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TV fan groups thrive on the Net

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Trekkies, infamous for their diehard devotion to Star Trek, no longer have to wait for a yearly pilgrimage to the local convention center to engage in their favorite fan activities. The Internet has made it possible for fans to exchange zines, scripts, program minutia, videotapes and to even chat with William Shatner online. What's more, new fan communities have blossomed as regular viewers take to the Net as 'Ab-fabbies,' 'X-Filers,' and 'My So-Called Lifers.' The question seems to be whether these fan groups foster critical viewing practices, or whether they just provide the networks free access to the minds and wallets of their audiences.

At first glance, discussions of the banal seem to dominate fan news groups. On and Lois and Clark, for instance, fans did battle over the preferred length of star Terri Hatcher's hair. On, on the other hand, much energy was put into deciphering the geographic origins of a minor character's accent from Absolutely Fabulous.

But if you dig deeper you'll see many innovative practices which question stereotypes of TV viewers as passive, manipulated dupes. Network ploys to use online fan activities for their own benefit have often been derailed by online TV communities, for instance. Originally designed as an avenue for viewers to comment on current programming, America Online's Tube Talk bulletin board was appropriated by fans as a forum for discussion, the exchange of fan writings and resources, and a site for consumer activism.

Last winter, right under the eyes of ABC, a large group of teenage girl-fans mobilized on AOL to save My So-Called Life, a show with an angst-ridden 15-year old in the starring role. Their group, Operation Life Support, received nearly 11,000 email messages from those seeking to save the doomed show and eventually raised enough money from viewers to take out full page ads in both the Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

Other fans subvert the network system by ignoring copyright laws and creating scripts, photos, videos, audio tapes, and even multimedia CD-ROMs that expand upon and alter materials taken from network programs. Henry Jenkins, a professor at MIT, claims these creations stem from a desire to 'fix' aspects of the television text that are unsatisfying. Jenkins says this kind of fan response involves both adoration and frustration, a combination that does lead to 'active engagement.' The growth of TV fan groups appears to have provided just that -- a space to celebrate, gripe about, and alter network programming

Original to Utne Reader Online, August 1995.

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