For CHUCK’s Sake: How a Dedicated Fandom Saved its Show and Changed TV

by Lauren Piester

“…Satan decided this would be the last season of Chuck. I assume that was Satan, because who else would cancel Chuck?” – Jon Stewart (The Daily Show, 2/22/12)

A little less than a month after the NBC spy dramedy aired its final, two-part episode, political comedian Jon Stewart made a joke that resonated with millions of fans all over the world – after five seasons of threatening to cancel the low-rated Chuck, the evil overlords at NBC had finally succeeded, and sent the lovable nerd with a brain full of secrets on his final mission. The fact that the show even made it through five seasons is somewhat incredible. With the show practically living on the brink of cancellation, three of five season finales had to be written to also serve as possible series finales, and fans could do nothing but hope – or so it seemed, until the formation of an unlikely alliance. By establishing a direct relationship with the popular sandwich chain Subway, already one of the show’s primary sponsors, Chuck fans demonstrated that they were not a powerless group and essentially ushered in a new way of interacting with and controlling the content we see on TV.

Most fan efforts to keep shows on air have consisted of buying products and sending them to the networks “to prove how much they loved the show (Holmes),” but Chuck fans took their buying power a step further by recognizing who truly had the power to prevent the show from being cancelled. They not only took to social media to try and convince the masses to give the show the viewers it needed, but they also contacted sponsors directly. The “Finale & Footlong” campaign was launched by a blog post on the website Television Without Pity. Written by pharmaceutical sales rep and avid Chuck fan Wendy Farrington, the post urged viewers to buy footlong sandwiches at Subway on April 27th, 2009, and to, of course, watch the second season finale live that night (Bryson York). What seems like a simple idea quickly expanded into an organized partnership not only between Subway and Chuck, but between Subway and Chuck’s fans.

Fans began as something to be mocked by the general public, and even by those involved in the franchises themselves. William Shatner mocked Star Trek fans on national television, telling them to “get a life” (Downey “Saturday Night Live – William Shatner”).  They were, and occasionally still are, seen as nerds and outcasts in society. This view has changed over the years, but Chuck has taken it a step further.

Not only does everyone involved with the show publicly embrace the fandom, but they also embrace the term “nerd.” It’s a term used and celebrated regularly on the show, and incorporated into the semi-official name for diehard fans of the show (Nerdherders). The show has had a special relationship with its fans ever since the pilot premiered at the 2007 San Diego Comic Con and the show has remained a staple of the convention ever since, with Zachary Levi often referred to as the “king of Comic Con.” Comic Con is, essentially, a gathering of fans and is traditionally seen as “nerdy.” Chuck has interacted directly with fans (first, fans of the genre or just conventions in general, some of whom then became fans of the show) since before it was even shown on television.

The show’s support for and appreciation of its fans was demonstrated when Chuck writers, directors, creators, showrunners, and actors alike participated in the fan campaign. The show’s star, Zachary Levi, even led a crowd of hundreds of “Nerdherders” to a Subway in Birmingham, England, and helped make the sandwiches (Bryson York). By physically leading even a fraction of fans in their support of the show, Zachary Levi helped blur the line between those who watch the show and those who make it – both are equally important, and equally influential. Regardless of whether that truly applies in practice, it sends a new and important message to networks, advertisers, and viewers alike.
In a 2009 press release, NBC announced that despite its low ratings (an average of 2.8), Chuck would be renewed for a third season, stating that the “renewal represents triumph for fans and TV critics who waged [a] successful online and Twitter “Save Chuck” campaign supported by Subway.” Regardless of any other behind-the-scenes network decisions that went into it, NBC executives credited fans and Subway with the surprise renewal, fully acknowledging a real, albeit slight, shift in power. Of course, encouraging viewers to spend money can be nothing but beneficial to both advertisers and networks, but to the fans, this acknowledgement isn’t just about money. By giving them even partial credit for this programming decision, NBC is telling fans that they have at least marginal control over what they see on TV, and encouraging future and probably more elaborate campaigns focused on keeping certain shows on the air.

Ever since Friends went off the air in 2004 after ten long seasons, NBC has struggled to find a hit (Lowry). When the network finds a show that does well, it holds onto it for as long as possible (see: The Office). Aside from some recent successes with The Voice and Smash, NBC is home to a lot of shows that get very low ratings despite their critical acclaim. The network has become somewhat of a joke, notorious for its low ratings, odd treatment of shows, and cancellations. When NBC temporarily pulled Community from its spring schedule, fans and critics were outraged. They created and signed a petition, wrote hundreds of articles and blog posts, and put fake beards on their Twitter icons in honor of the show. A lot of discontent was expressed, but no specific advertising campaigns cropped up. When the second half of the season finally premiered, it featured Subway buying the café in the Greendale cafeteria, and half of the characters complaining about commercialism (Santamaria, Newacheck “Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts”). In another episode, Britta falls briefly in love with a man called Subway, who has been hired by the company to be a constant spokesperson (McKenna, Eckman “Digital Exploration of Interior Design (Part 1)”). TV critic and Chuck fan Alan Sepinwall acknowledged the product placement and the nod to Chuck when he tweeted “Until January, if [fellow critic Daniel Feinberg] or I got Subway for lunch, we’d joke that we were going to ‘save Chuck.’ Now if I go, am I saving Community?”   While Community definitely has the support from Subway that could keep it financially alive, that support is not specifically backed by fan efforts, as Chuck’s was, and the future of the show is still unclear. Community’s spin on product placement might be intended as a joke, but instead it serves as a sad indication of what is necessary in order to keep a well-loved show on the air.

The fact of the matter, whether we like it or not, is that advertising is necessary in order to keep shows on the air, and that advertising has to actually be viewed by its target audience in order to be effective. As the cost of production rises, so too does the amount of advertising dollars needed, and therefore the amount of ads. As the ratio of ads to content has increased, broadcast ratings have decreased because of viewers attempting to escape commercials by watching on DVR or online, forcing advertisers to find new and more intrusive ways of reaching audiences, like aggressive product placement or graphics on the bottom third of the screen. Commercials now make up more than fifteen minutes of every hour of broadcast and non-premium cable television, essentially making it a waste of time to watch a show without the help of a DVR and a fast-forward button (Klopfenstein 4), or by going online. Even most online outlets, however, feature a large number of commercials. Buying a Hulu membership does not even provide commercial-free viewing, and many viewers have been driven to illegal, commercial-free sites for streaming and downloading. As a result, advertisers get more aggressive, and viewers get more resistant.

In this circular, essentially unproductive model, audiences recognize the social system, but try to resist or ignore it by stealing the content or skipping over the ads, or they complain every time they are forced to see an ad.

While the majority of TV viewers are putting in effort to resist the social system, Chuck fans recognized and embraced the system, understanding how to use it to support their own goals of keeping Chuck on the air. They reached out to advertisers and fully welcomed blatant product placement in order to help save the show. The Chuck fandom formed a direct, symbiotic relationship with Subway that not only opened up communication between viewer and advertiser, but also indicated an understanding and an acceptance of what is necessary in order to create and sustain a TV show. The bulk of the Finale & Footlong campaign did involve spending money and participating in the ultimately capitalistic system, but fans could justify that by saying that their money was both indirectly funding the show and providing them with a sandwich. While Subway was never the only sponsor for Chuck, it was the primary sponsor. In the earlier days of television, episodes were paid for by one advertiser in such a way that the show and the advertiser acted almost more as partners than as funder and funded in a similar way to how Chuck and Subway came to operate, with Subway being one of the only real-life brands used or mentioned in the show. In the end, within the narrative of the show, Subway even ended up buying the store Chuck had worked in for five seasons (Fedak, McNeill “Chuck Versus The Goodbye”).

This partnership between Subway and the Chuck fandom is significant in terms of the hegemony and shift in power that it represents. While a show could not exist without viewers, viewers are simply numbers in the eyes of network and advertising executives, whose main concern is always money. If a show is not bringing in the audience that an advertiser is looking for, that show is probably not worth the advertiser’s money. Without the advertiser’s money, a show cannot be made. The dominant group in this situation is the advertiser, who has both the money and the power to take away that money if a show is not performing well. Viewers and advertisers have always had a relationship, but the decisions of the advertisers have never depended on knowing whether or not the viewers of a specific show are buying their products. Advertisers determine what is and is not available to audiences, based on the numbers they know they will get in return.

Hegemony can be defined as the “process of convincing people to support the continued existence of a social system that does not support them in return” (Ott 131), and describes exactly how this system has come into being. Viewers may form emotional connections to shows and characters, but those connections are ignored in favor of making money for the advertisers and networks. If a show is not making money, it is useless to those in control, regardless of the fans it may have.

Chuck fans recognized that the advertisers were the dominant power and went to them directly. They did not send Subway sandwiches to NBC, but instead purchased sandwiches and indicated that they were doing so because of Chuck, essentially saying that Subway’s commercials and (at that point limited) product placement during the show had directly affected their purchasing decisions, and establishing themselves as more than just numbers and as a not entirely powerless group. In a similar fashion to how Chuck co-opted the word “nerd” to be a positive term of endearment, the Chuck fandom co-opted the system to support their own goals by figuring out a way to satisfy all the components of the television equation.

It is interesting to note the way that the Subway brand was incorporated into the narrative of the show. It was not Chuck, Sarah, Casey, or Morgan, the program’s main cast members, who were shown eating Subway sandwiches. Instead, the restaurant found its champion in Big Mike, the manager of the store in which Chuck worked when his spy services weren’t needed. Throughout the entire series, Big Mike never became aware of the CIA/NSA activities happening right under his nose. He never knew that a CIA base had been installed in the basement of his store, and was clueless when most of his employees were replaced with agents. He was out of the loop when Chuck eventually bought the store and secretly became Big Mike’s boss (Fedak, McNeill “Chuck Versus the Cliffhanger), although by that point, Morgan had risen to store manager and Big Mike had been named assistant manager (Wootton, Buckley “Chuck Versus the Cubic Z”).

Big Mike represented an illusion of power. He was powerful within his little world at the BuyMore, and occasionally used his power to design DVD displays or advertise his favorite Subway sandwiches to his employees, but he rarely affected any of the greater aspects of the show. In a blog post on NPR’s website, Linda Holmes says “The sponsor, who is normally seen as an intrusive, obnoxious presence in a television show, has managed to become part of the team that brings the show to the people who love it,” but it could be argued that Big Mike’s love of Subway goes deeper than that. By giving this character the job of executing product placement, Subway (along with the show’s writers) allowed itself to be a bit of a joke. As a primary sponsor, Subway had a lot of power and influence over the show, but ultimately took a backseat to the creators and main storylines.

To the fans who had rallied together to save the show, each time Big Mike proudly recited Subway’s various slogans (“Five dollar footlong,” “Eat Fresh”) before digging into his sandwich of the week represented their victory and small measure of control over their own entertainment, but the choices of the writers have been questioned by many. In a 2009 Gawker article entitled “NBC Sells Its Nonexistent Soul For a $5 Subway Sandwich,” writer Hamilton Nolan expressed his extreme disappointment with the Chuck/Subway partnership – “NBC has shockingly ruined the integrity of its dramatic show Chuck by allowing Subway what is perhaps the most blatant (and therefore laughable!) product placement in network TV history.” Looking at the product placement objectively, it could be hard to argue with that sentiment, but the nature of the way the brand is incorporated into the show is irrelevant to what its existence represents. The product placement is a symbol to fans of their victory, and of their momentary defeat of the evil, largely abstract television-cancelling gods. It ceases to matter what the fandom directly accomplished, if its efforts even truly were the cause of the series’ renewal, because the fandom got the credit for saving Chuck. Each time Subway appears on the show, it can be thought of as a little thank you note from the writers to the fans.

“And anyway, I’m having a nice time. They brought in Subway flatbread breakfast sandwiches.”
“The steak, egg, and cheese ones?”
“With chipotle southwest sauce…reminds me of your mama.”
(Katsnelson, Kroeker “Chuck vs. the Muuurder”)

In terms of the future of television and advertising, it has been three years since the Finale & Footlong campaign, and nothing much has changed. The current model is so ingrained into our society that one show saved by one blog post and a few million sandwiches isn’t really going to make a huge impact. What Chuck and Finale & Footlong shows, however, is that change is possible, and that fans and viewers can do more than sit back and watch whatever is put in front of them. They can have an effect on that content, but they have to be aware of how the system works in order to make it work for them. As television continues to evolve, the hegemonic structures in place behind the scenes also have the ability to evolve, even in the smallest of ways.

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