The Few, The Fervent: Fans Of 'Supernatural' Redefine TV Success Supernatural, a TV show about a duo of demon-fighting brothers, doesn't have the most viewers. But it's lasted nine seasons so far — partly because of its passionate fans, who take their love to Twitter, Tumblr and fan fiction websites. That raises a question: What matters more, ratings or fans' enthusiasm?
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The Few, The Fervent: Fans Of 'Supernatural' Redefine TV Success

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The Few, The Fervent: Fans Of 'Supernatural' Redefine TV Success


Next, a story about one of the biggest shows on TV: "Supernatural." All right, to be clear, it doesn't have spectacular ratings, but the fans who do watch are remarkably passionate and engaged. Case in point: On Facebook, "Supernatural" has almost as many likes as "NCIS," a show with six times the audience.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the novel ways the show engages with fans.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Fans say they love "Supernatural" for its complicated plots and great, big heart, and because it's about two really hot guys who hunt monsters.


JENSEN ACKLES: (As Dean Winchesters) Sam?

JARED PADELECKI: (As Sam Winchesters) Dean?

ACKLES: (As Dean Winchesters) Sam, look out!

ULABY: Sam and Dean are brothers. Their mom was tragically killed by a demon, so they drive around Middle America hunting down ghosts, chupacabras, even the occasional fallen angel.


LYNN ZUBERNIS: It's such a complex mythological world.

ULABY: Lynn Zubernis is a psychologist, professor and "Supernatural" super fan. She co-wrote a book about "Supernatural" fandom; it's called "Fangasm." She says fans helped the show score multiple People Choice Awards, and the cover of "TV Guide" and "Entertainment Weekly." On Tumblr, its stars get more reblogs than almost anyone but Benedict Cumberbatch. What "Supernatural" offers fans is a world rich in details.


ULABY: And plenty of unanswered questions


ULABY: The show inspires arguments on message boards and hundreds of thousands of pages of fan fiction. Fans come up with their own stories exploring what kind of powers a fallen angel might have, what were the brothers like as kids, or is a character a good sexy demon or a bad sexy demon.


ULABY: This tiny TV show is now the second most popular program on fan fiction's biggest website. Among the contributors, at least one famous author.

S.E. HINTON: My name is Susan Hinton, and I'm very much a "Supernatural" fan.

ULABY: S.E. Hinton is better known for writing "The Outsiders" and "That Was Then, This Is Now." Fan fiction is generally anonymous, and she's cagey about how to find hers.

HINTON: If you come across one that's just really good, that's mine.

ULABY: Lots of shows have fan fiction. What's different about "Supernatural" is how its writers incorporate its fandom back into the TV show. It gets really meta. So on the show, there are "Supernatural" fan gatherings, like the ones in real life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to the first annual "Supernatural" convention.

ULABY: Complete with the kind of fans who dress up and pretend to be the main characters.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) You guys are larping, aren't you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Excuse me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) You're fans.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Fans of what? What is larping?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: Live-action role-playing.

ZUBERNIS: "Supernatural" takes it to a whole other level, the sort of self-reflexive dialogue that it has going on with its fandom.

ULABY: Lynn Zubernis says most shows barely acknowledge fans, but "Supernatural" even gestures towards slash fan fiction. Slash is often written by women and imagines a sexual relationship between the show's male characters.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) And then Sam touched - no, caressed Dean's clavicle.

ULABY: "Supernatural's" fictional characters are brothers whose last name is Winchester, so people call this kind of slash fiction Wincest. Wincest is probably why the show's publicists declined to return my emails. This kind of meta dialogue between show and fan might seem new, says English professor Katherine Larsen. She's the other author of the book "Fangasm." But, she says, look back through literature. Great stories have always inspired ownership from enthusiastic fans.

KATHERINE LARSEN: Charles Dickens changes the end of "Great Expectations" because the fans are not happy.

ULABY: And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes in the face of fan outrage, when he died.

LARSEN: So fans have had this kind of power for longer than we have a really good sense of them having that power.

ULABY: But how can that power serve a TV show economically today? "Supernatural's" empowered, articulate fans have supported it through nine seasons. Mike Prouix wrote a book about social media and television.

MIKE PROUIX: Nielsen has done a lot of research as to whether or not social media is helping to drive people to tune in to TV.

ULABY: Social media may have helped improve "Supernatural's" recent ratings. Prouix says the show's traction on Twitter and Tumblr is starting to affect how networks pitch shows to advertisers.

PROUIX: They're no longer just including Nielsen ratings. They're also including social TV data.

ULABY: Fan engagement lends color and volume to data like ratings. But how do you quantify a depth of fan feeling? When a "Supernatural" fan writes a story, it takes longer, and means more than re-blogging a picture. That's an unsolved problem for television - how to measure a kind of success, a kind of loyalty and love, that resists conventional metrics.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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