Television Showrunners & Their Fans: Does the Internet Make Them Friends?

Dan Harmon has been replaced as the showrunner for the NBC sitcom Community.  The replacement came on the heels of the series being given a fourth, and final, half-season order to let the show wrap-up it’s ultimate question of: will the Greendale Seven actually ever graduate from their community college?  Harmon is being replaced by two people who have run other shows, such as the “successful” series Just Shoot Me.   

Community has never been a ratings or Emmy darling.  With it’s humor having a decidedly geeky-tinge, it has been more the darling of the true geek culture: people who get the inside jokes to movies, television shows, and video games.  If you do not know Doctor Who, then you would not get Tory and Abed’s fascination with Inspector Spacetime.  If you did not pay close enough attention, then you did not get the carefully planned Beetlejuice running gag.  If you don’t like ’80s comedies, then you would not get Chevy Chase.  So, with the show’s struggles, it is no surprise really that Sony, the show’s producing company, would want someone more polished and proven at the helm to try to finish out the series with higher ratings.

What I find most fascinating about this, literally 24-hour development, is that Harmon took to tumblr in the early morning hours of Saturday, after the news broke, to tell his tumblr followers that this came as much of a shock to him as it did to them.  Of course, it is not the first time that a showrunner has utilized the Internet to communicate directly to his or her audience.  Joss Whedon (he who is currently God in the movie industry) has been doing this for years at his blog, Whedonesque.  But what I found interesting in Harmon’s was how he discussed the importance of the Internet in his life.

Going autobiographical (or so we are led to believe), Harmon talks about how he doesn’t care what Sony does to him, because their firing him like this shows that they are not his real friends.  He equates them with the people he grew up with, even the bullies in his life.  For him, it appears his friends were of the geek culture, those who could be found online before being a friend online was co-opted by Facebook.  He appears to continue to find a lot of kinship and friendship with people from around the world thanks to the Web’s ability to bring people together.  What more, he even makes a veiled threat to Sony that his friends are out there, scattered around the world, connected through their mobile devices.

And key in all this seems to be the convergence between the idea of what is a friend and what is a fan.

Currently, as I write this, there are over 5000 likes to his tumblr post.  I doubt Harmon would consider all of those friends given the common definition of friend as a relationship of reciprocal feelings of goodwill.  Those 5000+ are indicating their feelings of goodwill to him by liking his post, but he is not going on an individual basis and saying thank you, reciprocating their goodwill with his own.  One could argue that his blanket statement in the post could be considered a general indication of goodwill to these people, but is that truly an indication of friendship?

Most likely, the vast majority of those 5000+, and anyone else reading the post as it goes viral, are fans of Community.  They are not friends of Harmon.  And yet, they are part of a larger community, of a shared feeling of goodwill about the show, their object of action.  Some are undoubtedly friends with each other, as this helps the message spread.  And the more the message spreads, the more people can send their goodwill, and perhaps the more thankful Harmon will be for this mobilized and diverse spread of support, all made possible because of the Web — just as having friends is all made possibly by the Web.

So then are the fans, the fan community, are they now the friends of a television showrunners who utilize the Web to connect to, communicate with, and energize them to action?  Is the goodwill the showrunner gives the community contained in the creation and propagation of the series that is the community’s focal point?

I would argue yes, but that it has to go further than this.  There have been shows long before the Internet, but I don’t think we would have equated fans of those shows to being friends of those showrunners.  There have even been shows during the time of the Internet where I do not think we can see such equation happening.  I think the Internet can help to equate the two when the showrunner actively utilizes it to connect to, communicate with, and even energize the fans into action.  Such actions indicate the showrunner recognizes the existence, the passion, and the potential of the fans, and seeks to connect with them on a more human-to-human level.  When this is done, then I think we get closer to the type of reciprocal relationship of goodwill that is at the foundation of friendship.

So Harmon is right.  The Web has brought him a lot of friends — friends from the Community fan community.  Like many Facebook friends, it is doubtful he’ll ever meet them in person, or even do much interaction with them online.  But in a broad sense, there is friendship in this community around Community — how long it last remains to be seen.

One thought on “Television Showrunners & Their Fans: Does the Internet Make Them Friends?

  1. Okay, so what’s the scoop with regards to Harmon? Judging from Greenblatt’s cntoemms, Harmon probably won’t be coming back as show runner. Is it just because NBC finds him too difficult to work with? So they’ll downshift him to consultant? I recall that Sarah Silverman fired Harmon off her original show, for being too difficult to work with. It’s a shame, because although I am not at all a fan of Community’ Harmon is obviously smart and passionate. If anything, he is perhaps too smart and too passionate for this job.

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