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Television and the Marketplace of Ideas, Part Three: The Possibility of Viewer-Financed "Cult" Shows

Tuesday, Jun. 06, 2006

In the first and second columns in this series, I discussed how to free viewers from having to pay for, or watch, content (including ads) that they dislike. In this column, I'll investigate the flip-side of this issue: How can we ensure viewers have access to the content they will like the most?

In particular, I'll ask: How can we avoid the "tyranny of the majority," to ensure that shows with a small, devoted following succeed?

I don't think the FCC should intervene here - due the risk of its effectively prescribing content. But I do think networks and cable providers should be more creative in trying to answer this question; after all, First Amendment "marketplace of ideas" values are at stake.

Cult Network Shows: Could They Be Made Profitable On a Different Model?

Although the television market's ability to match viewer preferences has improved - as I discussed in the first and second columns in this series -- there are still a lot of disgruntled viewers. They wonder why well-reviewed shows with millions of fans are cancelled; most, I think, would be happy to pay to continue to see their favorite shows, if given the chance. DVDs allow them to see unaired episodes, but not the new ones they crave.

Of course, executives can't be faulted for watching the financial bottom line. But can the network business model change in a way that both honors that bottom line and allows viewers to get access to the shows they want to see?

These "cult" audiences would still be huge in, say, the world of book publishing - and no one has yet tested how much they would be willing to pay to keep their favorites accessible, or to fund new content more to their liking than current offerings.

How Networks Currently Try to Save "Cult" Shows

Cancelled "cult" shows include the comedy "Arrested Development," and Joss Whedon's sci-fi drama "Firefly," both on Fox. A more recent example is ABC's comedy "Sons and Daughters" - co-created by Nick Holly and Fred Goss. The frustrated Goss, writing in his blog, dreams of going "straight to Internet" with his shows in the future - and offers a tongue-in-cheek apology: "I'm sorry ABC. I'm sorry we didn't prove ourselves to be a better business model against American Idol."

Goss's "apology" highlights another problem for "cult" shows: They may die when time-slotted against competition with broader appeal (thought they may also succeed as "counter-programming").

Sometimes networks do try to save cult shows, by pairing them with hits. NBC will pair the critically-acclaimed American version of "The Office" with "My Name Is Earl." (IPod video downloads are also credited with giving "The Office" new life.) And the new CW network - which is the merger of UPN and The WB, assets of CBS and Time Warner - will pair the cult hit "Veronica Mars" with "Gilmore Girls."

But these attempts to save cult shows, while laudable, still aren't ideal: Why should "The Office" be punished if it fails to appeal to the particular audience for "Earl," which caters to a much broader, less deadpan sense of humor?

The Advantages - and Perils - of Cable

Often, cult show viewers complain that the show was not given time to "find its feet." There was a world of difference in quality between the shaky first, and the brilliant last, season of "Six Feet Under" - yet that show was allowed to flourish, thanks to HBO's flexibility and confidence in its writers and actors.

Why, viewers ask, can't network shows get the same leeway? They cite examples such as Tim Minear's serial killer drama "The Inside" - another Fox show. (I don't mean to bash Fox in particular. Indeed, its problem may be that it greenlights too many good shows. Other networks can hardly claim superiority when their own cancellations go unmourned!)

These viewers aren't just grousing; they're pinpointing market imperfections. Ideally, different financing systems ought to make shows with sizable - but not huge - audiences feasible. Potentially, such shows may be able to shift over, when networks cancel them, to become offerings on a la carte cable (where viewers pay by show, not by channel) - and their viewers may be able to move with them.

Will Viewers Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are?

Another intriguing possibility is that a la carte cable could actually fund the production of new episodes for beloved "cult" shows, if viewers are willing to pre-commit.

Indeed, such pre-commitments could also work at a very early stage, based on the strength of the genre, the writers, the actors, the director, and the like. (After all, doesn't virtually everything that, for example, J.J. Abrams -- of "Alias" and "Lost" - touches turn to gold?) Pilot scripts could be shown to viewers, not just execs, and viewers could put their money where their mouths are.

Moreover, the viewer payments could be not only subscriptions, but investments - securities that would pay off if the show did well. (I'd love to see indie movies financed this way, too.)

If a la carte cable did go in this direction, it seems likely that the networks would have to start catering to small, devoted audiences too, in their own ways - possibly by offering some programming on a subscription-only basis, or by doing more nuanced market research and using more targeted advertising for "cult" shows.

Are Viewers' Preferences Antithetical to Quality Television?

Throughout this column, I've more or less equated viewer preferences with quality television - an equation with which one could surely take issue. Obviously, not all popular shows are good, and not all good shows are popular.

Yet woe betide those who insist on the distinction: At the end of his recent New Yorker article on television, writer Tad Friend points out ruefully that Fox's Sandy Grushow, an executive who insisted that he'd "rather fail with quality than succeed with garbage," was rewarded only with the loss of his job.

Still, before one derogates viewer preferences, it's well worth noting that we haven't seen these preferences in their pure state - or anything like it. Even some shows that get to the pilot stage, or to an order of a first set of episodes, barely have a chance because they are neither high-concept nor easy to advertise; because networks put all their advertising behind only a few pilots; or because they are slated against crushing competition.

Here, too, market distortion is the culprit. Even if networks reasonably spend most of their promotion money on their top contenders, they still ought to give their other shows a fair shot -- by considering creative alternatives like targeted Internet promotion, which could involve advertising on sites appealing to a particular audience. It makes little sense to invest in a set of episodes, and then offer a show a level of promotion that is hardly better than radio silence.

Most viewers still don't have TiVo (or its competitors) to enable them to watch two competing shows, so they are forced to choose. As more and more viewers get TiVo-like systems, we may well find that their choices out of a large number of available shows seem "smarter" and "better," than the choices they make among limited time-slot-specific offerings. (By analogy, it seems the consensus is that American Idol viewers did a great job of sorting out the five or six best among twenty-four singers; their choices got much more controversial when they had to choose among just a few.)

In addition, if the theory of the "Long Tail" is right, television may be increasingly able to cater to minority tastes -- encouraging diversity, and very probably also encouraging the number of offerings that are top-quality in the critics' estimation.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, graduated from Yale Law School in 1992. She practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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