Should television be open-source?

You wish
The You-ification of pop culture is the ultimate moving target. Nobody can say for sure how far the media personalization/participation craze will go. Much less whether active-reactive “user-created content” will make the world a happier, more just place.

Corporate media’s race to keep up with this demand—by hosting blogs, reader forums, homemade video, etc.—seems … well, at least preferable to having things the other way around. As the wealthy, slave-owning gatekeepers who crafted our Constitution and established the American republic would tell you, democratic participation is a vital, healthy thing—even if the notion that public opinion needs a gate and keepers remains as troubling as ever.

But now the trend has infiltrated the creative realm, specifically television. And that fit is far trickier—particularly when the writers responsible for the TV shows we love are on the ropes, compensation- and respect-wise. Disturbing questions arise: Can filmed works of the imagination thrive in the same atmosphere of fractious, perceived collaboration as online journalism? Is encouraging studio heads to collude with the responderati just setting the stage for lowest-common-denominator venality? It’s almost enough to make you—if not You—wish that gate would get closed again.

Where no fan has gone before
It stands to reason that television’s authority-barrier is most susceptible to crashing: There’s something about having a box in your home (or a pod in your pocket) that denotes co-ownership, however illusory, of the stuff it belches forth. And admit it: Aesthetic connections that play out over weeks, months and years in your living room run deep, so there’s more at stake when a TV series casts its spell than when a two-hour movie does, or a 300-page book (not that anyone reads those anymore anyway).

Where such deep involvement is concerned, instant-access outlets are powerful things. Television Without Pity, the broadcast and cable networks’ message boards and fan-run forums have facilitated a level of viewership no one could’ve anticipated even at a decade ago. And, as has been documented elsewhere, some TV bigwigs have taken notice. Snooty Aaron Sorkin, for instance, predictably lashed out at TWoPers who dissed The West Wing, while Xena: Warrior Princess co-creator Robert Tapert hired an author of Xena fan-fiction to script two of that show’s sixth-season episodes. More recently, Lost’s J.J. Abrams and even the CBS honchos—who ostensibly resuscitated post-apocalyptic soaper Jericho due to fan outrage over its cancellation—openly court audience involvement.

Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore hears what you’re saying, even through his glorious locks.

Battlestar Galactica showrunners Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, however, are the most savvy about connecting with fans without toadying to—or being thin-skinned over—their frequently dunderheaded meddling. Clearly, BSG is viewer-aware; its creators openly solicit audience feedback and even an unprecedented (if limited) form of participation: Special-effects scenes, music cues and establishing shots from the show are available on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Web site for use in fan-made films.

Nevertheless, the series still goes where Moore and Eick want it to go. To a great extent, they simply manipulate and placate fans, albeit benignly and to (almost) everyone’s advantage and delight. The template for this kind of symbiosis was set, of course, by Gene Roddenberry, who sicced the Star Trek faithful on NBC when the network canceled that series, and subsequently wielded them at his leisure (and, as some stories go, for his pleasure). And it’s worth pointing out that Moore himself began his career by selling an unsolicited script for Star Trek: The Next Generation to that show’s producers. What makes science fiction so much more open to fan interaction than, say, soap operas? Hard to be sure—but it probably has a lot to do with the latent utopianism.

A word from our sponsor
Anyway, this is all wonderfully new and vaguely encouraging. But consider how it might backfire.

For one thing, viewer participation—real or perceived—has the capacity to usurp contemplative appreciation of TV art. Assuming (or, worse, being granted) some armchair influence in others’ creative process sidesteps and possibly even short-circuits the critical facility that makes experiencing their work such a gas in the first place. Supposedly, it’s the ability of TV producers, writers and directors to realize visions and ideas specific to them, not to those of us who tune in, that got them hired in the first place, right? Let alone distinguished them as artists rather than flacks or kowtowing salespeople.

This is hardly to say we should just passively accept anything and everything coming through the tube; to be sure, hollering back at TV is a part of the fun, too. But let’s recognize that only a few of us have the grit and talent (and, granted, the privilege) to create great television—while most of the rest of us have the good fortune to be able to discern beauty, aesthetic worth and genuine expressions of human feeling. Relinquishing that discernment in exchange for a vaporous stake in the creative process likely will only distract us, make us that much more susceptible to advertising. And it’s hard enough to know when that’s happening as it is. In that regard, people like Moore and Eick and Abrams (OK, and Sorkin) are virtually all that stand between us and the corporate vampires who don’t know TV shit from gold, and who view our sanctified living rooms as just more turf ripe for virtual pillage.

Jericho: Skeet Ulrich begs Ashley Scott not to quit her day job to become a writer.

Besides, TV’s drift into You-topia isn’t exactly happening from the bottom up, despite how it might be spun: It’s an entrepreneurial phenomenon that stands to serve the moneymen at least as much as the proactive consumers. Consequently, putting a premium on what we think we want to see instead of on what lurks within the aforementioned showrunners’ fertile brains could well threaten the tenuous autonomy they have with networks and sponsors—if it hasn’t already: You couldn’t ask for a clearer harbinger of what’s now at stake in the Writers Guild strike than Universal’s manhandling of the BSG “webisodes” preceding that show’s third season, for which no money or creative credit was provided.

It’s also conceivable that deeper fan influence will lead to more of what advertisers want us to see—probably crappy reality shows 24-seven. That would explain CW’s Online Nation, an ultra-cheap-jack compilation of user-contributed material that’s essentially America’s Funniest Home Videos for people who never leave their MacBooks. If that’s your idea of good television, you may need a history lesson. Thankfully, these days, retail DVD shelves tend to overflow with them.

All this has happened before …
But, inevitably, the money follows the power—even the limited power currently being wielded in the blabosphere—with exploitation never far behind. As Roddenberry could’ve attested, no group is more easily leveraged than disgruntled fans, and while Moore has said that the networks currently are clueless as to how to use this base, it’s only a matter of time before they figure it out. The WGA strike may provide the perfect opportunity. Who do you think will be squawking the loudest once reruns peter out and TV writers are still on the picket lines? And who stands to benefit most from the outcry?

In this regard, it’s easier to appreciate the fine line Moore and Eick tread with Battlestar Galactica’s followers. Sure, in one sense they’re simply gatekeepers who’ve seen the wisdom in knocking a peephole in the gate. More importantly, though, they’re establishing viewer loyalty within television’s creative realm while the commercial realm scrambles to figure out how to do the same.

J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of Lost, actually has run out of ideas and therefore welcomes yours.

It’s encouraging that the strike hasn’t taken the wind out of Moore’s sails. Ironically, after production on BSG shut down, he turned to his own blog to keep the show’s fans aware of what’s going on in the trenches. In the same spirit, some TWoP posters have taken it upon themselves to counter the print media’s lazy strike reportage—which typically sides with the networks and portrays television scribes as greedy millionaires—by scouring the Web for more accurate coverage.

No one can predict what will happen as the strike progresses, but the writers deserve everything they’re asking for and more (and soon). Their efforts are what separate innovative television shows from pea-brained advertising collateral, and they ought to be compensated for it as much as any other artists.

If this argument sounds elitist, so be it—television is too precious an American art form to be given over to a dull cabal of blowhard shut-ins and avaricious execs. Besides, just picture a different scenario: The strike drags on for another couple of months, and the writers stand their ground—despite TV-deprived Americans’ ever-increasing, angry desperation for new episodes of their favorite shows. The studios take this opportunity to play their trump card and commission scripts from the loudest, snarkiest, most opinionated bloggers, forum-posters and message-board habitués in cyberspace. Consequently, Battlestar Galactica returns from the mid-season break right on schedule—with an episode in which Starbuck hooks up with a Klingon.

Be careful what You wish for.