From the moment the second series was cut from a 22 to 13 week run, the failure of 'Friday Night Lights' to capture large audiences in the US baffled critics and fans alike. The debate continued right up to the airing of the final show earlier this year. The American football drama was well written, had a great (good looking) cast, appealed to a fairly wide demographic and was about football - a sport with a decent sized fanbase Stateside. So what happened?
There was no shortage of reasons cited for the shows failure. Amongst them were the 'lack of big stars', 'sports fans want to watch the real thing', 'the show being shifted around the schedule' and 'lack of serious backing from the network'. Whilst the first is nonsense - great shows can make big stars - I'm not sure about the second and not really in a position to comment on the others. It baffles me. I've just got my boys hooked on it. As a family we love it. Check out the opening scene from the pilot. Sets the show up brilliantly.
So what is the big Friday Night Lights 'what if'. This quote from a 2008 New York Times article on 'Art in the Age of Franchising' may help answer that.
The show, which is inspired by the 1990 book by H. G. Bissinger and Peter Berg’s 2004 movie of the same name, ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on authenticity. It shuts fans out. An author’s work can no longer exist in a vacuum, independent of hardy online extensions; indeed, a vascular system that pervades the Internet. Artists must now embrace the cultural theorists’ beloved model of the rhizome and think of their work as a horizontal stem for numberless roots and shoots — as many entry and exit points as fans can devise.
I don't necessarily believe that this is the sole reason for the show's failure, but I can't help wonder 'what if?' I can't help wonder how differently it might have looked and felt to its audience had it been more permeable. With a large cast, many of which portray troubled teens, there was no shortage of back stories to be discovered or opportunities for interesting audeince engagement to be had. Just as media companies get used to the idea of 'spreadable media' the audience begin to demand something more permable. I can't help but wonder how the show's makers might have adapted the show over the seasons based on wathcing what how the audience play, adapt and remix their content. They never got a chance though.
The show... ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on authenticity. It shuts fans out.
Dropping the boarder guards did no harm to dramas like Skins and Misfits, probably the more porous and permeable than anything Channel 4 had done before (they were both pre 'Seven Days'). Though not a prerequisit for survival it's hard to see how hermetically sealed shows, cut adrift from the digital world will will compete without packing a huge punch.
What if Friday Night Lights had attempted to engage its fans in the same way Skins and Misfits had? What if the fans could co-create elements of the show? What if they could guess the outcome of each of the show games in a fantasy league styled format? What if there were online only characters building on the back stories of the show's stars? What if the show's makers had offered fans the chance to come to Friday night football events in their owns town featuring the shows cast? That's a lot of 'what ifs'.
By guarding their border they created a huge disconnect from the fans who may, unlike the critics, be able to tell them where exactly the problem lay. There are more tools to gauge the temperature of the audience than just overnights and so not using them seems unthinkable. At the Futures of Entertainment conference in Boston Matt Locke recounted the amusing anecdote told by Richard Curtis on how he got feedback on Blackadder:
“This was before the days of ratings … I still don’t know how many people watched any episode of Blackadder. I used to wander round Shepherd’s Bush, looking in people’s windows, particularly people in basement flats, to see whether or not anyone was watching Blackadder [series] one … because I didn’t know whether or not it had been successful otherwise.”
With such opportunity for audience engagement it's hard to feel sympathy for media organisations scratching around for reasons as to why their show isn't connecting with fans, especially if they insist on building walls around their content. What they forget is that walls are difficult to penetrate both ways so when it comes to looking to the audience for answers they may as well be stood peering through the living room windows of their neighborhood.