For most of the history of TV drama, storytelling has remained largely hierarchically and exclusionary, with writers and showrunners being privileged men recreating the works of other privileged men from previous generations (Penny 2014). For example, in his series of fantasy novels A Song of Ice and Fire, which became the basis for the popular TV show Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin appropriates ideas and elements from the seven-volume saga The Accursed Kings by French author Maurice Druon (Milne 2014). While “Games of Thrones” is, therefore, a product of this cultural mythmaking process (Penny 2014), the series also reflects the changing dynamics between TV programmes and fans in the contemporary world.
Websites and social media have dramatically changed fans relationship with TV programmes (Lawson 2014). Unlike the past whereby the audience’s only possible effect on a show was to raise or lower rating figures, audiences now have the opportunity to engage in interactive discussions with viewers and the creators and producers of shows (Lawson 2014). This increases the influence of fans over the writing process as creators develop an awareness of fandom communities and incorporate fans’ ideas in order to build dedicated viewership and ensure long-term success (Maloney 2014). This is evident in Games of Thrones whereby by fan theories and online speculation influences Martin’s writing process while also giving him new ideas for his remaining two novels, such as the inclusion of homosexual point of view characters (‘Game of Thrones’ Fans Already Guessed the Ending?’ 2014).
The popular sci-fi show Doctor Who is an example of another TV programme that actively engages with its fanbase (Penny 2014). While there has been recent debate on the Internet about the political correctness of a female Doctor Who, the show’s writers did not cave into societal expectations, announcing that they “…didn’t feel enough people wanted it” (MacDonald 2013), with many female Doctor Who fans actually opposed to the casting of a woman in the role (MacDonald 2013).
There are, however, a number of problems inherent in this fan-based approach (Penny 2014). Consider, for example, the opening episode of the third season of the British television crime drama Sherlock which not only recognised, but incorporated many online theories over how Sherlock survived a rooftop fall (Joyner 2014). In catering to this online fan base and demolishing the “fourth wall” (Joyner 2014), the show failed to appeal to a broader audience, with the way Sherlock cheated death being almost incomprehensible to new or casual viewers (Lawson 2014). This learning is equally relevant to the process of cultural translation of comedy, in which enabling audiences to belong by sharing the joke, or, in this case sharing ideas with other fans and creators, is essential to constructing national identity (Turnbull 2008, p.112).
Some critics also argue that people overestimate the impact fans have on creators, with Sherlock’s onscreen acknowledgment of fandom being “little more than lip service” (Maloney 2014), constructing the notion of intimacy and of being heard, yet, in actual fact, leading to no real fundamental changes in the show (Maloney 2014). This is largely because writers are unwilling to cede authority to fans, instead, utilising these fan-producer relationships to tap into fan’s buying power, leading a highly profitable industry (Maloney 2014) as evident in the fan fiction movie The Avengers which accrued the biggest box office of 2012, grossing over $1 billion worldwide (Joyner 2014). This suggests that the power still lies within a handful of professionals who are ultimately pursuing business, rather than personal, relationships with fans, despite their wishful thinking (Maloney 2014).
Whilst it has become profitable to provide content that caters towards a narrow band of obsessive (Maloney 2014) diehard fans over a general audience (Joyner 2014), it is still essential for successful shows such as Doctor Who and Sherlock to aim towards introducing new viewers (Lawson 2014), particular as fans become increasingly cynical towards producers’ motives (Maloney 2014).
‘Have ‘Game of Thrones’ Fans Already Guessed the Ending?’ 2014, Variety, weblog post, 12 August, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/game-of-thrones-ending-fans-guess-1201281422/>.
Lawson, M 2014, ‘Sherlock and Doctor Who: beware of fans influencing the TV they love’, Guardian, 3 January, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2014/jan/03/sherlock-doctor-who-fans-influencing-tv>.
MacDonald, H 2013, ‘Stephen Moffat hits at a harsh truth in explaining why Doctor Who isn’t a woman’, The Beat, weblog, 8 June, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://comicsbeat.com/stephen-moffat-hits-at-a-harsh-truth-in-explaining-why-doctor-who-isnt-a-woman/>.
Maloney, D 2014, ‘Sherlock Isn’t the Fan-Friendly Show You Think It Is’, Wired,weblog, 24 January, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://www.wired.com/2014/01/sherlock-fandom/>.
Milne, B 2014, ‘Game of Thrones: The cult French novel that inspired George RR Martin’, BBC News Magazine, 4 April, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26824993>.
Penny, L 2014, ‘Laurie Penny on Sherlock: The Adventure of the Overzealous Fanbase’, NewsStatesman, 12 January, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/01/sherlock-and-adventure-overzealous-fanbase>.
Turnbull, S 2008, ‘It’s Like They Threw a Panther in the Air and Caught It in Embroidery’: Television Comedy in Translation’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no.159, p.110-115.
Joyner, A 2014, ‘Sherlock and the Power of Fan Fiction’, International Business Times, 12 January, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/sherlock-power-fan-fiction-1432059>.
‘221 Baker Street’ 2011, header image, cat5andmouse, weblog, accessed 26 September 2014, <http://cat5andmouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/sherlock-a-study-in-perfection/>.