Television Networking: Disgruntled Viewers Are Using the Internet to Demand Creative Input into Their Favorite Shows

Article excerpt

Across the United States and the world each Sunday night during NBC's fall 1994 season, fans of the ultra-expensive, futuristic, submarine adventure show seaQuest DSV began comparing notes with one another after broadcasts. They kept in touch mainly through forums on various electronic-communication services offered by the "big three" on-line services (CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy) and the Internet. Though seaQuest suffered from poor writing and low ratings throughout the first season, it nevertheless attracted a solid core audience who liked the cast, the science-education dimension of the program and the family nature of the series.

However, viewers became upset when seaQuest -- once a high-minded science-fact series about ocean exploration -- hacked off much of the original cast and veered off course into the murky waters of sexed-up fantasy. The show acquired a few nicknames along the way: bayQuest 90210, Das Bomb, Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel and seaBreast. By December 1994, frustrated and disappointed viewers, armed with a whole lot of grit and determination, began to organize on-line to express their discontent.

In a direct challenge that could rock the TV industry, seaQuest viewers from 16 nations have become so well organized that they effectively have been demanding input in the creative direction of the series. A small cadre of U.S.-based on-line viewers planned their strategy methodically from their home computers after work. Initially they circulated a one-page petition on CompuServe's 3.2 million subscriber network. As the petition moved onto other on-line networks, thousands of signatures poured in from all over the globe (as the show was being syndicated worldwide) and a nascent viewers campaign attracted volunteer coordinators in key cities in many countries. Through a little detective work, the authors of the first petition managed to find the fax and phone numbers of NBC executives, which they proceeded to distribute to the campaign's on-line legion of disgruntled viewers. They published weekly updates, designed stationery, maintained mailing lists and harassed NBC with an aggressive but still volunteer-run press blitz. One fan devoted a World Wide Web page to the cause (accessible at the URL address http://www.best.com/"maryflr/p1-Intro.html).

The irony of the campaign was not lost on the volunteers: that a major TV network, accustomed to communicating on the basis of "one-to-many," was now receiving angry messages from viewers through an inherently democratizing, interactive public medium -- the Internet -- that seems to be especially good at facilitating what might be called "many-to-many" communications. …