Entertainment news outlets run article after article sounding the death knell of beloved television shows, earning a deeper mourning period than a distant family relative is likely to receive.
It’s long been known that loyal consumers form their own communities around their favorite brands, especially when those brands have a narrative arc, sparking study after study about how these cultures are created and the impact they have on consumer behavior.
Television series are perhaps the epitome of a long-form narrative brand, yet little has been done to study how the loss of these particular brands affects consumer behavior. But with the imminent publication in the Journal of Consumer Research of a new study by Assistant Professor Cristel Russell and her research partner, that’s about to change.
With Associate Professor Hope Jensen Schau of the University of Arizona, Russell spent more than a decade following loyal fan bases of four popular television shows—Entourage, The Sopranos, All My Children, and New Zealand drama Outrageous Fortune. They documented fans’ relationship with the shows and their reactions to the shows’ “deaths” through participation observation, extended interviews, and analysis of online fan forums.
“It was a test of persistence,” said Russell, who has also published studies on the relationships between individuals and repeated consumption of favorite media.
A “GOOD” DEATH
The researchers found that consumer reactions to the death of their favorite shows, and thus the characters who had become like friends, varied wildly and depended heavily on how the fans interacted with the brand, and whether or not their show had a “good” death.
When fans were left with an unsatisfactory ending—when loose ends were left unresolved or every character didn’t get to ride off in the sunset— the loss of the show cut deeper. Case in point: Dexter’s less-than-stellar send-off last year, which prompted fan disappointment and outrage.
But, as Russell and her co-author found, finales with a true ending provided fans with better closure, an important part of any grieving process.
Further, with closure—when fans are allowed to grieve “a life well lived” for their favorite characters—they are more likely to continue to consume the brand in other forms, such as rerun episodes and boxed DVD sets.
On the other hand, for those fans who feel their beloved friends on the other side of the television screen got the short end of the stick, the close consumer relationship goes downhill in a hurry.
For an example of this causality, look no further than the long-running soap opera All My Children. When producers announced the show’s cancelation, fervent fans were, not surprisingly, shocked and angered.
They banded together to petition the network to keep All My Children on the air. They formed online forums to discuss the betrayal they felt. Their efforts seemed to be rewarded when show runners announced the soap would continue, albeit in fewer episodes, online through new ownership.
But the online episodes were delayed by nearly two years and debuted to low viewership. Fans faced a second cancelation just months after the show’s “rebirth,” turning them into the classic trope of the “jilted lover.”
Despite the negative outcome, fans of All My Children are representative of the power a narrative brand has to build and cultivate unique communities.
Whether these communities exist in the real world (such as the friends who watch their favorite show together each week) or online (as with the popular fan forums that exist for nearly every major series today), it is quite often the loss of these communities that hits fans hardest when a show is canceled.
Without the weekly television gathering to get “the gang” together, what keeps everyone involved connected? How do groups who identify as “Fans of The Sopranos” reshape their identities following the loss of their brand? And how can brand managers encourage these groups to identify with a new brand?
Russell and her partner are still looking into this. Until then, there’s always the new spring lineup.
“When Narrative Brands End: The Impact of Narrative Closure and Consumption Sociality on Loss Accommodation,” Cristel Antonia Russell and Hope Jensen Schau, will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research in April 2014.