Rescuing the Knight
Issue #24, February 1996
On January 17, 1996, I went to the headquarters of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Santa Monica, California and gave them close to $6,000 in donations, collected in honor of the cast and crew of the television show Forever Knight.
What, you might legitimately ask, does this have to do with cyberspace? To which I might respond: ever wage war in fiction? Not likely you've ever heard of anything like that before, right? How about: ever entertain yourself by writing beyond the ending of a story? Maybe. But I'll bet you never wrote it down and let others read it, did you? On the other hand: ever watch a television show and discuss it in detail with your friends? Of course you have. Let's start there, shall we? As a friend of mine would say, pull up a chair and put on your best "I want to hear a story" face. Have I got a tale to tell.
Robert Bellah has not, as far as I know, written about the Internet, but if he did, he would undoubtedly claim that the world created there is a lifestyle enclave — a group of friends melded from common interests — and not a community. Howard Reingold, in his book Virtual Community, claims that there is a community to be found on the Internet, and he uses The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) as his example. Cliff Stoll, author of the cyberspace thriller The Cuckoo's Egg as well as a rather cynical exploration of the silicon information explosion appropriately titled Silicon Snake Oil, would say that sometimes there's a community on the Internet, as long as you work for it. Still, Stoll uses the example of physical libraries, with card catalogs and books to demonstrate the ways in which the virtual community and the information available there can't quite measure up to "real" space.
In the past few years, I have learned from personal experience the ways in which the Internet is, in fact, a kind of community. Most notably, on August 9, 1995, I got considerable comfort from an international "family" following the death of Jerry Garcia. The outpouring of that community was so great that a book was published (Not Fade Away: The On-Line World Remembers Jerry Garcia) of the spontaneous gatherings on the web and over mailing lists and bulletin boards so that those people who weren't online could have a taste of what happened. Clearly, grief and mourning are a force that can create a sense of community where one might not generally expect to find it.
I have, however, also discovered that community can be consciously created on the Internet in the most unusual of places, from mailing lists about politics, to fiction-writing lists based in media (television and movie) fandom. And the communities created in these places are capable of doing remarkable things.
In May 1992, CBS Television launched its Crimetime After Primetime lineup of shows to do battle with then-ratings-giant Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. One of the programs in that lineup was Forever Knight — an admittedly off-beat television show — about a vampire, Nick Knight, who wanted to become human again, and who worked the graveyard shift as a homicide detective as penance for having done so much evil in his long life. Undoubtedly because of its odd premise, as well as the quality of the writing and the obviously talented and theatrically trained cast, the show developed a cult following akin to the original Star Trek. By December of 1992, an electronic mailing list was established out of Penn State, using newly available Internet technology to accommodate fans who wanted to discuss the show with each other, despite living across state lines and even oceans apart from one another.
Precisely because it was a show that willingly tackled issues such as the spiritual and religious faith of the common person, women's rights, suicide, and non-traditional parenting within the historical scope of an 800 year lifespan, many of these same fans began to "write beyond the ending" and fiction began appearing on the mailing list.
As an early member of both the regular and fiction lists, Susan M. Garrett writes (paraphrased):
From the early beginnings of the mailing list, it became clear that people had favorite characters, but nobody really did anything about it. Then in January about three years ago, just before the first Dead of Winter (an occasionally annual Forever Knight fan convention held in Boston) a list member (who was a follower of Nick), who had previously rather foolishly admitted to being afraid of frogs, wrote a short fiction post about having received a green Christmas card from a Cousin (a follower of the vampire Lacroix) and fearing it was a frog, having called Nick to protect her and have the bomb squad open it. This incident ignited the first fiction list war.
Note that this is NOT role-playing. People are exactly who they are in real life, with the exception of a few people who were turned into vampires during previous wars. You can, of course, make small allowances like giving yourself a mythical laptop or a better car, or a cousin in another state. You can even take advantage of really odd and strange things if the use of it is particularly clever.
The purpose of the war is to meet people, to get to know the other people on the list a little better, and to help them to get to know you.
Thus was born something unique, not only in fan fiction and fandom in general, but unique to the Forever Knight fiction list in particular: the Forever Knight fiction war. And tips for fighting in this particular war, are as follows (paraphrased from Dianne T. DeSha):
(1) Use private email: Wars are formed, played, re-arranged, and won behind the scenes. Contact the War Leader of your faction so that you can get in on the email loop and know what's up.
(2) Collaborate with others: "The best part of the War is writing stuff WITH people you've never met and barely know."
(3) Get permission: Ask permission (privately!) before using someone in your post. Especially do not drag in someone who has not already entered the war without their express permission. Realize, however, that by agreeing to enter the war, you've opened yourself up to everyone involved (and they to you).
In my personal experience, writing what amounts to an interactive novel with about 100 people is an odd experience, but in the case of the Forever Knight fiction list, organization helps. Each faction has a voluntary leader, and each leader is on a leader's loop. The top loop controls the major characters' movements and individual writers must get permission from the top loop to use them. The factions' loops discuss ideas and parcel out writing assignments amongst the individual members, and then there are subloops of the faction loops where information is exchanged and sections of writing are shared by a couple writers.
For example, one person decides to write a shopping trip as a birthday gift for another faction member, and the birthday gift requested is a virtual cat. The writer, who knows nothing about cats, asks the larger faction loop for help and gets three volunteers who are cat fanciers. The three people who volunteer join a small subloop in order to work together. A draft of the post is sent to the faction loop after the smaller loop has worked out most of the post, and the faction loop determines additional details such as "are you available at that time?" If anyone in the larger loop wants to add or change anything, they now have the opportunity to do so. Following the post's approval by the larger faction loop, and based on the assumption that all parties are available at the time the post is set, and that appropriate permissions have been obtained from all parties, the post is sent to the mailing list at large and becomes a chapter in the story. Average time expended: approximately 24-48 hours.
While I'm not convinced that the novels produced in these wars would be of interest to non-participants, they are, in fact, one of the primary ways we participants get to know each other. And the community sense created in these wars carries over and has tangible results on, among other places, the World Wide Web. As of this writing, at least three separate Forever Knight List factions have web pages: the NatPack(followers of the show's Coroner), the Knighties, (followers of the show's star, Vampire Nick Knight), and the Cousins, (followers of Nick's vampire master, Lucien Lacroix), with yet another web page in the making for the fans of the vampire Janette. These web pages are not in honor of the characters themselves, but are in honor of those list members who most identify with them, and the friendships they've developed as a result of their faction affiliations.
In other words, the Forever Knight fans on the Internet have, to borrow a phrase from a member of the NatPack, long since moved past being anonymous affiliation members on the net and are now friends. These web pages are devoted to that idea.
In December of 1995, Forever Knight was dropped from USA Network's lineup — abruptly and without fanfare. Most people never know that a show has been canceled until they read that line in TV Guide: last show of series. Some discover cancellations in the entertainment page of their paper; still others discover cancellations from fan clubs and other fan organizations.
The USA axe officially fell on January 3, 1996; the Internet community found out on December 23 via a posting by a producer on America On-Line, more than ten days before any announcement was made. My first fan club notification of the cancellation arrived three weeks later, and the flyer they sent me was outdated when it arrived. As far as I know, USA Network never made a formal announcement of the cancellation, although it was later written up in newspapers that the show had been dropped from USA's lineup.
We only had ten full days before anything was set in stone: in addition, it was, after all, Christmas break and television production offices were already closed, including USA Network. The Internet community could move faster than a traditional fan base ever had before, which we had to do in order to save the remainder of the third season of the show, which according to the news we received, wasn't going to be completed. And since we had the organizational knowledge available to us from fighting fiction wars over the past three years, a massive campaign to pressure Tri-Star into continuing to produce the show for a syndicated market in spite of USA's pullout was underway before major portions of the television industry were even aware that there was trouble in the offing. In short, a new form of grassroots organizing has been born: within hours of hearing of the possible cancellation of the show, members of newsgroups, discussion lists and fiction forums were mobilizing in an effort to bolster the chances of Forever Knight's continued production for a complete third season, as well as its renewal for a fourth.
The news of the cancellation of Forever Knight began circulating on Friday, December 22, 1995, and by Friday evening, ideas about how to save the show, addresses for whom to write, and various ways to get publicity were being suggested. By Saturday morning, battle lines were drawn and members of the Internet community were ready for action. Someone volunteered space for a web page in order to have a central location for more efficient dissemination of information. By Sunday morning, organizers were in place, and by Christmas Day — barely four days following the first rumblings of potential trouble — plans were finalized, courses of action set, letters written and ready to send and foundations laid for involving people outside of the computer community and the web page was up and running.
Part of the way in which these plans were set in action so quickly was that we used the very same methods that we had used to write a novel amongst 100 people, many of whom had never met. As I write this piece, barely a month has passed since the original rumblings of trouble and already the following has been accomplished:
Loops were set up to handle the details of the campaign, and since we already knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, since you can only play yourself in the war, and you can't give yourself attributes you don't, in fact, actually possess, we were dealing with already known skills and resources.
A group of people set up and handled a charity drive to raise money in the name of the show for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. The idea was that for every dollar that was donated, a letter would be written to USA Network, Tri-Star, or the person's local syndicated station currently airing Forever Knight, expressing thanks for their support for the show, and demonstrating support for a cause chosen earlier in the holiday season by the show's star, Geraint Wyn Davies. On January 17, 1996, I flew to Los Angeles and turned over close to $6,000 to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation; that sum was raised in less than three weeks. The current total for the charity campaign is now over $8,000 as of January 31, 1996.
Another loop devoted itself to planning an action on NATPE, the national syndicator's convention held this year in Las Vegas, during the week of January 22 through 26, 1996. The strike force planned and had at its disposal money to pay for literature bags and pamphlets advertising the show. In other words, the group planned to promote the show for Tri-Star since Tri-Star had decided not to promote the show themselves. In a related campaign, another loop prepared an advertisement to be placed in Electronic Media — the major magazine for not only the NATPE convention but also for the television industry itself — for the week of NATPE, which promoted the fans of the show. The advertisement included descriptions of various activities planned in honor of the show, such as "appreciation days" for the various production companies associated with the show along with a nationwide blood drive.
Another loop handled press materials, including the production of press releases and the promotion of various media contacts. Media coverage as of this date includes a piece in Electronic Media, inspired by the fans' purchase of that ad for NATPE, pieces in the Toronto Star, Boston Herald and New York Daily News. There is possible coverage pending from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as CNN/Headline News.
All of this was coordinated on the Internet, while most of the country still doesn't even know that the show has been canceled.
In an era where the Nielsen ratings are finally being challenged, and the television industry is under increasing scrutiny about deal-making taking precedence over quality television, the self-named Friends of Forever Knight have had an impact on the way fans and television viewers are being thought about. The industry sat up and took notice of the campaign action at the NATPE Convention. The campaign has had professionalism as its watchword, demonstrating that media fans are not simply "geeks without real lives" but a variety of interesting and talented people who anyone would want on their side. Finally, by tying the campaign into a charity drive, the Friends of Forever Knight created another win/win situation for themselves. No matter what happens regarding the continued existence of this particular television program, we've changed things, and raised money for a good cause while doing it.
And we did it in less than five weeks, and we did it on the Internet.
Cynthia J. Hoffman is a graduate student in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and is more than willing to answer any questions regarding the current effort underway to save Forever Knight.
She was aided in writing this piece by another English graduate student, Catherine A. Siemann, of Columbia University (email@example.com); an extraordinarily talented fiction writer, Susan M. Garrett (firstname.lastname@example.org); and a web page designer from Pasadena, who has long red hair and drives a VW Bug, Dianne T. DeSha (email@example.com). This essay itself was a collaborative Internet effort, and Cynthia, who met all of her collaborators online, now knows all of them personally, as well as virtually.