All the programmes in this web presentation are described as cult TV. They attract a fanatical following. They have something that fascinates their acolytes who view favourite shows time after time without diminuation of enjoyment. Why? Perhaps the answer is that these programmes were made by enthusiasts who believed passionately in their work, and the energy of their belief is transmitted to a select audience sympathetic to the theme and hungry themselves for an enthusiasm.

But what exactly is cult TV? It sounds good, but what does it mean? By dictionary definition `cult` is set apart from the mainstream. Cult programmes are objects of special devotion. Cult TV is often distinguished by its high style, its innovative subject matter (such as improved roles for women), its sexual outrageousness, or its uncompromising political stance. All this means that cult TV often succeeds only after a troubled start. First the TV executives, then the audiences are slow to catch on. A number of cult programmes only survived because of campaigns by devotees.

To help us distinguish cult TV from normal programming, you need to look at audience engagement. Nearly all entertainment programmes attract three different kinds of viewers who can be categorised in terms of engagement: casual viewers, devoted viewers, and avid fans.

  • Casual viewers will attend to a show if they happen to be watching TV but do not experience the show as a "special event". For the casual viewer, the show is part of the flow of television and not something that requires rapt attention nor prompts adjustments in the viewer's schedule of activities in order to tune in.

  • Devoted viewers will make arrangements to watch every episode of their favourite show. For the devoted viewer, a favourite show is a "special event" that disrupts the flow of television and inspires more intense levels of identification and attention than typical television fare. However, though the devoted viewer may read occasional articles about the show or talk about it with their friends, their involvement with the show falls short of fanaticism.

  • Avid fans will not only take special pains to watch every episode of the show but, today, will tape the episodes so that they can review them or even archive them. The show is not only a "special event" but also a major source of self-definition, a kind of quasi-religious experience. Avid fans enthusiastically purchase or consume ancillary texts related to the programme and often join interpretive communities that have formed around the show, such as fan clubs and online discussion groups. Though the availability of such groups in cyberspace has made the recruitment process somewhat easier, it is still difficult for a new show to build "cult" interpretive communities from scratch. Therefore, most new shows hoping to cultivate a cult following tend to appeal to existing interpretive communities, particularly the large umbrella of sci-fi fandom which has in place an infrastructure of fanzines, newsgroups, and conventions.

Virtually every TV show has some viewers in each of the three engagement categories. What distinguishes cult shows from typical fare is that a relatively large percentage of the viewers are avid fans and that these fans have relatively high visibility compared to the avid fans of other shows.

(Parts of this text are the copyright of Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stempel and used with their permission)

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