On May 17, the season finale of Supernatural aired on the CW. The last remaining series from the network’s earlier iteration, the WB, Supernatural closed out its 13th season (having already received a green light for season 14) with 1.6 million viewers and a cliffhanger that’s been in the making since season five. The hour-long sci-fi dramedy centers on two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, as they road-trip around the country fighting basically every monster, legend, deity, or heavenly host from modern and ancient mythologies. Or, as any member of the show’s considerable fan base will summarize it for you, the brothers are involved in “Saving people, hunting things—the family business.”
Supernatural has always been the little show that could. No small feat, it has balanced lowbrow zany comedy, where the brothers battle clowns, save imaginary friends (a sort of twist on the Zână from Romanian folklore), and get stuck in a parallel universe, with darker dramatic arcs (the brothers have died more than fifteen times, not including an episode styled after Groundhog Day in which Dean perished more than 100 times). Anyone just tuning in to Supernatural in 2018 might very well wonder, given its low-budget campy nature, how the show has lasted for 13 years.
The answer: fandom. It seems that most networks and showrunners, with a few exceptions, are only now discovering the value and power of fan-driven communities. For instance, this May, when Fox announced that it would cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a quirky police/office comedy, its fans protested the decision on Twitter with the hashtag #renewB99. Within 31 hours, the show found a new home at NBC for its sixth season.
Often the butt of jokes, the CW can be considered something like a younger sibling to the Big Four broadcast networks (though it’s partially owned by CBS). It’s known for being home to teen-angst-driven zeitgeist shows like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Riverdale. Nevertheless, unlike the major networks, the CW has figured out how to develop shows that achieve astonishing popularity. In their 2007 book Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington describe the media technique that the CW has excelled at:
As we have moved from an era of broadcasting to one of narrowcasting, a process fueled by deregulation of media markets and reflected in the rise of new media technologies, the fan as a specialized yet dedicated consumer has become a centerpiece of media industries’ marketing strategies. Rather than ridiculed, fan audiences are now wooed and championed by cultural industries.
By 2007, the CW had been narrowcasting for years. The concept was proven successful in commercial terms when the network was still the WB, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, Charmed, Roswell, Veronica Mars, and Gilmore Girls. (The latter two have since been revived with their original casts on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, while Charmed and Roswell are being rebooted by the CW itself next season.) The WB (owned by Warner Brothers) was conceived in 1995, the same year that another broadcast network, UPN (the United Paramount Network, owned by CBS) came into being. Both took what, at the time, were considerable risks for scripted television: the WB for its unconventional genre shows like Buffy, Felicity, and Roswell, and UPN for its primarily black sitcoms like Girlfriends, All of Us, and Moesha. With both networks struggling to make a profit after a decade on the air and facing tough negotiations with station affiliates, they quietly started talks in early 2006 to merge into one network aimed at capturing younger audiences.
Supernatural, which premiered in 2005, might be the CW’s most representative example of narrowcasting. The show’s characters are mostly male (though it’s trying to diversify), and its story lines blend sci-fi, camp, and melodrama. In the past decade, many so-called “basic cable” networks have begun to follow the CW’s model. AMC, for example, has become known for creating quasi-genre series with immense narrative complexity, including Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Preacher, Halt and Catch Fire, and Turn: Washington’s Spies. FX produces grittier, more eccentric, and at times sardonic series like Atlanta, Archer, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, American Horror Story, and Legion.
With more scripted series than ever, many critics will insist that we’re currently living in the Golden Age of Television, the era of (to invoke the oft-overused term) “prestige TV.” While I won’t be making such a claim here, I will argue that narrowcasting has been a key factor in getting us to this particular point in history. But what does this mean for society as a whole?
One could argue (and many have) that narrowcasting—not just with television shows, but in all aspects of media—leads to conflict and closed-mindedness. We’ve seen the effects of such granular marketing in the 2016 elections, with media consumers insulating themselves with the help of Facebook, Google, Internet cookies and advertising algorithms. This is without a doubt dangerous for democracy. However, narrowcasting has done some good as well. The mainstreaming of fandoms, encouraged by (and I hate to admit this) the growing market for nerd culture, has provided space for individuals who are often labeled as “other” to not only find one another, but to build their own communities and spaces. Political turmoil, coupled with the first generation to enter adulthood with fewer prospects than their parents, has led to a seemingly more active (at least online and in the streets, if not always at the polls) and aware youth population.
In order to appeal to that coveted 18–34 age group, networks have found that being more socially conscious—adding more diverse lineups, focusing on getting more women in lead roles and in writers’ rooms—buys them latitude. If all of this sounds overly cynical, well, maybe it is. We’re now living in what will likely turn out to be a fleeting moment in our cultural consciousness when capitalism and social justice have lined up on the same page. On May 29, after Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment about Obama White House aide Valerie Jarrett, ABC (owned by Disney) swiftly canceled her recently rebooted sitcom. The news that Barr is a racist was no surprise to anyone, given her similar comments in the past (for example, comparing Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, to an ape in 2013), and surely least of all to the network that decided to put her back on television in the first place. ABC didn’t decide to cancel Roseanne because it altruistically opposes blatant racism, but rather to avoid an almost certain boycott of the network’s advertisers.
So where does all this leave us? Long-running shows like Supernatural mint money for their respective networks, which encourages further narrowcasting. However, the communities formed out of narrowcasting also help to level the playing field and provide opportunities and platforms for creators—and audiences—that simply weren’t represented before. Jared Padalecki, for example, after dealing with his own struggles with mental illness and hearing similar stories from fans at conventions, started the “Always Keep Fighting” campaign, giving a voice to and starting conversations around an often stigmatized topic. As the CW works to increase its appeal among the advertisers’ candy that is the 18–34 demo, bringing in more women and people of color in front of and behind the cameras, it would be easy to say that they are simply pandering to younger generations. But maybe, as a result, our cultural industries and artistic endeavors do become more diverse—in which case, personally, I’m OK with such pandering. Or maybe I’m just a little more millennial than I’d like to admit.