From ‘Heroes’ to ‘Zeroes’: Producing Fan Vids without Fans

Curator's Note

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.


This is a really interesting post Avi and brings together a lot of issues that have emerged over this week. In particular the way in which digital media is increasingly blurring otherwise well established boundaries. I realise I’m not the first to say this but it’s something that has become apparent in each of the posts this week. Promotion is looking like content, content is looking like promotion, amateurs are creating texts that look professional, professionals are producing texts that look amateur and notions of celebrity and authentic are ever more difficult to determine. It seems the kinds of definitions and distinctions that television studies works with become increasingly untenable. Where exactly does Heroes stop? Does it somehow also encompass this kind of parody when it’s produced by the same network? I think your final point is particularly relevant and is connected to this blurring of textual boundaries. I’m sure fans will inevitably become (and possibly already are) savvy about what is going on. Do they consider these texts part of the Heroes text and what do they think about them? If they dislike them does that somehow become a reflection on the series itself or just the network? How do they distinguish between content as promotion and content as programme? I think ultimately a lot of these things are up in the air and as many of the examples this week proves, the industry is still trying to figure it out along with the rest of us.

Wonderful post Avi. As Liz notes, this really ties together many of the issues we've been discussing over the past week - aesthetics, authenticity, authorship, creative labour, promotion vs. content, etc. I have to admit, when I first watched Zeroes some months ago, I was completely unaware that this was produced by NBC - thus proving your point. Although it doesn't exploit the creative labour of fans in the same way that BSG might be considered to, it nevertheless comes across as a somewhat unethical manuever. Rather than exploting creative labour per se, it arguably exploits the audience's aesthetic literacy and expectations (low resolution, hand-held camera, cell phone recordings, jerky camera movements = authenticity a la The Blair Witch Project, Bigfoot, UFO videos etc.) As you suggest, fans of the show may well have felt cheated by such a promotion. Have you found any evidence to indicate that this is indeed the case? No doubt there are numerous blogs and message boards you can consult to gauge their general response.

Avi – Echoing Liz and JP, your post is a fitting way to cap off a week of productive discussions. Your post inspires me to ask if there is a term we might use to describe these forms of faux-viral or -user generated content and/or the processes that produce them. The term I’m looking for would be the inverse of textual poaching, and would describe a mode of appropriation in which strategy masquerades as tactic. Clearly we’ve moved far beyond the convergence of producer and consumer, entering into a set of relations in which each side of this conjunction has become adept at deploying televisual and viral form to lay claim to the authenticity and authority of the other. As Avi’s post demonstrates, the result can be a dizzyingly recursive vortex of appropriation, imitation, and posturing.

The other thing your post brings to mind is a Baudrillardian reading of contemporary media culture as a viral sign system which has reached its apogee (nadir?) and which no longer requires the services of its hosts (audiences) to replicate itself. Not only does this sign system generate its own neutered critiques and corporatized snark, but it produces its own love letters to itself in the form of "viral" videos like Zeroes. The audience has finally become redundant. Or at least it has to NBC.


Thank you all for the thought-provoking feedback and for an inspiring week.
To respond to both Liz and Max's points about blurred boundaries and the need to rethink Jenkins' textual poaching argument as now inverted, where the industry challenges fan creations for authority: I've recently started using the term 'brandom' to articulate changes in how fan communities and media industries interact. Brandom is a blurred terrain precisely because it is comprised of multiple, overlapping and dispersed "investors" (who, in a DIY neo-liberal-oriented society, do not necessarily constitute a community, and whose investment is simultaneously - though not equal parts - economic, temporal, and emotional), some professional, some amateur, some hybrid, who are all performing creative labor on a particular brand over which creative authority has been both decentered and, to some extent, recentered in the brand itself. The brand now becomes its own author, requiring each investor to self-police their own creative input in order to "stay true" to it (so that, for example, various individuals writing Superman stories, whether paid comic book writers or fans, will often speak about staying true to the essence of the Superman character and world, as if it existed apart from their own authoring practices).
While brandom can be a contested terrain, with investment differing according to sub-groups and each individual encouraged to compete for the brand communities' attention (as well as that of its official guardians - think of BSG's David Eick ultimately getting to decide whose video submission gets aired on Sci-Fi), it is also one held together by what Foucault termed "technologies of the self," whereby the rules for participating are largely internalized. Though Zeroes might appropriate fan practices and definitely blurs the boundaries between professional and amateur creations, to some extent, this seems acceptable to many Heroes fans as long as it stays true to the spirit of the brand (and, indeed, the complaints that fans of Heroes have had are largely with inconsistent and overly melodramatic storytelling, without the irreverence and fun that Zeroes seems to capture).
As to JP's question about how fans responded to Zeroes, I have mostly encountered positive feedback. Interestingly, where I did encounter resistance was with the BSG fan video contest, though this centered less on exploiting fan labor, than on  Sci-Fi/BSG not fully following through on its commitment to treat fans as valued participants. While BSG fans were initially thrilled about the opportunity to create content for the brand, they increasingly grew frustrated with the time lag between their submission and Sci-Fi’s upload (in some instances, up to ten weeks), the often low resolution of the videos as compared to other hosting sites (which they were forbidden from using in order to be eligible for the contest), the lack of communication from the producers about deadlines and judgment criteria and finally, the decision to crown as contest winner an entry from the DAVE School (The Digital Animation and Visual Effects School associated with Universal Studios Florida). Coincidentally, BSG is produced by NBC-Universal. As one submitter complained, “This isn't the fan base, I was imagining, to enter the contest... shame on me, I guess...”

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