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Network Expectations

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There are a bunch of ideas in this article about the Netflix show You. The most interesting to me is how it's an example of the problem fanfic runs into.

First a few other things:

The network has been attempting to slowly rebrand, as fans of shows like “UnReal” already know. But there are so many shows now, on so many channels, “You” may simply have gotten lost, or been written off as little more than a rehabilitation project for a has-been heartthrob. (No offense, Penn.)

I had no idea who Penn Badgley was so he couldn't have been THAT much of a heartthrob. And I think the writer is missing the point here. Sure, Lifetime does have a reputation, though they've been working on changing it for some time (hence the fight with Bravo over Project Runway). I don't blame them for letting Damien go to A&E given it was a terrible series, but that was originally going to be their show as well, and definitely out of their assumed programming.

I think the more relevant point though is, who watches shows because they're on a certain network these days? Why are networks even important? Clearly a service like Netflix has an advantage in being able to push new programming to users based on their past behavior, plus if you're paying for a service you're more likely to use it (whereas I'd bet relatively few cable viewers would pay for Lifetime specifically).

That said, I don't think it refutes the idea that stuff gets buried on Netflix, whose content has become overwhelming, particularly because of all the autoplay stuff. But it does suggest that unless networks exist to feature a certain programming genre (i.e. the Soap Opera network, the Golf Channel, SyFy, etc.) chances are they're not going to be all that useful in terms of branding. For one thing, there are a ton of networks now. For another, a lot of shows are starting to have overlapping genres or there just isn't enough specific content to fill the broadcast hours so you have some strange fits (why is ST:TNG on BBC America?)

But then there was this issue which sounded familiar:

But the assumptions that allowed the show’s premise to work were designed for an audience that already understood the stereotypes. On Lifetime, viewers went in expecting to sympathize with the heroine, and the show’s bending of those tropes stuck out far more prominently. It felt more purposeful.

Stripped of the Lifetime branding, however, the weaknesses inherent in the show’s writing left “You” more open to misinterpretation. On Netflix, many viewers seem to see the series less as a response to standard romantic tropes and more the saga of a misunderstood anti-hero in the vein of “Dexter” or Walter White in “Breaking Bad” — but without the nuance that made both “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad” worth watching.

I don't often see discussion of how TV viewers are like readers, in that they not only like certain genres but also certain story tropes, and evaluate what they see based on whether or not it satisfies their story cravings rather than on the merits of whatever the thing is. Fanfic is a genre grounded in scratching itches, it is very reader oriented (even if the only reader is the writer) and is, especially when shared online, often part of a larger community of readers and set of works that all set up certain expectations.

I had never thought of a TV network serving that function, in part because the audiences are large and the programming generally very broad. But I suspect that the number of people who watch the average Lifetime show is smaller than those that watch the average Netflix show, simply because of the comparative subscriber bases. (Again, a great many people may have Lifetime available to them, but how many actually watch it daily?)

Similarly, however vast an audience there may be for fanfic generally, the wider public who either has not been exposed to fanfic or who are, at the least, not a part of those reading communities, often interpret what they see based on reading or viewing models they have. And while many a good argument could be made about whether some tropes are invariably harmful, what is less clear from the outside is what kind of interpretation of those tropes is being made on the individual or at the group level and what kind of purpose it serves for those fanfic readers. The typical response to fanfic is basically the transference of an existing reading or viewing model onto something that is often tailor made for a specific reading community (or even one particular individual when we're talking gift works), leading to vastly different interpretations than the ones intended by the creators.