Okay. I'm rambling, now. Is it any wonder my speech was 58 seconds
long? Not that my speech was 58 seconds long in its entirety. I'm saying
it was 58 seconds longer than it was supposed to be. In its entirety
it was 10 minutes and 58 seconds long. Although, that's neither
here nor there.
Without further yacking, let's get to the speech, shall we?
"You don't care, do you? Ratings are ratings, no matter how bogus the ill-gotten gains."
With these words, fictional character Dana Whitaker expressed one of the problems that has befallen the series of which she is a part. Ratings are ratings, and those of Sports Night have been less than impressive since the dramatic sitcom debuted on ABC in 1998.
Which isn't to say that the show doesn't have a good fan base. The fans of Sports Night are many, and they're a loyal group.
"The more the merrier."
"United we stand."
"Misery loves company."
Any of these cliches might be used to explain why fans banded together so quickly when they sensed that their show was in danger.
Some of these fans have been watching since the first episode. Others were lucky enough to be channel surfing during the show's time slot, and stopped to watch for a moment, taken in by Sports Night's fast pace and unusual dialogue and characters.
I received a frantic phone call from my sister at twenty till ten one Tuesday night, demanding that I tune to ABC. Since she so rarely recommends anything associated with the American Broadcasting Company, I trusted her judgement on this one ... and within moments became one of the fans who are now rallying to keep Sports Night on the air.
We have since learned that programming is rarely based on the merits of a show. Understandably, networks have to look at ratings and they have to look at business.
And, understandably, this is frustrating to us: The fans of series that have been pushed around and ultimately canceled by the networks.
The efforts of the fans of this series Sports Night may seem insignificant to you, but what this group is doing is proving that they can make their opinions known to the people who make television programming decisions.
To understand how fans voice opinions to a network, we first have to understand how the network voices its opinions to its fans. So, first, I'm going to tell you how ABC made it clear to us that their opinion of Sports Night was perhaps not as it should be. Then, I'm going to tell you how we, the fans, are making our opinions known to the networks. Finally, I'm going to explain some of the effects of our efforts on the fate of the show.
For a while now, it has been apparent to viewers that ABC is considering removing Sports Night from its line-up. There are three things that ABC is doing to express their disenchantment with the show.
First, promotions, previews, and trailers for Sports Night are and have been rare on ABC. You can usually find three Norm previews, maybe five of Millionaire, to any one of Sports Night.
Second, Sports Night has been consistently pulled for sweeps, the time when critics and new viewers are most likely to be watching.
I haven't been watching from the beginning, but since I've been watching, the show has been pulled twice for sweeps. In November 1999 and again in February 2000, a last-minute decision was made to replace Sports Night with something less challenging, ratings-wise. Sports Night had already been promoted by previews, scant though they may have been, and by summaries printed in T.V. Guide.
It was these events that alerted Caroline Walsh, founder of the Sports Night Preservation Society, to the danger the show was in. She started her group after the show was pulled in November, and took her efforts online through an e-mail community after the show was dumped again in February.
The third thing that ABC did to express their opinion of the show was to announce the early end to Sports Night's second season.
On February 18, an e-mail arrived in my inbox from the Preservation Society announcing ABC's intention to end Sports Night's second season run on April 4, to make room for a new series.
Jeff Bader, ABC's senior vice president of program planning, said of Sports Night and two other shows whose seasons will meet an early end, "These are all good shows. We are in the interesting position of not needing to put on any midseason shows, because our schedule is working fine. So all of these shows go into time periods that aren't broken."
Question: If the schedule is working, why change it? I don't think I've heard so many people quote the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" in a single day in my entire life; and yet, no one came up with an answer to the question.
Whatever the reason for ABC's antics, concern over the fate of Sports Night was rapidly growing. Fans began to rally for the show, to whomever might be listening.
Efforts were at first centered on convincing ABC to renew Sports Night.
"Now we go to war," said Caroline Walsh in the e-mail that instigated the communications campaign. Yet, despite this battlecry, the campaign itself was an exercise in diplomacy. Letters were written to the people who make decisions at the network. Anyone with an e-mail account could send ABC at least one message per week containing excessive praise for Sports Night. "Be positive," came word from the Preservation Society. The communications were polite and positive, and, above all, numerous.
The fans also decided that if ABC wouldn't promote the show to our satisfaction, we would do it for them. We told classmates. We e-mailed everyone in our address books, and called family members across the map. Those of you who do your homework in the computer lab here at the extension may have noticed a few custom screen savers on a few of the computers, to say nothing of the changes in backgrounds on eleven computers in the smaller back lab.
Even some more prominent figures joined our promotion efforts. Pete Schulberg with the Oregonian, for instance, said in his Dec. 7, 1999 article, "The series about a make-believe cable sports show and the folks who work there has developed, in fits and starts, into one of the smartest shows in primetime. Tune in so it won't go away."
Schulberg was not the only writer helping to make obvious our points. Aaron Sorkin wrote into the series itself a story line closely resembling reality. The video clip I'm about to show you deomonstrates Sorkin's ability to write from life. It then leads into a new and humorous idea that has recently surfaced on the lists. Here's the clip.
(from Cliff Gardner)
DANA: J.J. and some people from the network want to meet with us at eight --"
DAN: "I knew it."
DANA: "--o'clock. They want to come give notes."
DAN: "The network wants to give notes."
DAN: "I thought we were finished with that."
DANA: "Apparently not."
DAN: "And may I ask--"
DAN: "May I ask what you're doing about this?"
DANA: "I'm having them arrested, Danny .. I'm telling their parents .. I'm telling the teacher .. I'm going to go to my room and lock the door."
DAN: "I'd accept any of those before I'd believe you just let these people in."
DANA: "I'm doing the best I can."
DAN: "And the fact that might be true absolutely terrifies me, Dana."
DANA: "You've become a malcontent, Danny."
DAN: "You've become a secretary, Dana."
DANA: (pause) "Let's do this later."
NATALIE: "It's okay. We can --"
DANA: "This meeting's over." (leaves)
CASEY: "That's nice, man."
JEREMY: "We're in trouble."
NATALIE: "I know."
If you'll bear with me for a moment, I would like to explain a bit of the plot of this episode, which leads to the new idea on the list.
Dan feels bad for hurting Dana's feelings and decides to buy her a gift. He intends to buy her wine and cheese, but, as he later explains to her, the cheese store had gone out of business and in its place was a hardware store. So he bought her wine and spackle.
Mr. Stuart Bloomberg, ABC co-chairman, will soon be receiving a gift basket containing wine ... and spackle ... and a note congratulating him on Sports Night's being named The Best Show You're Not Watching by T.V. Guide.
We know wine and spackle won't win back our show. We're not even entirely certain it won't get a restraining order taken out on us. What we do know is that, despite all we've tried, ABC could cancel Sports Night at any time. That's why we're covering our bases by campaigning toward other networks that have expressed an interest in the show.
An NBC spokesperson stated that they would take a closer look at Sports Night if it were to be dropped by ABC. NBC has had success with creator Aaron Sorkin's other series, The West Wing.
HBO is another hope for fans, but no decisions can be made until ABC makes their move.
The fans have worked hard, with little to let us know whether our efforts have been received, yet we do have reason to believe we're being heard.
Aaron Sorkin, whose credits, in addition to Sports Night and The West Wing, include such movies as "The American President" and "A Few Good Men", said that ABC executives have mentioned a large number of communications coming in on the subject of Sports Night.
We recently learned that Stuart Bloomberg's e-mail address was flooded and is no longer in service.
Bloomberg has stated that he doesn't want to cancel the show, which has a "very loyal, very vocal" fan base, but that balancing business with sentiment is often difficult. But whatever happens, we know they've heard us. Whatever happens, they have heard these opinions that we've worked so painstakingly to make clear.
Another reason we think we've had an effect on the fate of Sports Night is that, logically, NBC and HBO are now aware of the fan base they'll be accomodating if they rescue the series.
And, of course, we think we will be noticed, because it's a little hard to ignore such things as baskets of wine and spackle, and I don't care who you are.
The fans have worked hard on little more than a hope that the show might be renewed, and they continue to rally for Sports Night on little more than a prayer. ABC's lack of confidence has been evident from the start, yet fan groups have sprung to life all over the Internet as a fast-acting last defense between Sports Night and conventional Tuesday night programming. We have even made somewhat of an impression on the powers-that-be.
"Sandbags on the levy, some plywood on the windows, a little thing called human endeavor!" said Jeremy Goodwin from Sports Night. In that mentality, fans are happy to rally for this cause -- whatever the outcome.