From Star Trek to SuperWhoLock
For as long as popular media has existed, people have gathered to pore over its details, create derivative works, and formulate theories and analyses about it. When famed novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his character Sherlock Holmes, fans publicly mourned the death of the detective. The popularization of science fiction as a genre later on spawned masses of fans who would gather to discuss, theorize over, and create art and stories based on their favorite stories.
As television became a household commodity that popularized long-form programming, shows like Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. developed devoted fanbases. These fan groups were the precursors to modern fandoms, using mailing lists to circulate fanzines and letters the way modern fans now do online. In the 90s, “Trekkers” were more or less synonymous with obsessive fan culture—and even today, Star Trek fans are still known for their devotion to the franchise. They were even the first to “boldly go” into the then-uncharted space of slash fiction, now a cornerstone of many fandoms.
The internet now not only allows fans to connect with each other with greater ease than ever, but also leads them to discover new content on demand through popular streaming sites. As a result, the viewing habits of consumers have changed and these changes have also affected how fans interact with each other and the media properties they love.
The Rise of SuperWhoLock
In the early years of this decade, micro-blogging site Tumblr became a hub for fans to rally around the shows and movies they loved. Though, if you didn’t love one of the “Big Three” fandoms at the time, you might have been out of luck. Supernatural, Doctor Who, and BBC’s Sherlock ruled the platform—these shows were so popular and their fandoms so large that for a time they merged into one massive chimera fandom known as SuperWhoLock. Crossover art, fan fiction, and speculation about what Sherlock might think of the Doctor still remain buried in the depths of the site, and will likely survive until the platform finally collapses after the mass user exodus in the wake of its decision this month to remove all “explicit” content from the service.
What was behind the rise of these particular shows? Certainly, they all featured appealing adventure stories, handsome leads and plenty of potential for romantic pairings—indeed, fans didn’t even let the fact that the pair of protagonists in Supernatural were brothers stop them. But their ascendence also coincided with Netflix’s acquisition of full seasons of Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock for its growing streaming service in early 2012. Although these series were all airing on TV, as their content became more accessible on demand month, fans could suddenly consume multiple episodes at a time with ease.
Burgeoning communities on still-growing platforms sites like Reddit and Tumblr facilitated fan interactions, generating more and more interest and pulling in more viewers, leading to the rapid growth of these fandoms. This growth increased with the ongoing airing of new episodes on television, which Netflix would acquire at the end of each season.
The Short Boom and the Long Tail
As more streaming platforms like Hulu and Amazon Prime popped up, many of these platforms began to produce exclusive content of their own, in addition to streaming full seasons of network shows. This gave users the ability to stream new full seasons in one or a few sittings, rather than watching the season episode-by-episode spread across a traditional broadcasting year. And just like the introduction of series streaming changed fandoms by paving the way for SuperWhoLock, the proliferation of services with their own content—typically released as entire seasons at a time—is changing the landscape in its own way.
Online-exclusive shows generate the majority of their buzz within the first couple of weeks of their release, when a large portion of viewers will watch them in their entirety. More viewers will wander in as they carve out the time to consume the show in as few sittings as possible. This leads to a flash mob fandom, in which most content creation and discussion occurs within the first few weeks and then tapers off. New fans wander in during the later stages of the fandom’s already short lifespan, only to find that other fans are already moving on to the next big show. Amazon’s data appears to support this. As a result, fandoms may become smaller and experience more churn as not just sheer proliferation of media but the ways in which it is delivered to audiences changes how fans engage with it.
In the past, viewers would catch singular episodes on television and rush to talk about them with other fans, repeating this process week after week for several months as the audience grew through word of mouth. The rise of marathon or binge watching has created a dynamic where some viewers will deliberately wait until they have the time to watch multiple episodes of a show at once, often finishing a full season in one or two days. This likely decreases the amount of time people spend discussing the show—it’s harder to talk about what you think’s going to happen if everything’s already over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a major shift.
This doesn’t only apply to online-exclusive shows either. Many fans will now wait until full seasons of shows being aired on television appear on streaming platforms before catching up, rather than watching episode by episode as they air.
In this context, these shows seem more like long-form films than conventional television shows—arcs may be written with the expectation of rapid viewing, and an absence of traditional television time constraints allows the narrative to expand within, not just across episodes. Many fans absorb the full span of the show within a short time, leading them to lose interest more quickly without the slow drip of content to keep them engaged with each other and with the show. Ironically, this might partly be behind Netflix’s rapid pace of releasing new exclusives—to keep up with shorter fandom attention spans, all the while accelerating the entire process.
The Compromise Solution
While online content released all at once could limit the growth of fandom—and as a result, the popularity of a show—networks like The CW have kept their fandoms alive and prosperous in spite of the fact that full seasons of their shows are available to stream online. The CW makes episodes of their current shows available for free online as they air, lowering the barrier of entry for new fans. No need for cable or satellite, just a steady internet connection. Episodes also expire after a month, adding a sense of urgency that motivates fans to stay up to date unless they want to wait several months for the full season to be available on Netflix.
It’s no surprise then that slowing down the rate at which fandoms consume content has allowed fan communities for shows like Riverdale and Supergirl to thrive online. Fandometrics, a site dedicated to analyzing fandom activity on Tumblr, found that out of the five most popular television shows of 2018 on Tumblr, four of them were owned by The CW. Only one online-exclusive show has such a large fandom: Voltron: Legendary Defender.
Netflix releases full seasons of the show all at once—often seven to eight episodes long—approximately three times a year, a much faster rate than their other shows which release once a year. By the time fans have finished catching up with the latest season, a new season is ready to drop, bringing more content for them to discuss and engage with. The seasons, which often end in mysteries and cliffhangers, are also short enough that fans may even feel compelled to rewatch previous seasons for things they might have missed the first time. The frequent release of seasons has encouraged the steady growth of fandom to a degree previously unseen for an online-exclusive show.
Online-exclusive Rooster Teeth show RWBY has also developed a prominent fandom over time through its traditional broadcast schedule, engaging world-building, and fantastic soundtrack. Although RWBY releases only once a year, its gradual growth as a series has developed a loyal following of fans that enjoy the sense of community they’ve found as much as—and sometimes more than—the show itself. Had the show released all at once, it might have never had the chance to bring such a wide audience together.
The Haunting of Hill House, another Netflix-exclusive show, generated a lot of media attention within the first two weeks of its release. But between the length of its season—thirteen full-hour episodes that are hard to find the time to marathon—and its neat ending lacking cliffhangers or plot threads for fans to ruminate over, the buzz died quickly and with it the popularity of the show. While the show had the potential to grow a large fandom, it lacked many of the factors that increase the success of shows with traditional broadcast schedules and didn’t compensate for them in any way.
In a way, then, even as the experience of watching television has become more cinematic, fandoms often don’t form around neat, tightly-narrated stories, which seems like a continuous thread as far back as fans of the original Star Trek—hence the disconnect between fan and critical receptions of many series. A Trekker in the 1980s might not have been able to imagine the world of something like RWBY fandom in 2018, but even as technological developments change how fans engage and what media they favor, some things remain the same. Fandoms still love an ongoing story, worlds with plenty to wonder about, and rich relationships between characters.
Oh, and it still doesn’t hurt to throw in a couple of handsome guys they might want to see kiss.