"Community" Fans and Lessons in Audience Value

When NBC’s quirky sitcom Community was voted TV Guide Magazine’s fan-favorite comedy for a second year in a row in April 2012, the show’s fan base felt it had scored another victory. In 2011, the magazine even featured three collectible Community covers and highlighted the fans’ ongoing support of the series by featuring a photo spread of the cast thanking the fans. 

Middling in the ratings, the show had been on the verge of cancellation almost every year. Fans were consistently outspoken about their loyalty and organized multiple campaigns to raise awareness and attempt to bring more viewers to the show. In May 2012, Community was renewed yet again for a fourth season. 

But this is not a story about glorified fan power. It is, instead, just the beginning of a glimpse of the heated debate surrounding the role and value of fans within and around the television industry. 

Mere weeks after Community’s latest renewal, news broke that the show’s production company had replaced creator and show-runner Dan Harmon. Among fans, Harmon was seen as Community’s auteur, his voice and vision shaping the beloved quirky tone of the series and making it a cult favorite. Harmon has been almost synonymous with everything die-hard fans love about Community and the idea of continuing the show without his leadership was deemed blasphemous by many. 

Following an official statement from Sony, the story was picked up almost immediately by major entertainment news outlets, entertainment blogs, mainstream news outlets, and fan web sites and blogs. The news spread rapidly via Twitter. Harmon posted a response on his personal Tumblr, ending his message with a candid perspective on the events: “I got fired.” 

While Harmon’s termination does not seem to be about fans, per se, the firestorm surrounding the event is very much about fans and their role and value in the complex machinations of the television industry. Time Magazine’s television critic James Poniewozik sums up the situation in the title of his column: “Community Without Dan Harmon? Suits Axe Auteur, and Fans Lose.” 

Poniewozik’s perspective suggests that there are, on the most basic level, two parties with competing interests and motivations: the “suits” and the fans. At first glance, the power dynamic between these two parties is represented relatively simply. The “suits” as media producers make a decision, and the fans as media consumers win or lose based on that decision. However, as Poniewozik continues, we see that the dynamics of this debate are much more complicated. 

First, there is the issue of audience size versus audience loyalty and engagement – that is, how does the value of small but loyal audience compare to that of a large audience? Poniewozik writes,

“Community’s audience was small … but unusually sticky: put the show up against American Idol, the numbers held; put it on hiatus and they came back. They weren’t many people, but they were going to watch Dan Harmon’s show, goddammit, whenever and wherever they had to.” (Community Without Dan Harmon? Suits Axe Auteur, and Fans Lose, Time, May 19 2012)

The implication is that an audience like Community’s, which is involved, invested, outspoken, and “sticky,” provides a different kind of value to networks than an audience that is merely large. 

This question of audience value is of increasing interest and importance to both fans and the TV industry. Audience scholar Philip Napoli argues that the TV business is evolving into a “post-exposure marketplace” in which established ways of understanding and measuring the audience are becoming less valuable and reliable. More entertainment choices and greater demands for viewers’ attention across platforms means that audience size (quantity) is becoming less important while the nature of audience attention and involvement (quality) is gaining value. However, as the discussion around Community illustrates, there is a struggle to make sense of the role of different modes of audience engagement in an industry where audience size is still very much the “currency.” 

Second, the reader comments in response to Poniewozik’s article illustrate a kind of “fan activism,” that is, purposeful fan action directed at television producers. Community has, of course, inspired multiple instances of fan activism in the form of “save our show” campaigns, where fans lobbied NBC to save the series from cancellation. 

However, in the wake of Harmon’s ousting, a different kind of fan activism is emerging. Comments vowing to boycott the show and encouraging friends not to watch are plentiful. Fans also point to the potential PR ramifications of angering Community's "extremely rabid fan base" and destroying any good will that NBC and Sony may have created by their earlier support of the show. 

On one level, the struggle to define the meaning and value of the fan audience revolves around a series of key issues, such as whether fan audiences and post-exposure metrics offer a challenge to audience size as the primary “currency” of the television industry, what effects different types of fan activism have on the representation of the fan/industry relationship, and what role fan audiences play in creating “good PR” and buzz marketing for the television industry. 

On another level, the interests, opinions, and positions that are represented in this debate tell us important things about what is at stake for each side. For the media industry, their very business model is in jeopardy. Can the television industry continue as it is when the size, habits, and expectations of their audience are changing? 

For the fans, the struggle is equally complex. On the one hand, television fans are more eager than ever to reach out, connect, and truly interact – both with each other and with the “powers that be” that create the content they love. On the other hand, the history, tradition, and sense of identity involved with being a fan is threatened when fandom becomes merely a series of industrially created and controlled engagements.