The Huffington Post has called Soft Skull Press “The literary version of a punk rock label." Neatoramanauts have a different expression for that: “a big bowl of awesome!” The good folks over at Soft Skull have been kind enough to give us a few copies of one of their latest, most awesome books, The Cult TV Book, edited by Stacey Abbott. All you have to do to win one is read our interview with Stacey below and then answer the two questions at the end of the interview. When you have your answers, send them to me: david ‘at’ neatorama.com. We’ll pick winners at random and shoot you an e-mail to find out where you want your book sent. Pretty easy, right?
—— Now, on with the interview!——
Neatorama: In the book, you talk about how cult TV was previously just for geeks ("socially awkward teenage boys"), but has now become mainstream. Just to cite one example, you show how fan conventions used to be thought of as freakish, but now they're crucial for networks and studios. What's changed?
SA: Television has changed. With the move away from the big networks to a much more competitive televisual landscapes with many smaller cable, pay, satellite channels all competing for audiences, the loyal niche audience is now very attractive to broadcasters and sponsors. Channels and networks aren’t necessarily looking for the big audiences (although they are happy when they get them) but rather a fairly affluent and committed audience who will keep coming back to watch their favourite shows on a weekly basis. This means that the fans of cult television are more important to TV now. This is why conventions have become so popular and new shows are previewed at events like Comic-Con. A successful preview of a TV show at Comic-Con provides a fantastic amount of great press for a show before it has even aired.
Neatorama: Later, you also argue that part of the change is merely the world's perception, which has also changed. In what ways?
SA: Two major things have changed. First, many creators/producers of programmes that we would call cult are self-admitted fans of cult television. People like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Ron Moore, Russell T. Davies, Stephen Moffat to name just a few. The success of these writers/producers show that being a fan of cult television is not a dead end street but rather a potential path to success. These people have very successful lives and so the image of the fan with ‘no life’ is being gradually dissipated. The second thing that has contributed to this perception change is the internet. The internet invites online discussion of all TV shows so many people who would not, in the past, describe themselves as Cult TV fans are now engaging in many of the same practices. Fans of Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost and Doctor Who contribute to fan forums, online discussion groups, and engage in detailed discussion and analysis of their favourite shows. The practices of the Cult TV fan are now quite common.
Neatorama: If, as you and your co-writers argue, audiences really want quirky, innovative programming, why do the networks continue to spend millions on cookie-cutter pilots?
SA: While audiences (some but not all) respond to quirky and innovative programming, it is difficult for the networks to anticipate what take off next with audiences. Networks don’t want to gamble too much so there is the desire to replicate success. Sometimes this works – Heroes definitely came on the heels of the success of Lost, and often it is not. Also, while, as we argue in the book, more audiences are interested in this type of cult programme now then ever before, some audiences are not interested in making the kind of commitment that it takes to watch Lost or Battlestar Galactica, so the networks do produce loads of series that are far more formulaic and therefore easier to dip in and out of.
Neatorama: How long before the networks and studios start paying attention to Webisodes and start sinking money into pilots online?
SA: Good question and no easy answer. At the moment Webisodes serve a purpose for the networks as an ancillary text and more and more people are watching TV and film online so this might change yet. But I’m not sure the networks feel confident in the internet in terms of finances. It is a gradual process I think, but will eventually go there.
Neatorama: I had a meeting at A&E recently with a woman about a show I was pitching and I said it would be perfect for the Web. The development person looked at me like I'd actually just said I wanted to copulate with her. Why have they been so reluctant to create content for the Web if that's where the eyeballs are?
SA: That is a funny story. I think it is transitional. More and more people are watching things online but not everyone yet. And networks, even if they are aiming at niche audiences, want to target as large a proportion of that audience as possible. I think the perception is that the material will get lost online. But this will change, I believe. Most networks are cautious and they require creative people working for them to spear-head major changes.
Neatorama: You spend a lot of ink discussing the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how ground-breaking it was. Of all the ground it broke, what do you think was the most significant in terms of influencing the future of TV?
SA: Did we talk a lot about Buffy. I did try and keep it balanced. But it is a key show particularly in many of the ways we have talked about above. It attracted people who would not necessarily call themselves cult TV fans and they began to engage with the show on a cult level. But to answer your question, I would say that it marked a key shift away from the episodic quality of much of TV toward asking your audience to engage with much broader and developing seasonal arcs. The characters on this series grew up, they evolved and the show grew up and evolved with them. The show has memory and it encourages the audience to share that memory not just move on from episode to episode and forget what came before. As much as I love The X-Files, one of the frustrations of the later seasons is that Scully still plays the skeptic despite everything she has been witness to. It is unbelievable that she would still be so resistant to the supernatural. On Buffy the characters reflect back on the audience and their actions often show how they have evolved as people. This is one way I think that Buffy has influenced TV. Now we see this type of memory in all types of shows.
Neatorama: Let's talk about probably the most famous of the cult programs, Star Trek. Why did it take nearly 20 years for someone to hit on the bright idea to create episode number 80? (The original three seasons in the late '60s were comprised of 79 episodes.) I mean, with all the fans, all the conventions, all the movies, etc. I'm just left scratching my head in wonder over this.
SA: I know what you mean. It does seem really ridiculous in retrospect. In the period where the show was building its audience in syndication, networks weren’t interested in cult television. This was a show that failed and while it did well in syndication, they weren’t going to be interested in another show that would generate smallish audiences. In the late 1970s when the fandom was really hitting its peak, they did begin to think of making another series but this then generated into Star Trek: The Motion Picture and once the franchise went into movies, no-one at this point would consider moving it back to TV. At that time, TV was the poor relation (this is changing now). By the time of Next Gen, Paramount was moving into television so transferring a successful film franchise seemed like a good move. It wasn’t just a question of returning to the original show. They were drawing in fans of the films as well.
Neatorama: Do you think Trekkies elevated the original series above and beyond? Was the drama that compelling? The action, that exciting? In short: were those 79 episodes really all that? (BTW, I grew up watching them, totally loving them, but never became anything remotely like a hard-core Trekkie.)
SA: I was a huge Star Trek fan as a child (probably my first cult TV experience although I wouldn’t describe myself as a hard-core Trekkie). I think that like any low budget series, the show has its strong and week episodes. 79 episodes in three years is a lot of television and so it is not surprising that not all the episodes are great. But it do think that at its best, the drama was compelling and innovative. This was a Utopian vision of the future that had a strong message about humanity. Some of the best episodes such as “Balance of Terror”, “Space Seed”, “Wolf in the Fold” and my personal favourite “City on the Edge of Forever” are very well written, with exciting action and in the case of “City on the Edge of Forever” are profoundly moving. Also, the focus upon the male friendship of Kirk, Spock and Bones was and is fresh and quite unusual.
Neatorama: If you could have lunch with only one, who'd you pick and why? Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner or Wil Wheaton?
SA: Leonard Nimoy – Spock is the most complex character on the show and his is the character who evolves the most throughout the entire TV series and films. Also, he directed some of the movies so his perspective would be very insightful.
Neatorama: Cult fan members never like it when something goes mainstream. Indeed, at least in the case of something like Borat, mainstream = certain death. But some cults become so big, like Trekkies, that they could be considered mainstream even though they're cult-ish. Where do you draw the line? At what point is it no longer a cult?
SA: The nature of cult is changing. A show like Lost was huge initially but its puzzle like narrative structure and the mythology of the island invited cult engagement with the show so I would say it is cult. Similarly Doctor Who is a national obsession in the UK and is aimed at family audiences, but it has a huge cult following (and has for years). It is difficult to know where to draw the line but I would say that if a series generates cult fan response, ie. emotional commitment, loyal viewing, engagement with the series beyond just watching it on a weekly basis etc. Then it is cult or at least as a cult quality. But having said this there will always be those cult shows that are cult because the fans found them – Firefly, Wonderfalls, etc. And that will hold a special place in cult.
Neatorama: In many ways, the idea of "the power of the cult" sort of exemplifies the power of The Long Tail, as Chris Anderson calls it. Has the music industry been faster to recognize this power than the movie industry? If so, why?
SA: I think that Film industry is based on opening weekends box office. Get everyone to go out and see it right away and then bring it out on DVD in 3 months and continue to make money off it and the various ancillary products. If one were being cynical, you could see the film release as the promotion for everything that comes out afterward and cult doesn’t operate this way. It is often a small and slow discovery.
Neatorama: Talk a little bit about the process of collecting all these wonderful essays in the book. What was the process like?
SA: Thanks for saying the essays were wonderful. It was a great experience working on this book (and editing books isn’t always that way although I have been very lucky). People who write about cult television, while being scholarly and rigorous researchers, are also fans of the TV shows that they are writing about. So they are incredibly committed to the process. So for putting this book together began with numerous conversations with friends and colleagues about what topics and television shows should be covered in this book. Then I did quite a bit of research into who was working in this area. Many of the people I’ve worked with before, others I had read their work in relation to my research. In most cases I approached each other with a general idea of what they might contribute to the book, based upon their areas of expertise and what I thought would be necessary and useful for the book, and discussed what I had in mind and what they could deliver. In every case they came back with so much more than I could have imagined. The best way of describing this process was to think of it as a series of really interesting discussions and debates about cult television.
Neatorama: Were you ever tempted to write the whole thing yourself?
SA: I would have loved to but it is such a huge topic, it would have taken me years to just watch every TV programme sufficiently to be able to write about them. Also, I think the topic benefits from a multitude of voices and understanding of the subject. As the book, I hope, shows, there is no one definition of cult and having different people write about it drives that home I think.
Neatorama: What's next for you? What can we expect to see?
SA: Well I am still immersed in television studies. I am currently co-writing, with Lorna Jowett who is a contributor to The Cult TV Book, a book about TV Horror. The aim is to try and unpack how the genre has evolved through television and what distinguishes it from literary and cinematic horror. Some have argued in the past that horror and television are incompatible and we are challenging that argument.
Question #1: You can probably tell that Stacey is British from the way she spells some words. Which words am I referring to?
Question #2: How many episodes of the original Star Trek series were made in total?
When you have your answers, send them to me: david ‘at’ neatorama.com.