The history of a campaign that failed

Published May 24, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

It began like a Dear John letter to the masses:

"Regrettably, I must inform you that as of this morning ABC has canceled My So-Called Life," read the opening of Steve Joyner's May 15 America Online posting.

"I know that many of you are in disbelief, perhaps shock, but what I am telling you is the absolute truth.

"Having said that, I want you all to know that our fight has NOT been in vain, that we ARE appreciated by the cast and producers, that we have kicked ass and made our voice heard. YOU HAVE BEEN AN INSPIRATION UNTO YOURSELVES."

They had seen it coming, but still they fought on. People like Noell Quinnell, a 27-year-old architectural firm secretary in Sacramento who for months fired off 15 pleas to ABC a week. People like 24-year-old Bifford Pechacek, "a go-out-and-drink, have-a-good-time kind of guy" in Austin, Texas, whose college roommate laughed at his obsession with saving such a cerebral TV show.

Steve Reed never laughed. The 36-year-old Chicago computer consultant spent days at a time dissecting the literary elements of My So-Called Life. He racked up hundreds of dollars' worth of on-line service bills and figures that the time he spent furthering the cause cost him $3,000 in potential business. He even donated $100 to the campaign.

Why all the fuss over a TV show most Americans never saw?

"We don't have art that speaks to human values very often, and I'm tired of looking for it," Reed said. "When you see something that does, you have to latch onto it and do what you can.

"Sometimes, you have to feed your spirit."

Larger, more high-tech and better-publicized than any previous viewer campaign, still it failed.

Some blame My So-Called Life's teen star Claire Danes, who reportedly did not want to return to the series. Others say ABC has made Danes a scapegoat, that the network would have pulled the plug anyway because the show had abysmal ratings.

Like disgruntled citizens who lost a battle with city hall, the fans say they realize that network TV isn't really about entertaining the masses after all; it's a big business about making big money, and, like mountains, networks can't be moved.

"I don't think it's ever worth trying again," a weary Joyner said by phone last week. "I don't know what else a single viewer can do.

"If not this, what would work?"

If you never saw My So-Called Life, you're in the majority. In 19 episodes from last August to January, the ABC drama reached a paltry audience of only 10-million a week. For the year, it ranked 114th of 140 prime-time series, making it the worst performer on America's No. 1 network.

Competing in a world filled with the likes of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Baywatch, My So-Called Life could never be a mainstream hit. The show _ ostensibly a coming-of-age drama about teenage angst _ was dark and often brooding. Its central character, Angela Chase (Danes), wore her emotions on her sleeve, dragging viewers with her on the painful trip through adolescence.

One of Angela's oft-quoted mantras: "My parents keep asking me how school was. That's like asking how a drive-by shooting was. You don't care how it was. You care if you get out alive."

Angela's parents and friends weren't the most likable bunch, either. They too, were scarred, flawed, human. To follow the story, viewers had to invest time and emotions, something Seinfeld would never ask.

Critics loved the show. As a viewer, even ABC Entertainment President Ted Harbert was a fan. As a network honcho, he worried aloud about its narrow appeal.

My So-Called Life debuted last August, but it wasn't until October that ABC launched the computerized on-line arena that would provide wayward viewers with a home. Almost immediately, the message board reserved for comments about the series began filling up. Many came from teenage girls _ the supposed target audience for the series _ raving about hunky teen star Jared Leto.

Grown-ups like Steve Reed searched the Internet for more serious discussion.

"It was getting more articulate and focused support than I've ever seen for a television show," he said. "You didn't see people taking Coach and tearing it apart as far as the emotional dynamics, the realism of the characters."

In San Francisco, Joyner found himself spending more and more time on his computer, writing and reading about My So-Called Life. Joyner didn't even have cable, and he certainly didn't consider himself an avid TV fan.

A 28-year-old writer with his own publishing company, Joyner had never been much of an activist, yet, when he heard that the series was facing an early retirement, he sprang to action.

"We, each of us and all, have been creating an enormous amount of energy because of, and for, My So-Called Life," he wrote in a lengthy posting on America Online Nov. 30. "Still, our energy and enthusiasm is scattered, sporadic and ultimately, not nearly as effective as it could be."

Joyner outlined a plan to unite fans in a "Save Our Show" effort. Borrowing military rhetoric, he dubbed the group "Operation Life Support." He planted $600 of his own as seed money.

The group's goals would be simple: to raise awareness of the show's quality through a national newsletter, to put the heat on ABC to renew the series through a massive, multimedia campaign.

It would be bigger than the group that saved Cagney & Lacy in 1983, louder than the folks who rescued Star Trek and more successful than the fans who failed to revive shows such as Homefront, I'll Fly Away and Brooklyn Bridge.

Within two weeks, Joyner had received more than $1,000 in pledge money. By early January the group had more than $6,000, enough for full-page ads in two Hollywood entertainment publications.

The headlines shouted: "Life Must Live."

On Jan. 26, the night of the show's last network appearance (the series would later turn up in reruns on MTV) Joyner received nearly 1,000 new e-mail messages. All urged him to continue the campaign until May, when ABC would make its decision.

Among the writers was Quinnell, of Sacramento. He had been hooked since the first episode and had become a prolific contributor on the message boards. He even started the "MSCLketeer" list, a who's-who list of the show's most die-hard fans.

Quinnell flooded the network with letters and e-mail. He donated $30 to Operation Life Support, even though he was saving money for graduate school.

"It totally made me think I'd gone insane," he said. "All I know is that I couldn't let this show disappear without me doing something. I couldn't not have this show in my life."

Among the more philosophical fans was Bill Blais, a 37-year-old Chicago trial lawyer. Respected for his thoughtful dissections _ he likens the gritty realism of the series to Theodore Dreiser novels _ he was dubbed "Defender of the Faith" on the MSCLketeer list.

Blais was so moved by the series and the dedication of its fans that he agreed to help Joyner produce a book. Since April, Blais has spent up to five hours a night and 12 hours each weekend day chronicling each episode and sifting through the online discussion.

The result is that the team-written Fighting For Life: The Story of My So-Called Life and the Effort to Save It will be published in June.

By May 16 _ Joyner's birthday and, coincidentally, the day ABC chose not to renew the series _ Operation Life Support had an electronic mailing list of more than 7,000. The group had received more than 25,000 calls and raised more than $50,000. The sales of T-shirts, the book and a video collection are bringing in more money every day.

Additional ads dotted the pages of USA Today. Stories about Operation Life Support appeared in major newspapers, entertainment magazines and television programs such as Entertainment Tonight.

Conservatively estimated, Joyner says, more than 150,000 pleas reached ABC in some form. The network won't divulge how many calls, e-mail messages, faxes and letters it did receive, but a spokeswoman said the effort was by far the largest the network had ever seen.

"You couldn't help but be conscious of it," ABC's Janice Gretemeyer said.

Scott Winant, one of the series' co-executive producers, noticed it too.

"I would be stopped on the street _ this never happens," he said. "I would be signing a restaurant credit card receipt, and the waiter would come back and say, "Aren't you the guy who directed that episode last week on My So-Called Life?' "

Winant insists that the effort was not in vain:

"The failure of this show had nothing to do with their inability to make a change. It had to do with economics, with an antiquated ratings system, with things nobody could control, not even the network."

In the days after ABC's decision to cancel My So-Called Life, the message boards became both a place for consolation and a vehicle to direct venom.

Since then, quiet. The 24th My So-Called Life folder filled up May 17, and No. 25 has yet to be created. The staff at ABC Online isn't sure how to handle the situation: Should the network continue to offer space for a show no longer on the air?

Joyner hasn't stopped working. Operation Life Support has bills to pay, plus, there are at least 1,000 unanswered e-mails in need of response.

In addition to his legal work, Blais has the book to finish. Afterward, he may write a My So-Called Life play to give the show a proper conclusion.

Quinnell hopes to attend graduate school in computer programing. Pechacek has to decide between a future as a football coach or sportswriter. None of them plans to watch ABC anytime soon.

Why any of them did what they did for a TV show may be best explained in "'Elegy," Blais' final posting at 7:59 p.m. May 15:

"In our online (campaign), we laughed, cried, bickered, obsessed _ we learned a bitter lesson about how the world works. Truly, we learned more about life and living from each other than we did from Angela.

"We had a time."

To reach Monica Yant, call (813) 893-8521, or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8521, or e-mail at