Give Those Fans a Job!

I’ve only managed to catch the first two episodes of Lost this season, but even still, I caught myself ignoring my general no-spoilers policy and anxiously clicking past the warning on this Vulture post to read rumors about which major character might be killed off. I couldn’t help myself: Topsy-turvy serials like Lost are designed to give viewers like me an insatiable itch to know What Happens Next. Half the fun of watching the show is speculating, whether at the office with coworkers, the bar with friends, or by yourself in the show, on how it will all play out: Who will it be? How will it happen? What shocking new development do the writers have in store?

Indeed, the show’s producers have an interest in working fans into a lather, and, like other TV shows and movies with strong fanbases, they employ legions of marketing consultants and PR flacks to strategically manage the online communities that form up around the shows. And of course, there are plenty of journalists and unpaid bloggers who are only too happy to play along with endless exclamatory headlines and feverish speculation.

And speculate they do: Visit the heavy-duty Lost fan sites and you’ll find pockets of obsessives who might actually know more than the writers do. If you have time to delve into it, the stuff they come up with is fascinating. (The same is true on for like-minded genre serial Battlestar Galactica.) By the end of a show’s run, whatever the writers actually go with is almost inevitably lesser than the best fan speculation, and fans almost always end up disappointed. Meanwhile, for the most part, their efforts go to waste.

So why not put the fans to work?

I’m not talking about having the fans do a call-in vote on the next-to-last episode to decide which character dies. I’m talking about using fan speculation as a major resource for a show’s writers. Instead of leaving a show’s story entirely in the hands of a small team of producers, why not announce a basic dramatic setup, publish the series bible, or at least all the character descriptions and locations, along with some background. Perhaps even shoot a pilot to kick things off. Then give the online community a place to sound off, and scour the message boards and fan pages for the best material. And as the show goes on, continue to use their input to keep the series going.

Call it open-source television: publish the raw materials, and let the online community make whatever they want out of it.

Production schedules would make this nearly impossible for a show that ran every week. But why not divide up a Lost-sized sixteen episode season into four four-episode blocks, scatter them throughout the year, and go back to the boards after each? The Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica is doing this in a limited form: The pilot is being released on DVD this May — far in advance of its 2010 cable premiere — partially in order to solicit feedback from fans. Why not simply take that idea a step further?

If a project like this worked, you’d end up with a seriously potent combination of American Idol-style fan interaction and Lost-style fan obsession. It wouldn’t be totally fan driven, of course: you’d still need producers and writers to serve as moderators, to cobble together the best pieces and polish them up. But it would give dedicated fans an even greater stake in the outcome of a show, and open up TV storytelling to those outside the writer’s room. Television scripting is already a deeply collaborative process; why not make it more so?

I don’t really expect this to happen of course, certainly not on any major network. I’m sure there would be a lot of logistical hurdles to work out. But it’d be a great project for, say, an online content producer looking to do something innovative. And who knows, by giving fans control, you might even end up with a series that, miracle of miracles, actually gave them (close to) what they want.