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Professor sees static in future

Fans now generate more publicity for new TV shows than big corporate campaigns, and their growing influence promises to create new alliances between citizen-viewers and producers -- but networks are not necessarily embracing these changes, according to Henry Jenkins, director of MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities.

In an essay titled "I Want My Geek TV," Jenkins outlines how fans, producers and television networks currently tug at the global entertainment fabric when new shows are introduced, extended or canceled.

In his article, published Nov. 1 in "Flow," an online forum on television and media culture, Jenkins envisions a future in which the global TV market is powered by fans.

The fans' efforts to influence networks break down the "walls between program producers and consumers as they make common cause against the networks," Jenkins writes.

Jenkins describes a world of subscription TV, in which "viewers commit to pay a monthly fee to watch a season of episodes delivered into their homes via broadband," bonding producers' interests to theirs.

The BBC has already announced it hopes to launch a version of subscription TV next year: all BBC-aired programs will be available for download off the web for up to a week after their broadcast date. Online, fans determine a show's global fate.

Fans' power will grow; they will soon become "niche marketers, helping to spread word about compelling new content, indexing and meta-tagging key moments in the series so that new viewers can get up to speed to central plot developments," Jenkins predicts in "Geek."

But, Jenkins points out, "Social, cultural, economic and legal factors also help determine what kinds of media change actually occur."

For example, not all networks want to share power with the fans. Jenkins cites the case of "Global Frequency," (GF) a science fiction/action/adventure series whose pilot episode, though hugely successful among fans, was cast into the outer darkness by network execs.

Based on a comic book series by Warren Ellis, GF features a secret transnational organization of ordinary people who respond to crises caused by the collapse of nation states and the emergence of global capitalism.

"The show created industry buzz when the pilot was being developed; the WB Network grabbed the rights; but, due to a shift in management, it got dumped," Jenkins writes.

Next came the network execs' acid reflux: An unauthorized copy of the GF pilot was leaked from WB and began circulating; it became the focus of a grassroots effort to get the series back into production.

"Global Frequency" had a cult following -- i.e. profitability -- before it even reached the air, but WB chose the "same saber-rattling they have been doing ever since they woke up one morning and found Napster on their kids' computers," Jenkins writes. Citing copyright issues, WB retrenched, and "Global Frequency" never aired on TV.

To read the full text of Jenkins' essay, visit Flow's web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 16, 2005 (download PDF).

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