Save-our-show fan campaigns thriving in age of social media and streaming

TORONTO — TV fans have gone to great lengths to save cancelled shows over the years — from the mass consumption of foot-long submarine sandwiches to the mailing of thousands of pounds of peanuts and heaps of hand-written letters.

These days it seems such efforts are gaining more traction than ever, with social media and crowdfunding platforms giving a voice to fans, and streaming services providing new avenues for axed shows to live on.

Earlier this month the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine returned for a sixth season after getting cancelled by Fox last May and then picked up by NBC just a day later. The pickup happened amid a social media campaign featuring the hashtags #Save99 and #Renew99.

“It’s more instantaneous, your ability to affect that sort of change, because everyone has a voice, everyone has a platform,” This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown said in an interview last summer.

“So big up to the fans of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I got a chance to do an episode and so now hopefully, maybe I can do one more.”

Other shows that have been resurrected in recent months include The Expanse, Designated Survivor, Last Man Standing and Lucifer.

But there are reasons beyond the power of fans and social media for the trend, says Toronto filmmaker Michael Sparaga, who looks at the history and evolution of such viewer-driven campaigns in the new documentary United We Fan.

Out on DVD and VOD Tuesday, United We Fan profiles grassroots efforts to save shows — like when hordes of Chuck lovers bought foot-long Subway sandwiches as part of an online campaign to convince the company to keep sponsoring the show, or the time Jericho viewers sent large quantities of nuts to CBS and media outlets in a nod to the word “nuts” being said in the final episode.

“As more streaming services start, like NBC is starting their streaming service, you’re going to see them look heavily at their catalogue of things they own the rights to,” says Sparaga, whose film premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival last April.

“I think you’ll see each network start to look through its library to get that initial boost of fans. Some will be revivals and some will be reboots.”

Streaming services are hungry for established brands because they already have a built-in following and might lure in new subscribers who want to see their beloved characters, Sparaga says, pointing to Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access.

Networks are also looking to shows of yore to hold on to viewers who still have cable, he adds.

A slew of shows have made a comeback in the past couple of years and many more are either in development or rumoured to be, including Veronica Mars, Cagney and Lacey, Frasier, Mad About You, Designing Women and The 4400.

The trend is happening in Canada, too, with a revival of CBC’s Street Legal set to premiere March 4 — more than 20 years after the original series came to an end.

“If I’m a production executive, I would be like, ‘Get me a TV Guide from 1995’ and I would sit there and be like, ‘Can we reboot this? Can we reboot this?’” Sparaga says.

“My stepmom is never going to give up her cable, because now Murphy Brown is back and she heard that Mad About You is coming back and Designing Women and Cagney and Lacey. … It’s just crazy how much they’ll throw at them to keep them from cutting the cord.”

TV stars say the revival trend underscores forceful changes in the industry.

“It’s really exciting that you don’t need 16 million viewers necessarily and that a show can move to various different places and there aren’t just four networks anymore,” says I Feel Bad star Paul Adelstein.

“Never underestimate the power of your fans and your viewers,” adds Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry, “because the people will speak and the people will be heard no matter what.”

But while it seems fans have more power than ever to help their favourite network shows find new life, Sparaga says the same might not be true for shows that have exclusively been on streaming services.

“There’s so much material now, I think it’s hard to have a fan campaign for a streaming show,” Sparaga says.

“I love Stranger Things and my friends love Stranger Things but we certainly don’t talk about each individual episode, because we’re all watching it at different times. We just essentially recommend the show as a whole.

“We don’t have, like, a week to talk and think about the episode and just be on that show and wait for the next one — and that builds fandom.”

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