Shippers: Who’s Steering This Boat?

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Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery (more of you may be acquainted with the 1990 film adaptation) is about the frustrated author of a successful romance series held prisoner by a psychotically-obsessed fan until he writes a novel undoing the series-ending tale of his last book in which, to free himself to move on to other kinds of writing, he killed off his doughty Victorian heroine.

Misery was King’s first full-length novel written under his own name which didn’t involve telekinetic teens or childhood boogeymen come to life or rabid killer St. Bernards or any other supernatural force or extraordinary beastie. It’s often been interpreted – and certainly its chronological place in his canon seems to confirm this — as King’s own response to feeling boxed into the supernatural horror genre as much by his fans as by critics.

King’s Misery came back to me as I read a recent Entertainment Weekly story about “shippers” (EW 2/17/12 – “Shippers: TV’s Weirdest Fans”). No, they weren’t talking about FedEx or UPS or Maersk. According to the glossary EW supplied for the story:

“Shipper: Derived from the word relationship, a fan who’s deeply invested in the romance – or the possibility of romance – between two characters. Shipping runs the gamut between ‘just having fun’ and ‘scary-stalker serious’.”

f you’re still fuzzy on the concept, classic cases of “shipping” (is that the word?) would be all those X-Files geeks who kept nagging Chris Carter to get Mulder in the sack with Scully, or the Team Edward v Team Jacob Internet feuds about who most deserved to be boinking Twilight’s droopy Bella.

Shippers are nothing new. They’ve been around since the time they were diplomatically referred to as, “particularly avid fans.” They were the Trekkies who wanted to see Mr. Spock run off with Nurse Chapel, or the Moonlighting junkies who wanted David Addison and Maddie to hit the sheets, or the Cheers barflies who didn’t want to see Sam domesticated by bitchy Diane.

They’re not even distinct to TV. Back in the late 70s, we had a rough equivalent to the Team Edward/Team Jacob fracas; a kind of Team Solo v Team Skywalker duel over who should get to swing on a star with Princess Leia.

But a couple of factors have ratcheted up this kind of hot-blooded, romantically-swooning fandom to a new, strategically-critical level. EW’s Jeff Jensen diagnoses one of those factors as being a change in the television terrain: “The explosive outbreak in shipping is surely an outgrowth of the radical shift toward target-market TV…”

Television used to be a truly massive mass medium. Back when three networks were divvying up most of the TV audience, television was a business of bulk numbers, and the only thing advertisers wanted to see in those numbers was how high a network could get them. That changed with cable television.

The success of cable and the proliferation of channels that came with it (by the end of the 70s, a typical cable system had maybe a dozen channels; now, the average is at least 100, with many systems offering considerably more) shattered the mass audience into hundreds of smaller, more precisely defined niches. How much smaller? There are network shows in today’s weekly Top 20 with numbers that would have gotten them cancelled as recently as the 1980s.

To offset the loss of bulk, TV became more demographic-specific. Programmers’ offer to advertisers went something along the lines of, “Well, no, we can’t deliver 15 million viewers, but we can give you four million single males 18-34 earning $60,000 a year or better.”

Today’s programmers are like snipers; they’re not trying to hit everybody, but just the kind of prime targets which appeal to certain advertisers. God knows MTV is not thinking about the mass audience with Jersey Shore, but its appeal to the party-loving never-gonna-grow-up young makes it choice for some advertisers and a cash cow for the network.

In the old days of mass audiences, a show’s appeal often spread across the demographic scale which effectively diluted their response. The fifteen-year-olds watching Star Trek may have gotten all giddy at the planet-hopping and phaser-zapping and Captain Kirk solving complex interplanetary issues by punching somebody’s lights out, but the 40-year-olds watching felt — … Well, actually, they didn’t feel much which was why NBC cancelled the show. Ok, bad example, but you get the idea. If you have that many people watching a single program, their response to the show is bound to range from foam-at-the-mouth rabid fandom to well-it’s-a-nice-way-to-kill-an-evening casual viewing.

But a narrow, targeted appeal does for an audience what a laser does for light. Instead of a broad, diffuse beam, a laser concentrates light energy into a narrow, tightly-focused, incredibly intense beam which can cut through steel. Instead of a broad, diffuse audience, demo targeting cultivates narrower audiences who more intensely bond with their favorite shows.

The other factor which has ratcheted up shipping (that can’t be right; shippering? Shipperdom? Somebody help me out here!) is social media. This isn’t like the first days of Trekkie-dom when fans had to wait for the annual convention or the monthly newsletter to connect. The Internet and other social media are what fire investigators call “accelerants”; they’re the propane tank left too close to the sparking fuse box, the can of lawn mower gas sitting near the faulty gas heater. You want to see the power of the Internet at work? Go back just a few weeks in the news and see how quickly Net users ignited to kill the SOPA Act. If the Net can be used to make or break law-making, playing hell with TV programming and movie-making is child’s play.

Today, fans chat and tweet and blog constantly, and that kind of constancy fans fan flames (say that five times fast), keeping up – and, at times, raising – the heat on shipper topics. Think about it: would that whole Team Edward/Team Jacob feud have become any kind of a thing were it not for the way the interconnectedness of Twilight fans built it into a press-worthy issue?

Demo-specific TV programming and social media: they’re like the two tanks a flamethrower operator wears on his back. Open the valves, pull the trigger and whooosh!

And that puts storytellers –whether on the big or little screen –in a precarious position if they don’t want to get burned. Shippers can be like the party faithful during the presidential primary season (seemed a timely allegory). They may not represent the public at large, they may not number enough to get you elected, but without them, you ain’t even gettin’ on the ballot. EW quotes Castle creator Andrew Marlowe who I think hits it square on the head: “Shippers are the people who are the most engaged with a show, so they don’t represent the biggest statistical sample. But they really are your core audience, and you can gauge the level of investment of your entire fan base by their interactions with you.”

Which poses a problem for storytellers. You ignore shippers – who can be just as noisy about their dislikes as about their likes – at your peril. But appeasing them brings its own risks as well according to Lost’s Carlton Cruse: “The conventional wisdom is that once you consummate sexual tension, you zap a show of its magic.”

So, don’t give shippers what they want and you risk pissing them off and turning them against the show. Give them what they want and you risk killing the dramatic momentum of the show and also pissing off their opposite number, the “noromos,” as in “no romance” (according to EW, noromos are “…fans who oppose the idea of romance between characters…They’re often hardcore geeks who think the mushy stuff gets in the way of more interesting things, like investigating mysteries, flying spaceships, or killing monsters”).

And that brings us to an element of the shipper phenom EW didn’t go into, which is a potential future arena in which there’s a question over who’ll be in charge of doing the tail-wagging: the dog…or the tail.

Let me crystallize that a bit for you. Look back just a few months to George Lucas’ Blu-ray release of his Star Wars films in which he – for the umpteenth time – tweaked the saga here and there. Only on this go-around, Lucas’ changes, for the first time – at least in the eyes of a number of very vocal, very irate fans – altered the core meaning of elements of the series.

The fans’ reaction was understandable. They had a 35-year-old emotional investment in the Star Wars saga playing out in a certain way. It was like Moses suddenly showing up on TV to announce he was deleting one of the Ten Commandments. “Whoa, now you’re telling us it’s ok to commit adultery? What the hell is that?

But Lucas’ reaction to all those Star War fans screaming “Betrayal! Blasphemy! Betrayal!” was also understandable. On his end, it boiled down to, This is my story, not yours; you don’t own it, I do; and I’m gonna tell my story how I want to!

Both movie-making and TV programming are tremendously expensive commercial ventures. The cost factor doesn’t tolerate a lot of artsy-fartsy visionaries. The average cost of a one-hour scripted network TV show runs $3-4 million per episode, and the average budget for a feature film is northwards of sixty-odd million (not including marketing costs). At those prices, you can’t blame a network or movie studio exec telling some starry-eyed auteur with a visionary bug up his/her ass, “Not with our money you don’t! Gamble with your own money!”

There’s nothing new to audiences influencing storytelling. Hollywood has been tweaking and re-shooting after previews since there was a Hollywood and some silent era studio exec got the bright idea of previews. One of the more notable examples of post-preview tweaking is 1987’s Fatal Attraction.

The original ending to James Dearden’s screenplay had rabbit-stewing stalker Glenn Close killing herself and framing adulterer Michael Douglas for it, but that didn’t do it for audiences at early screenings. So, director Adrian Lynne & Co. shot a new ending with Douglas’ wife – played by Anne Archer – cathartically putting a bullet dead center through knife-wielding Close. I don’t know if that made it a better movie, but the consensus is that bullet through Close’s pump made it a $142 million grossing movie.

Shippers – and even non-shipper fans – have already had an impact on the creative direction of some shows  Jensen writes about how Xena: Warrior Princess fans thought they detected a lesbian subtext between Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle, and when the slashers (again, from EW: “A type of shipper…that advocates for a relationship to blossom between two same sex characters”) started buzzing about it, the show began to purposely un-sub the subtext. During the show’s final season, Xena fan fiction writer Melissa Good was brought on to the series’ writing staff presumably to give the show even more of a fan-tailored flavor, and the season ended with a payoff for all those devoted slasher shippers (or shipping slashers – I give up): a smooch between Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle.

Go a step further and there’s the sci fi/fantasy series Bar Karma on the struggling Current TV channel. Bar Karma is attempting to be the first interactive series on commercial television, buildings scripts around plotlines and ideas viewers contribute through an online tool called Storymaker.

We’re in a rising sea of interactivity, and that has me sensing a time in the future when shippers – and fans in general – not only feel a desire to have input into their favorite TV shows, but an expectation.

Fatal Attraction and its $142 million domestic gross notwithstanding, I’m not sure how I feel about that

******

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 sci fi novel Fahrenheit 451 limned a media-immersed future where books were banned and people sat in living rooms surrounded on all sides by wall-sized TVs watching interactive programming. Well, most of us have willingly stopped reading, we’ve got the big screen TVs, and we’ve had a kind of interactivity for some years now.

First-person videogames and multi-player online games aren’t quite what Bradbury had in mind, but they are kinda/sorta in the ballpark in that the course of the game scenario is directed by the choices and accomplishments of the player(s). Look at BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has become one of the fastest-growing subscription online games of all time having, as of February, sold two million copies since its December release, and boasting 1.7 million active subs. The Old Republic takes game immersion to an unprecedented level, providing myriad possible outcomes and providing frequent freshening updates for players who are, effectively, starring in their own more-or-less self-directed, story-without-end Star Wars epic.

And then, of course, there’s the aforementioned Bar Karma, a low-budget effort on a channel with iffy prospects, but certainly a tantalizing picture for interactivity aficionados of a possible commercial TV future.

Though I’m not much of a gamer, I understand the buzz that goes with being a part of the story you’re watching. Back in the 1980s, I was a near-addicted fan of one of the first generation of interactive arcade games. I don’t remember the name, but it was an Old West milieu, and instead of computer-generated graphics, there were a number of live-actor video scenarios. You worked your way through a series of shoot-outs, and at the end of each one you were presented with several more choices, some of which would turn out to be dead ends, others which moved you along some sort of vague plot (I wasn’t good enough to ever find out how it was supposed to play out).  It may have about as much connection to something like The Old Republic as a horse-drawn buggy does to private rocket cars, but all those star turns I had in my own gunfighter tale are enough for me to understand where the rush for the interactive player comes from.

But I’ve also been a storyteller, and whether it’s been my mother saying, “Why don’t you write something nice for a change?” or a studio marketing guy telling me, “Get the girl naked and it adds five percent to our overseas take,” someone telling me how to tell my story has never set well with me.

Anyone who knows anything about the oft-bemoaned writing-by-committee development process at networks and studios knows it’s already too democratic. It’s tough enough to tell a good story (or even a coherent story) when a half-dozen or more company men and women are giving you conflicting notes all of which have to somehow be incorporated into what was once your story; imagine how much rougher the ride when you’re getting input from ten thousand.

Hell, for that matter — and with all respect to game designers and players — I’m not even settled in my own mind on whether or not interactive scenarios constitute true storytelling. Is interactivity really “just” a game? Or some knew creative, collective storytelling/story sharing form? Or some kind of hybrid blending traditional storytelling values with the never-ending flux of player input? Or… Beats me.

But what I am sure of is when interactivity bleeds into old style storytelling, it’s not necessarily going to make for great storytelling…or even very good storytelling.

Anyone who’s ever watched the People’s Choice Awards or nights when viewers vote for their favorites on American Idol or even followed the presidential primaries knows that the general public tends to vote for what pleases…which is not always the same thing as what’s good.

Mass entertainment at its most mediocre is usually about appeasement, offering the comfortably, satisfyingly predictable. It’s Hollywood saying, “Hey, I don’t wanna make no trouble.”

And most audiences – for both TV and movies – are happy with that. But that being the case, it’s not hard for me to imagine an interactive universe where Romeo and Juliet don’t die, where Gatsby and Daisy run off and live happily ever after, where Mike Nichols doesn’t get that last, lingering oh-oh-what-do-we-do-now? shot in The Graduate. Rhett doesn’t leave Scarlet, Stanley Kowalski doesn’t rape Blanche and she doesn’t wind up in the nuthouse, Jack and Rose are among Titanic’s survivors living fat and sassy after they sell the necklace in Jack’s jacket pocket. Spartacus lives, Tony Soprano doesn’t, Lost’s Jack escapes the island with Juliet, and freedom fighters save Jesus from the cross while kicking some Roman ass in the process (yeah, g’ahead and laugh, but it wouldn’t surprise me).

The great, resonant pieces of storytelling don’t appease, they don’t satisfy. Instead, they challenge, they spark against our I-wants like flint on steel with doses of honesty, truth, reality. That’s how they sear themselves into our minds and hearts. It’s why we remember them, still feeling their impact years later when we read or see them for the hundredth time. It is their ability to stir us rather than placate us that gives them their value.

Sometimes their power comes not just from refusing to appease us, but from our recognizing their inevitable, inexorable, often tragic finales. If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) worked for you (and it worked for me), its exquisite bittersweetness comes from knowing how it has to end.

Hundreds of years of storytelling convention tell us that Benjmain will end up with Daisy long before they do, but the nature of the story also tells us – long before they do — that they will, at best, have only a few years together, because Benjmain will continue to grow younger, and Daisy grow older.

Knowing, in advance, even before it happens, the joy of their coming together along with how they will lose each other is the heart of the movie.  A happy ending? That would be a bullet through its heart.

I understand the appeal of interactivity: being a part of the telling, even being a part of the story itself. And, for expensive storytelling forms like movies and TV shows, paying heed to the will of the audience is – and, to some degree, has always been – a necessity.

But now we may be on the eve of the next generation of two-way interaction between audience and creator. A generation is growing up spending more time with alternative media than either traditional TV or movies. Most of the big-budget blockbusters are already tailored –in their pacing, in their constant flow of over-the-top action – for a videogame sensibility, and a number of prime time TV series tweak their storylines in response to shipper-expressed desires. Right now, an interactive set-up like Bar Karma is a novelty, an experiment, a first step, but in TV’s hunger to draw viewers out of an increasingly fractured audience, it’s not hard to imagine another, more visible programmer taking a next step.

I see the commercial necessity of at least dabbling with the concept, just as I sometimes see the necessity of raising taxes. That doesn’t mean I like it.

True storytelling, real storytelling, storytelling that aspires to the level of art (and much of it doesn’t which is ok) is about an author, a playwright, a TV producer, a filmmaker with a vision, telling a story the way he/she knows it must be told, because anything else would be a lie. It’s about the audience willing to take the storyteller up on his/her invitation, to go along for the ride but let someone else steer, taking us to places we’ve never been, to see and feel things we haven’t seen or felt before. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that happening when a story is guided by popular vote.

The EW shipper story reminded me of King’s Misery. But it also brought to mind Kirk Douglas’ autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. Douglas tells the story of spending ten years trying to get Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made into a move with Douglas himself playing the lead. He finally surrendered the book’s rights to his son Michael, who eventually got the movie made with Jack Nicholson in the role Kirk had dreamed of doing. The movie Michael Douglas produced was a blockbuster success, a critic’s darling, and won five Oscars including Best Picture.

But as proud as he was of his son’s success, Daddy Kirk wasn’t in love with the finished film. “I still argue with him about things in the movie that I think were done wrong,” Douglas writes. “I say, ‘Michael, if you had done it my way, you might not have made two hundred million dollars. But it would have been right.”

And I guess if you boil it all down to one thing, that’s what art’s about.

– Bill Mesce

4 Comments
  1. Kim says

    Hi-I agree (mostly) with you about trends. I do hope that there will remain methods and pathways through which art can continue to be made. I am pretty sure you will agree with me that there has certainly been randomness involved in determining which great works see the light of day, and even more amazingly are not lost through time.
    But I feel you are confusing the process necessary to the creation of art (usually by an individual but occasionally by 2 or more), with the necessary ingredients for good solid, excellent entertainment. An acceptable script can be made infinitely more entertaining, for example, by good acting (and I cite Xena here), a silly Sunday comic can be made into a fun movie (Dick Tracy), and, I suspect, future novels, TV shows, and the like, will be honed after some type of feedback (keeping in mind that this can take many forms, several which can be largely controlled by the author) from fans. If an author of, say, a novel rejects this, it is, as I understand it, pretty easy to self-publish, and then use the internet to sell one’s book. I think a good case can be made (especially as regards written material) that it is actually easier than ever to retain one’s vision throughout.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Thank you for adding some zest to the meal.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Thanks for your comment, Edgar. It’s going to be an interesting next couple of years.

  3. Edgar Chaput says

    Very astute, Bill. More than anything, the article sheds some light on the fascinating world of marketing for films and television shows. I had an idea that this sort of culture, both from inside the studio’s and within fan groups, existed, but your essay highlighted some revealing aspects to the entire affair that make it, I don’t know, rather odd. I’ve never been a ‘shipper’ and don’t plan on being one in the near future, that’s for sure.

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