Lines can be crossed as blog power surges

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Call it "the 'Jericho' effect." After gathering strength and flexing their muscles for the past several years, TV bloggers came into their own as a force to be reckoned with this summer when their campaign to save CBS' canceled postapocalyptic drama "Jericho" became a triumphant success.

Blogs, with their feedback features that foster dialogue among users, have become the perfect forum for fans to share their passion about their favorite TV shows.

And with the bloggers' power growing, the networks and studios increasingly are catering to them, giving them access to their stars and producers. Web writers have become a growing presence at industry events like the Television Critics Assn.'s press tours. To promote its lineup, the Sci Fi Channel last month hosted an exclusive press event for bloggers and webmasters who went behind the scenes of the channel's series.

Some bloggers have become as powerful as the leading TV critics in shaping the online community's opinions of new and exciting series. But that growing influence also has brought out a dark side.

Because of the virtually infinite number of TV blogs out there, the pressure to stand out and get traffic is mounting, prompting some bloggers to rush to post unconfirmed and unsourced items just to be the first out there, beating mainstream reporters who have to meet rigorous confirmation standards before going with a story. A blogger, for instance, ran a big "exclusive" pronouncing Geena Davis the front-runner to succeed departed Mandy Patinkin on CBS' "Criminal Minds" after the actress had already passed on the role.

Two weekends ago, along with other reporters, I was waiting to see if Joe Mantegna's deal to become the new lead on "Minds" would go through. That Sunday, the network's PR department sent an e-mail out that the show's executive producer/showrunner Ed Bernero had posted an announcement of Mantegna's casting on the "Minds" fan blog. I wrote a story referring to the posting. The following day, I got an exasperated cell phone call at 6 a.m. from Jill Davidson, the woman behind the Criminal Minds Fanatic blog that hosted the posting. It was garnered by a slew of angry midnight voice messages on my and other Hollywood Reporter editors' office phones and more harassing phone calls to our offices Monday morning. All because Davidson felt she didn't get enough credit.

With online fan armies growing stronger and more powerful as the "Jericho" victory proved, some of them seem to be getting more aggressive, too. To play off Davidson's site's name -- when is it a fan, and when does it become a fanatic?

A day after the Mantegna piece ran, I had written a story about HBO's cancellation of "John From Cincinnati." Another angry response from an online fan of the show, this time an e-mail scolding me for using "negative context" in the story.

OK, it's a story about the cancellation of a show that has to address the potential reasons for the demise -- it has got to have some "negative context."

As trade journalists covering television, do we have to fear criticizing shows because their fans can get offended and, being Web-savvy, can track us down and come after us?

Investigative reporters often have been targeted for exposing fraud, uncovering cover-ups and shedding light on organized crime as evidenced by the recent assassination of veteran Oakland reporter Chauncey Bailey. But entertainment trade reporters worrying for their safety?! Even with hard-hitting stories, the damages we inflict are mostly in the form of bruised Hollywood egos.

Yes, the love of its fans is a show's biggest asset, and the Internet has made it easier for that fan base to stay close together and grow. But it also has made the small step from love to obsession a hell of a lot easier.
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