Although not every showrunner explicitly positions his or her tweets as promotional in nature, a showrunner’s Twitter account is nonetheless a way viewers gain information that might enhance their connection with that series. While many showrunners avoid appearing as outright shills, only selling their show in a self-aware manner which can be passed off as a public performance of sorts, there is nonetheless an implicit expectation that part of a showrunner’s Twitter mandate is to encourage people to watch his or her show (and thus support his or her livelihood).
In recent months, however, a number of showrunners have faced a new challenge, in that they suddenly (or still) don’t have a show on the air to promote. In November, NBC announced its midseason schedule and neglected to provide a place for Community (a show created by Dan Harmon, who I discussed in the second installment of this series), while ABC announced its midseason schedule and still had no official starting date for Cougar Town, which sat on the bench for the fall season as co-creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel kept tweeting. Neither show has been canceled, although the latter did suffer an episode reduction, but the spectre of the “h-word” – hiatus – nonetheless looms large.
Part of the value of Twitter during such a hiatus is that you have the ability to keep your show in the public eye. Immediately upon news of Community’s hiatus, a #SaveCommunity hashtag emerged (in addition to #sixseasonsandamovie, which directly references a joke from an episode of the show, among others), which continues to be used a few months later as users link to fan petitions, YouTube videos, and other forms of audience engagement with the series.
However, while Harmon has not been silent regarding the series’ hiatus, these efforts have been driven largely by fans themselves. Harmon has certainly engaged with the discussions, like responding to a fan suggestion that the show be funded through a model similar to Louis C.K.’s recent successful self-distribution experiment, but he has not taken an active role in getting #SaveCommunity trending and has not dramatically changed his Twitter behavior to reflect the show’s new position.
By comparison, Lawrence and Biegel have chosen a more proactive approach, taking promotion into their own hands. When ABC announced their schedule for midseason and neglected to find a place for Cougar Town, instead choosing to push critically reviled Work It onto the air earlier this week, Lawrence was – and remains – unflinching in his frustration with the situation, and together with Biegel organized a multi-city screening event in which select groups of fans (chosen through Twitter and other social networks) are invited to special screeenings where they can hang out with cast and crew and, perhaps more importantly, watch a collection of Cougar Town episodes that ABC is choosing to keep on the shelf until later in the Spring.
There is a longer post to be written about these viewing parties in and of themselves, including their geographic dispersion (driven at least initially by the location of cast and crew over the holidays as opposed to traditional metrics like population) and the kinds of spaces (including wine bars, fitting given the role of wine-drinking in the series) chosen, but I am primarily interested in the leveraging of Twitter as a promotional tool (and suggest anyone interested in these questions more generally check out Candace Moore’s essay on parties organized for The L Word in Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries). This is not the first such campaign the two have organized on Twitter, although it is unquestionably the most involved (including custom Cougar Town Tour 2012 t-shirts for the lucky winners who have been able to attend the screenings, intended as promotional tools for them to wear in the months ahead). They recently organized a campaign soliciting fan-made promos when they felt that ABC was under-promoting the return of their series last April, offering signed scripts and other rewards to those who made the best amateur promos and posted them to YouTube.
While this use of fan labor practices is not uncommon, it is important to note that this is the showrunners interacting directly with fans rather than an officially sanctioned network marketing campaign. While not quite as organized, Harmon and other showrunners equally support this kind of behavior by linking to mash-up videos and other fan-made material, thus contributing to their spreadability and supporting non-traditional modes of promotion.
While the future of both shows remains uncertain, and it’s possible both will be renewed despite their respective hiatuses, that uncertainty nonetheless pushes fans into an activist mode, especially after the recent success of campaigns both before (CBS’ Jericho) and after (NBC’s Chuck) Twitter became a prominent discourse. While Lawrence and Biegel may be playing a more active role in cultivating this activism through their interactions with fans (and critics, planning their own renegade event at the annual January Press Tour after ABC chose not to offer a panel), directly involving them in organized efforts to promote the series’ eventual (but unclear) return, Harmon’s previous interactions with fans nonetheless position him as a central figure in encouraging and facilitating the activism that fans hope will keep the show alive – many Twitter users will tag Harmon in their posts using the #SaveCommunity hashtag in the hopes that he will retweet them (or, less cynically, simply to let him know that they are supportive of his show).
Indeed, for a showrunner to be on Twitter at all creates a regular interaction between show and audience which lays the foundation for simple involvement to become full-blown activism in the unfortunate circumstance that the series finds itself on the brink of cancellation. While we have not yet seen a full-blown fan campaign emerge predominantly on Twitter – with Chuck spreading largely through blogs and other social networks – and I would personally hope (given my appreciation for these two shows) that we are not on the verge of two full-blown case studies, showrunners on Twitter have helped create the networks necessary for those campaigns to exist and, potentially, flourish.