Dear audience: Thanks for watching. You're fired.Five ways a cancelled TV series can keep faith with its audience

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Dead terminator robot

A few weeks ago, Alex and I got bad news: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was being cancelled. And not just cancelled: the production studio isn't even shopping it around. (In Terminator terms, this is like pulling the chip out of the show's skull and incinerating it.)

This leaves us with a cliffhanger ending that will never be resolved. We have no idea whether John Connor will escape from the nightmarish future he jumped to, whether Sarah Connor has terminal cancer, what the hell Cameron is up to, or what Catherine Weaver's master plan is.

The result for T:TSSC's audience is mass frustration... just as it was for viewers of series ranging from Twin Peaks to Soap. And that points to one of the more series weaknesses of the dramatic TV series - one of the longest-lingering artifacts of broadcast-style, one-to-many communications.

No wonder it's so durable: dramatic TV (I'm including sitcoms here as well) is notoriously expensive to produce, raising the barrier to entry sky-high. (Or Skynet-high, ha ha.) It's centrally conceived and created. And so far, alternative models like independently-produced webisodes still don't seem to be near the tipping point that would let them challenge the studios.

But that doesn't mean dramatic TV is invulnerable... or that its hold on its audience is unassailable. Witness the rapid rise of so-called reality TV, with its often-lower production costs.

And nowhere are dramatic TV's deficiencies on more vivid display than when a series is cancelled - something that often happens abruptly. For a series with an ongoing story, it's especially deadly, with those narrative threads severed for good. True, sometimes resolution comes through a subsequent movie... but the economics of TV make that the exception rather than the rule.

Narration, truncation, frustration

For audiences, that can be extremely frustrating. (That frustration formed the basis of at least one episode of an anthology series and a subsequent Futurama parody: aliens who had been receiving TV signals from Earth wanted closure on the series they'd been following.)

And the issue isn't just frustration. It's the feeling of being jerked out of the suspension of disbelief by the reminder that it's just a TV series, contingent on production budgets and ratings. And it's the way the relationship between viewers and producers is poisoned, as we get the all-too-accurate message that it's purely mercantile, and has nothing to do with the stories or characters that have inspired a genuine emotional connection.

That should worry producers, studios and networks. Because each time we're burned, audiences become less and less willing to invest time and attention in a show knowing there's a better-than-average chance that it won't survive to a second season.

The terrain is slowly shifting, but it's the fans who are leading the way. Save-the-show efforts, which started in late 60s with Star Trek, are now enabled, expanded and amplified by the social web. Fan fiction carries on story threads long after creative teams have disbanded (despite the odd heavy-handed cease-and-desist letter wending its way to the writers). And episode archives and show wikis create an often-encyclopedic library of information on a series that allow fans old and new to continue exploring the universe created by the show's producers.

It's time those producers started picking up their end. To their credit, a number of shows have taken tentative steps: enabling fan wikis, creating conversation backchannels during episode airings, and making directors, stars and writers available after or even during broadcast for online chats. (Battlestar Galactica went above and beyond, offering everything from podcast episode commentaries to an eBay-based prop auction.)

But there's still little to reward faithful viewers once a show is cancelled.

Granted, there's every reason for a show's cast and creators to want to move on to the next thing as soon as possible: bills to pay, careers to advance, money to stop spending and a failure to put firmly in the past. But making even a "failed" series satisfying for your fans means they'll be a lot likelier to follow you to that next thing when you find it. And it means you aren't throwing away one of the show's last remaining assets: that long tail of passionate, even consuming interest in your story.

So, for TV producers, here are five ways you can reward your faithful fans... and maybe even get a little more value from your investment:

  • Satisfy our curiosity. At the very least, find out what our most burning questions are, and answer them. (The UserVoice-style voting that everyone from Dell to President Obama has used to rank community interest in various questions or ideas can come in handy here.) What happens when John realizes that he has to let the human Cameron die so the Terminator Cameron can take her place, go back in time and save his life? Is Special Agent Dale Cooper doomed to be possessed by the evil spirit Bob forever? Did Terri get the bomb off her neck before it was detonated?
  • Free your unproduced material. Often, a lot of work has gone into an anticipated but unproduced season: season arcs, episode outlines, storyboards, even scripts. How about publishing that on the web, along with some context to frame how things would have played out?
  • Produce those unproduced episodes... old-school. It costs a lot of money to create an episode of TV, typically hundreds of thousands or even a few million dollars; the bills for those film or video crews, sound stages and post-production services add up quickly. Creating professional-grade audio, by contrast, costs a pittance. For a fraction of the tab for shooting an episode, why not take a leaf from entertainment history - specifically, radio serials? Turn those unaired scripts into podcast episodes - complete with sponsors and ads, if you want. And if you're using the voices of the original cast, you can count on two things: an enthusiastic audience, and a stronger sense of verisimilitude... that we're hearing the actual characters. (Compare that to the experience of the written and graphic novels that sometimes spin off of TV series: they're better than nothing, and sometimes actually good, but rarely do they capture the sense that this is really the same universe as the original series.)
  • Wrap up narrative threads... new-school. The phenomenon of webisodes - online-only clips, usually short - points to the possibility that a series that's been shot down can still manage a safe landing of sorts. Shoot a few scenes, using whatever sets you have left, that at least hint at how story lines have resolved.
  • Invite the community in. You probably don't want to ask your fans to decide how characters and story arcs turn out - it doesn't feel authoritative; this is one of the areas where the imprimatur of "official" still has real value. But how about giving your fans an arena for co-creating that doesn't affect the central story line? Provide some assets like background video from key sets, insert shots, sound effects and incidental music; set some (liberal) ground rules around usage; create a space to aggregate their creations; and let your audience keep the universe you've created alive. Need some inspiration? Check out how a few folks managed to get hundreds of people to reenact War of the Worlds on Twitter last Hallowe'en.

Yes, I know: there is a maze of contractual complexity and conflicting business interests to navigate for some of this to happen. But producers can begin anticipating that as they structure their next series, and lay the track for handling - and even thriving through - the eventuality that the first season may also be the last.

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