuff” that does so much to make a network’s parent-company happy.

Yes, some of the reason for the renewal has to do with symbiotic ownership — by owning both the show and the producing studio, more ad dollars can be kept in house. But the long tail of fandom is equally important.

So what is the impact of the long tail of fandom? In 2006, Henry Jenkins discussed fandom’s long tail about Joss Whedon’s previous series/movie Firefly/Serenity.

if we follow the logic of the Long Tail, success on one end of the tail depends on deep commitments from a relatively narrow fan base (that’s what Firefly had) and on the other end, on superficial commitments from a broader range of viewers (and that’s what Snakes on a Plane has.) I doubt anyone really has the same level of passion for Snakes as they have for Firefly. It’s a fun lark — a one night stand, a vacation movie romance. But it isn’t a once in a lifetime passion.

Joss Whedon now has built up a highly successful fandom base. Jenkins states that

Serenity had one of the most committed fan bases in media history and they would have followed Whedon anywhere

Creating and sustaining new fanbases these days is becoming increasingly difficult. Since Jenkins wrote his post three years ago, there has been an increasing drop in television audiences, new ways that people are using their free time (such as Facebook & Twitter), and the video game industry is picking up much of the remainder.

The huge returns for two movies based in the long-standing fandoms of X-Men and Star Trek, show the ways that the long tail of truly dedicated fandom can still pay out for corporate owners over time. And considering Whedon’s long highly successful fandom track record, it likely makes financial sense to keep a show where fans will always buy the merch even if the overall ratings are bad.

Full disclosure: For me as a viewer, I have experienced Whedon’s work as an example of another type of long tail — diminishing returns!, liking each next thing he does less than the ones before.

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Comments (1)

Bottom line…those .com and DVR watchers are the weight that dropped the teeter-totter to the ‘renew’ side. Now that the Big 3(4) are willing to look at those viewers as a viable fan-base I think there’s going to be a definite switch in how the networks are deciding on what to and what not to renew.

As far as diminished returns…I don’t feel that way. Buffy was pretty much ass in the first season–not a cohesive show. Firefly the same way. Angel gets a pass because it was a spin-off that already had the fan-base and growing pains out of the way when it comes to character development. Whedon is TVs version of a cross-country runner as opposed to a sprinter. He’s not fantastic coming off the line, but the longer he goes, the more momentum he builds.

I think Dollhouse has the potential to be a really great show not in spite of its differences to his other shows, but because of that difference, the last few episodes, regardless of the numbers in the viewing audience, proved that to a lot of long-time Whedon fans.

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