Couch Potatoes Unite!

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 alt.tv.lois-n-clark and Lois and
Clark
, for instance, fans did battle over the preferred length
of star Terri Hatcher’s hair. On alt.tv.abfab, 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.

Kryptonian Cybernet (subscriptions:
lists@phoenix.creighton.edu).

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