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Broadcasting For Peanuts

TV networks do listen to the viewers every now and again.

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The fall 2009 television lineup saw a surprising number of shows yanked midseason. And this year started with rumors that Jay Leno will move back to his 11:35 p.m. time slot on NBC. The Internet exploded, Facebook groups were flooded with comments, blog posts were put together in frothing fervors.

And Twitter? Well, Conan O'Brien's name was featured for most of January. Still, it was all for naught. O'Brien was let go, and after the Olympics, Leno will return to “The Tonight Show.”

The battle for the “Tonight” slot seems to fly in the face of rational thought. After all, modern television audiences have a vested interest in the shows they love. They shell out big bucks for even bigger TV sets, eat the costs for cable or Verizon Fios and actively promote favorites on the Internet. The modern television viewer's loyalty frequently surpasses being a fan and lands straight in evangelical territory. We love our shows.

But crusading viewers didn't manage to save O'Brien, and most television series are lucky to see second seasons. So are networks actually listening to fans?

Certain shows, such as Fox's “American Idol,” are predicated on viewer interaction. If “Idol” were to simply rely on Simon Cowell's snark, it probably would have been as successful as “The Weakest Link.” But most shows have no clear course for fan involvement, minimizing viewers' ability to save programs.

Not that this has stopped fans from trying, or even succeeding, to save beloved shows. CBS's decision to cancel “Jericho” after season one is a prime example. Faced with no resolution to the first season's massive cliffhanger, fans howled. The network was blasted by e-mails. Fans, in a slight reference to the show, sent the network more than 50,000 pounds of peanuts. In return, CBS offered a stay of execution. Seven new episodes of “Jericho” were ordered as a midseason replacement. The show's return came with a caveat from CBS Entertainment‘s president, Nina Tassler: “We need more viewers.” Sadly, better ratings didn't materialize and “Jericho” never saw season three.

In today's television landscape, blogging and Tweeting and even mailing bags of peanuts aren't enough to keep a favorite show on the air. Fans have to act not with words, but with wallets.

Take NBC's “Chuck,” a darling of both fans and critics. Viewership wasn't high enough to justify a full second season. Savvy fans used the Internet not only to increase viewers, but also to urge fans to patronize Subway, one of the show's largest sponsors. The result was a win for just about everyone involved. Subway sold sandwiches, NBC earned more favorable ad revenue and the fans got to keep “Chuck.” The series had its third season expanded from an eight-episode run to a full 13, becoming a tent pole for NBC's spring season. It was a near-perfect happy ending. Sadly, the same can't be said for O'Brien.

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