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Gone but not Forgotten

These days, when a favorite TV show is canceled, viewers don't want sympathy - they fight to save it

Sunday, April 04, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

So far Hallmark hasn't come up with a sympathy card for when a friend's favorite TV show gets canceled. But given all the other ridiculous titles greeting card companies concoct, it doesn't seem that far-fetched.

    Related article:

Holmes promises more of 'WENN'


Plenty of TV viewers barely notice when a series passes into the great beyond. However, some folks love "their" TV shows. A lot.

Last year millions gathered for communal farewells to "Seinfeld." In recent years TV Guide has spotlighted a low-rated TV show that deserves a second chance. Internet news groups and mailing lists abound with TV talk.

As the television season nears an end, viewers are wondering whether the shows they watch regularly will return. This season an unprecedented number of series have been given advance notice that they're safe from cancellation, including ABC's "Sports Night" and The WB's "Felicity."

Other programs, notably CBS's "Chicago Hope," "Early Edition," "L.A. Doctors" and "Promised Land," have yet to get that vote of confidence.

For fans who are saddened or angered by the cancellation of a TV show, there's only one appropriate response: Start a campaign to bring the series back. Fans of UPN's "The Sentinel" and CBS's "The Magnificent Seven" convinced the networks to bring those shows back in January (although "Seven" has been canceled again).

Then there was the "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" campaign, which supporters of the show framed as a battle of decent, family values programming against CBS's desire to draw more advertising-friendly, young, male viewers.

Debby Kennedy, a history teacher at Moon Area High School, was involved in the "Dr. Quinn" campaign on the Internet ( Kennedy said "Dr. Quinn" fans collected and spent more than $12,000 on ads (including one in the Hollywood Reporter) urging CBS to keep the series in production for at least another season so the show's writers would have time to prepare a farewell episode.

That final season didn't come to fruition, but CBS will air a new "Dr. Quinn" TV movie in May. If ratings are good enough, more movies may follow.

Last fall seven fans of the AMC series "Remember WENN," which was set in Pittsburgh, visited here just after the show's cancellation. "WENN" was never filmed in Pittsburgh, but these viewers, who met over the Internet, decided Pittsburgh was a central location to gather.

They toured the city, watched episodes in their hotel rooms and shared their passion for a show and its endearing characters who work in a fictitious Pittsburgh radio station in the early 1940s. Few said they felt as strongly about any other TV show, and their reasons for watching were not extreme. Most said it simply came down to quality writing and distinctive characters.

To those with similar feelings about TV programs, such devotion is understandable. For those too busy to watch TV, it may seem a bit obsessive.

The stereotype of an obsessed TV fan is rooted in "Star Trek" fandom. William Shatner fanned the flames when he appeared in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch telling fans to "get a life." In the skit, fans were portrayed as abnormal geeks with a lack of social interaction, no prospects for finding a mate and a fashion sense limited to duplications of "Star Trek" uniforms.

The "Remember WENN" fans who visited Pittsburgh - all women - defied that image. They have jobs, other interests and four of them have spouses who watch the show with them.

"My house is not a replica of the WENN studio," assured Michele Savage, 32, a graphic arts designer for a cable company in Columbus, Ohio. "But there are people in Columbus who drive around in scarlet and gray vans that say 'OSU' and 'Buckeyes' on the side of them."

Enthusiasm for sports and popular TV shows is accepted by society, Savage said, but fans of less popular elements in the culture are more easily dismissed.

Dana Sherman, 34, a grad student from Queens, N.Y., said the "get a life" mentality directed at fans of cult shows stems from a sense of anti-intellectualism. It's OK to go overboard for a sports team or "Seinfeld," but admiration for less popular shows is akin to being "on the science team or in the chess club," she said. "That's the nerds."

Sherman said her fondness for "Remember WENN" doesn't mean it's the only thing in her life. Rather, it's enhanced her life because it's allowed her to share her enthusiasm with other like-minded TV viewers.

"People say, 'Go out and meet some people.' Well that's what I'm doing," Sherman said. "I'm having lunch with a group of very nice people I would never have met if not for this show."

"WENN" creator Rupert Holmes said he always envisioned his program as an oasis viewers could escape to in the midst of their contemporary lives.

"I knew from my own personal experience that many times TV series can be part of your extended family," Holmes said. "I may not know Mary Tyler Moore that well, but I sure know Mary Richards."

Such fervent interest begs the question: Is this healthy?

Dr. Frank A. Ghinassi, chief of adult services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, said balance is the key.

"Like everything else there's an element of moderation," Ghinassi said. "Is it a delight for them, or at some point does it become some kind of refuge?"

Ghinassi said he knows people who talk about nights devoted to TV, which he said is no more harmful than those who devote Sunday afternoon to the Steelers during football season. He compared interest in TV shows to past generations getting caught up in characters from literature or telling stories around a camp fire.

The Internet influence on fandom conjures stereotypical images of geeks hunched over their keyboards, but Ghinassi compared it to a book club. Both offer a sense of community for those who want to share their feelings and observations.

"People have different sets of needs," he said. "For some people, reading is a solitary endeavor. Other people only get joy out of reading in the book club they attend three times a month because they're using the book as a way of interacting with other people."

Debby Kennedy said her interaction with other "Dr. Quinn" fans on the Internet doesn't fit the stereotype.

"The Internet has a reputation for being somewhat looney, and justly so in many instances," Kennedy said. "But on the [mailing list] I belong to, I've found the members to be intelligent and literate. They're professionals, not stalkers who just sit around and talk about what so-and-so wore. It's a lot more cerebral than perhaps the perception might be."

She said interaction with other fans fostered her enjoyment of the period drama.

"You connect to people who have that common interest," she said. "You can discuss the characters, the romance, the history involved. I've learned quite a bit from the mailing list to which I've belonged."

Kennedy said her interest in "Dr. Quinn" is simply a hobby, the way another person may choose gardening or golf as a hobby.

"I don't perceive wanting to bring back a TV show to be anything abnormal," she said. "When people care passionately about a cause it's important for them to make a statement and try to do something about it."

The only time devoted TV viewing may be a danger is when people use it to avoid contact with others.

"That's a very delicate line, and it's often very difficult to make a judgment about externally," Ghinassi said.

J.J. Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston College, said familiarity with TV characters breeds bonding. Some viewers will adopt characters they can identify with to feel good about their own accomplishments.

" 'Roseanne' probably validated a lot of women in blue-collar families, since she raised a family with humor and verve in solving familiar family problems," Tecce said. "Similarly, 'Ally McBeal' probably validates a lot of professional women with her charm, assertiveness and accomplishments."

Vicki Abt, a sociology professor at Penn State Abington, thinks there is a problem with people getting this involved in TV.

"Television is an ersatz world, a virtual reality. It's substituting and sucking up the real world," Abt said. "People are now more real on television than your next-door neighbor."

Abt, who admits she doesn't watch much TV and takes pride in her own self-described elitism, said TV is an easy out for people who don't want to deal with other human beings.

"Television allows us to escape the real world; most cultural phenomena help us deal better: courts, religion, family," she said. "We've always had fantasy as leisure, but that was a small portion of our lives. There were Romans in the coliseum killing Christians, but they didn't do it 24 hours a day."

But Tecce said in the short term it's OK to identify with TV show characters.

"They get our minds off a lot of our problems, and they vicariously fill some of our needs," Tecce said. "If there's no constructive effort to change your life in the long term, then you're living in a fantasy world. That's harmful."

Dorothy Swanson knows how deeply some viewers care about TV characters. Swanson founded the advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television 15 years ago. VQT supports shows it considers quality (ranging from "NYPD Blue" and "The Sopranos" to "Will & Grace" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and lobbies networks to keep these programs on the air.

"Television can be like reading a good novel," Swanson said. "You can't wait to get back and see how that [character] is doing and what happens to that person."

She said there are two kinds of viewers who get involved with TV shows and characters.

"I know from having met so many viewers there are people who really, really enjoy television and look forward to being with, say the Barones [of "Everybody Loves Raymond]," Swanson said. "And then there are those who don't have much else in their life, and they depend on TV as their social life."

"Dr. Quinn" was endorsed by VQT, but Swanson refused to join the campaign for several reasons, not the least of which was that the show had a healthy life span of six seasons.

"I will say the same thing about 'Homicide,'" said Swanson of another VQT-supported series that isn't expected to be renewed by NBC in May. "After seven years and such a good run, it's hard to say nobody's found the show. You can't say the network needs to give it a better time slot."

The same logic applies to CBS's cancellation of "The Nanny." It's been around since 1993 and will at least get the chance to do a wrap-up episode in May. But Christine Davis, a 27-year-old "Nanny" fan from Glendale, Calif., has started a campaign called "Oys in the Hood" to save the sitcom. She said it's difficult to explain her fascination with the program.

"Me and my 'Nanny' friends all attribute to it to this: It gets into your blood and you can't get it out," Davis said in a phone interview. "I felt the same about 'Scarecrow and Mrs. King.'"

Davis suspects a conspiracy to get rid of the show ("Dr. Quinn" fans expressed similar sentiments). She believes star Fran Drescher doesn't really want to stop making "The Nanny" and that Drescher made the announcement the show will end at CBS's urging, to save face.

For Swanson, who picks which shows to trumpet carefully, a "Nanny" campaign is unimaginable.

"This is the kind of thing that has ruined campaigning," Swanson said. "There was a time before everyone was doing it that campaigns were reserved for a special show and the campaign had meaning. It doesn't anymore."

With the Internet as an instant communications tool, anyone can start a campaign for any show.

Of course, whether a show deserves a campaign is completely subjective. Fans of a show you watch will seem like crusaders for a worthy cause. Those who trumpet a show you dislike can be easily dismissed as nuts.

Vicki Abt says she'd only write letters if C-SPAN ceased to exist.

"I can't imagine anybody caring enough to campaign to put a mediocre, silly show back on," Abt said. "It's sad. It would seem to me we need to do something about the bills that are languishing in Congress. We're amusing ourselves to death instead of getting out in the real world in all its complexities and dealing with it. Democracy is not a spectator sport."

Abt isn't the only one who doesn't understand the "save our show" mentality. Frequently the stars of the shows fans rally around don't appreciate the impact they have. For the actors it's just a job, and when the job is over, they move on to another job.

Actress Debra Messing, who now stars in the NBC sitcom "Will & Grace," played the lead role in the 1998 ABC series "Prey," about a new breed of humans. "Prey" only lasted a few episodes, but fans mounted a campaign to save it last spring.

"Obviously it warms my heart to know people out there enjoyed the show," Messing said while promoting "Will & Grace" last summer. "I'm grateful for their commitment and their passion for the work we were trying to do. But the fact is 'Prey' is over and I'm doing 'Will & Grace' now. I don't think their efforts are really going to help."

Actress Debrah Farentino starred in the 1994-1995 NBC sci-fi series "Earth 2." Fans still congregate for conventions, even though no new programs have been produced for four years.

"I think it's kind of ... extraordinary," Farentino said, measuring her words carefully while promoting ABC's "Storm of the Century." "I don't understand it, but I won't sit there in judgment. Everyone has their different things. Maybe I'll someday be at a point in my life when television will be important."

For a narrow segment of fans, even the cancellation of a TV series doesn't mean the end of stories involving the show's characters. Fans write their own adventures using the characters and post this "fan fiction" to the Internet. "WENN" creator Rupert Holmes defended the practice, comparing it to some people's reactions to a favorite author.

"Someone once said more has been written about Sherlock Holmes, that there have been more Sherlock Holmes imitations, than Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote," Holmes said. "It's nice to have a hobby and collect things and be passionate about things."

Kennedy said she's never reacted to another show the way she did "Dr. Quinn."

"I don't have a lot of time to watch television, and when I do I'm rather selective," she said. "Now I'm a little gun-shy to let myself get attached to a television show that way again."

As for that greeting card for fans suffering withdrawal from a canceled favorite, a Hallmark spokeswoman said no such cards exist. But she took the question seriously and said she's gotten stranger requests for card categories.

If Hallmark ever chooses to expand its line, here's one suggested sentiment that will hearten most fans of canceled programs: "Sorry your show is gone, sad to hear it's been canned, take comfort because, it'll turn up in rerun land."

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