Yes, Your Tweets Can Save Your Favorite Show

NBC’s surprising “Timeless” reprieve demonstrates fans new power

May is always a turbulent month for TV fans as broadcast networks announce which bubble shows will get the axe. But at least they have more say than they did in the past — as “Timeless” devotees can attest.

Last Wednesday, NBC announced that it had canceled the time-travel drama. But by Sunday, the network made an unlikely about-face and revived the show for Season 2. What prompted the change of heart?

“We decided to move on from it and then woke up the next morning, all of us, and heard from fans and you know, the outcry, and we thought, well, you know what, let’s figure out how to bring it back,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt explained.

Insiders tell TheWrap that networks want to see passion from a fan base when they are deciding whether to renew a show, and that social media has become a key way to gauge that passion. During the season — and after a series gets canceled — execs keep an eye on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to take note of which shows have vocal supporters.

“There’s an intensity that you look for, a level of engagement,” Starz chief marketing officer Alison Hoffman tells TheWrap. 

Starz has some of the most passionate fans around, for shows like “Outlander,” “Ash vs. The Evil Dead,” “Power” and current sensation “American Gods.” But when it comes to getting attention in the executive suite, Hoffman says, “there needs to be enough fans. The volume has to be there.”

As ratings become trickier to track, execs increasingly look to social media and even online petitions as a way to check the pulse of fan enthusiasm. News broke on Saturday that Freeform is canceling “Baby Daddy” at the end of its current season, but sources tell TheWrap that the channel is monitoring a petition to revive it.

ABC is also hearing from viewers. Supporters of Tim Allen’s “Last Man Standing” threatened to boycott ABC after the sitcom was dropped on Thursday, while “Once Upon a Time” fans were quick to lament that core cast members Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Dallas and Jennifer Morrison won’t be back for Season 7.

Adam Horowitz, who co-created “Once” with Edward Kitsis, told TheWrap after Sunday’s Season 6 finale that he and Kitsis try their best to not get overly influenced by their vocal fan base.

“We can guess that the reactions [range] from, ‘I will never watch this show again,’ and ‘Rot in hell,'” Horowitz said. “But these are the same people two weeks ago that were saying, ‘When are they going to give someone their happy ending?’ So if we listened to the internet, there’s too many voices and too many opinions.”

There’s nothing new about fan bases mobilizing to support a show. Devoted Trekkies made their presence known enough to keep “Star Trek” on the air more an extra season in the late 1960s. More recently, “Jericho” devotees did their part to buy the post-apocalyptic series another year by sending a ridiculous amount of nuts to CBS execs in 2007.

But fans have become more clued-in than ever about how the industry works and what they can do to make a difference. Hoffman calls the “Timeless” resurrection a stunning moment that was not just the result of a temporary Twitter trend.

“The ‘Timeless’ fan campaign really started back in December and January, when fans realized it wasn’t coming back for the full order,” Hoffman said, noting that the show got a three-episode order in November, fewer than the typical nine. “The fans knew they had to start building momentum, which is incredibly savvy.”

Viewers have a litany of tools at their disposal to make their cases, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that TV execs seem to hold an undying belief that an existing property can help them stand out amid the glut. “Gilmore Girls” co-star Scott Patterson told the Television Critics Association last year that robust fan turnout for the beloved dramedy’s 2015 ATX Television Festival panel played a big role in the show getting new life on Netflix.

Not all attempts achieve their desired result. Last week, after Busy Phillips lamented on Instagram that her pilot “Sackett Sisters” was unlikely to get picked up by NBC. Fans started sending her money via Venmo in a sweet but perhaps misguided effort to support the project.

And Hoffman points out that “Outlander” fans — motivated by the awareness that awards-season love would help the show’s chances of survival — targeted Emmy voters with hashtags to get nominations for the stars. (It landed two below-the-line nominations.)

In explaining the “Timeless” reversal, Greenblatt cited the fact that the show was the top vote-getter in USA Today’s annual “Save Our Shows” poll. Gary Levin, who edits the poll, tells TheWrap that it received more votes in 2017 than ever before in the poll’s 20-year run.

“The poll shows a level of fan support that goes beyond weekly viewership, and that passion has been magnified with the advent of social media,” Levin said. “While many factors go into decisions to renew or cancel shows, this kind of fan fervor is the least tangible.”

One show that knows the power of social media is Freeform’s “Pretty Little Liars.” The show’s engaged social media presence has been a key reason for its healthy run, which is ending this year after seven seasons.

“Our purpose on social is to be responsive to the fans,” Freeform senior vice president of marketing, creative and branding Nigel Cox-Hagen told TheWrap. “Our approach is responsive marketing. When we see interest in our show or around a particular cast member, we know to pick up on it and to feed that interest.”