Are TV viewers entitled to certain story results?

A recent article about a boycott by disappointed Scandal fans raises some interesting points. And not just the numerous questions raised by the seemingly contradictory opinions expressed by the Scandal boycotters. Boiled way down, the basic thrust of the demand is that some vocal fans are very unhappy that Scandal has ended its most prominent love story.

It’s understandable that some fans might be upset about the show splitting a popular couple. But are fans entitled to demand that the story develop in a certain way?

The ratings decline of Scandal this spring indicates the boycott has had some effect. Of course, Scandal has a host of issues plaguing the current season that have driven away viewers for any number of reasons. As the boycotters point out, TV shows don’t exist without audiences.

To some extent that’s true of entertainment in any medium. It’s the eternal “art vs. commerce” conundrum. Artists want to be free to create work that they find meaningful. But they also want the public to pay them for it. A work of art can be brilliant and yet utterly without interest to an audience.

Those issues seem to weigh on television more heavily than other media. By the time a movie, album or book reaches the public, it’s more or less complete. It’s really a “take it or leave it” proposition. You either like what the creators have done or you don’t. You buy it or you don’t. There may be discussion about the work, but no one’s really demanding that the creator go back and change it.

Television is different. TV shows exist in an ongoing state of creation. They might last for years. Decades, even. TV creators are in a position not shared by many other creative types. Audiences simultaneously can judge what the creators have already made and try to exert influence on what the creators are making for the future.

Does the necessity of having an audience to keep a show on the air and in business mean that the audience is entitled to dictate the show’s story? Or do fans merely have the right to say “this is for me” or “I don’t think so” and make the appropriate related viewing choice?

Television, especially in the internet age and with the rise of social media, is something of a communal experience. Creators often have fairly direct access to their audience and its opinions while in the midst of creating a season. Viewer opinions often have been known to influence the direction of a series. Daytime soaps, for example, have a history of being highly reactive to fan feedback.

What is the difference between a creator seeing her show’s ratings decline and saying “Fans aren’t liking this, I’d best change course” and the audience demanding a specific result? One could argue that you wind up in a similar place.

But are fans entitled to demand a particular outcome? Television may be highly influenced by its fans, but it’s still an art form (in theory, at least). Writers often have a very specific course in mind for their shows. Given the serialized nature of a lot of TV storytelling, fans often have no idea where the plot is going. What’s true today might be very different six months from now. Fans might be thrilled with the final destination. Are they entitled to say how the show gets there? Or do they need to just trust the creators to do that work?

It’s not an easy question. The tension between creativity and commerce is always a loaded debate.

Creators want their viewers to be satisfied and invested. They want to hear from them. But they don’t want their shows to degenerate into crowd-sourced fan fiction. Plots that have been focus grouped to the point of bearing no particular point of view may as well not exist.

Viewers have to expect that they’ll be disappointed at times. Fan must decide if they can live with the decisions the creators make. And whether or not they should stick with a show that’s disappointed them.

Originally published at on April 5, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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