Increasingly, fans are being courted by media owners as important participants in viral marketing campaigns designed to increase the bottom-up cache of particular properties/products. Amongst the opportunities being extended, some fans are encouraged to submit videos that showcase their creativity, provide points of contact with industry insiders, and foster greater investment in helping to build a branded world. In 2007, Battlestar Galactica set up a video tool kit on its website, which included multiple clips from the actual series, and invited fans to create mash-ups and other creative materials with the winning entry personally selected by executive producer David Eick to air during an episode from the series’ third season.
Such strategies often seek to repurpose fan creative efforts in ways that align with the economic goals of brand ownership. All BSG fan video submissions were required to end with the same promotional clip, which stated, “All new episodes of Battlestar Galactica every Sunday at 10:00 only on Sci-Fi”. Since Sci-Fi could easily have added this promotional snippet to the winning video, requiring fans to do so reveals one mechanism through which fan creative labor is taught to serve industry needs. BSG fan videos were also used to sell online viewer eyeballs to sponsors, with all submissions preceded by a 30-second ad. As advertisers seek out new spaces for reaching consumers, including sponsoring fan websites and other hubs, the retooling of official sites to accommodate fan-generated materials is an important strategic maneuver designed to reel in both fans and sponsors, generating revenue from the latter based on the free creative labor of the former. In this manner, unpaid fan labor is transformed into a commercial product that attracts – but, importantly, also merits – sponsorship.
Even as the industry seeks to monetize fan productions, brand owners also look to borrow fan styles and modes of distribution. Also in 2007, NBC produced a series of short internet spoofs of the series Heroes called Zeroes. The vids attracted over 1.5 million viewers on various video-hosting platforms including Youtube. Zeroes contained no “trace evidence” that it was produced by NBC for promotional purposes. Variety noted, “NBC’s online promos often look to ape the sort of user-generated clips consumers create to pay homage to their favorite shows”.
Zeroes co-opts fan practices while eliminating fan labor entirely. In doing so, NBC acknowledged the importance of fan creations to legitimizing brand value even as it demonstrated that brand owners can bypass the middleman by producing fannish materials guaranteed to promote corporate interests without the added hassle of needing to manage fan communities. What happens when fans realize they have been replaced by marketers schooled in their practices? Arguably, given Heroes’ rapid decline in popularity, producers might have been better served relinquishing some creative authority to its fan base.