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TV: The Staying Power of Veronica Mars

TV: The Staying Power of Veronica Mars

In the past year, Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ procedural about a high-school girl (Kristen Bell) who became a private investigator, has been back in the news cycle repeatedly. That’s not completely unprecedented for a show that’s seven years gone. Fans of Joss Whedon’s dearly departed shows get to see those programs’ names in print every time former Buffy The Vampire Slayer lead Sarah Michelle Gellar books a new job, or speculation starts about who might make a terrific Wonder Woman and Serenity star Gina Torres’ name enters the conversation. The death of Ted Griffin and Shawn Ryan’s private eye show Terriers still prompts howls of outrage every time FX president John Landgraf talks about the sinking ratings threshold that a show needs to meet to stay alive.

But Veronica Mars has been getting attention not because of nostalgia and outrage, but because of signs that it’s still alive and vibrant as a commercial property. When series creator Rob Thomas posted a Kickstarter campaign to make a Veronica Mars movie last year, after Warner Brothers decided to let him take a shot at the project that they’d determined to be financially unviable, he hoped to raise $2 million. Fans kicked in $5.7 million, nearly triple his original goal, including one donor who paid $10,000 for the privilege of speaking a single line in the film. It was an experiment that put an exact dollar figure on the investment fans have in an existing brand, even years after it was taken off the air. And Veronica Mars‘ success seems to have inspired other crowdfunding efforts on a grand scale, including Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, which was funded through Kickstarter, screened at Sundance last week, and sold to Focus Features for $2.75 million.

Last week at the Television Critics Association, Paul Hewitt, the head of public relations at the CW, made waves by announcing that the network’s digital TV arm, CW Seed, will be airing a Veronica Mars spin-off series. “This is still hot off the presses,” Hewitt said. “We actually have no details, no real details to give you.” And network president Mark Pedowitz explained that he’d told Thomas, “We’ll take it whenever you’re ready,” adding, “So we left it at that, and Rob is thrilled about having to do it with us.” That’s awfully vague, but it didn’t prevent the audience in the room, or the readers they were reporting the news to, from getting excited about the prospect of more content set in the Veronica Mars universe, no matter who it stars, or what the subject matter is.

It’s not as if CW Seed doesn’t already have content. The network already airs Husbands, the award-winning show from Jane Espenson and Brad Bell, as well as other programs like Backpackers, The P.E.T. Squad Files, the animated show Gallery Mallory, and CelebTV, which is a mix of celebrity news and the stars of CW shows talking about recent episodes. These shows have their own followings from the web up. Husbands developed an intense, loyal fandom that showed up for the program when it was an independent web series and turned out for the stars at venues like New York Comic-Con. And CelebTV serves the needs of hardcore viewers of CW programming like The Vampire Diaries.

But bringing Veronica Mars to CW Seed is an attempt to take an audience that grew on the much larger platform of broadcast television to a digital outlet. The goal isn’t just to bring in traffic from Veronica Mars. Once Veronica Mars viewers have familiarized themselves with CW Seed, it’s hoped they’ll stick around and explore its other offerings. That’s a more ambitious ask — with a web portal, you actually have to click over to a new show, as opposed to just sliding from one viewing hour into the next. But like a news site bringing on a high-profile new blogger to increase both traffic and the overall profile of the publication, it makes sense for CW Seed to try to boost the programming it’s already invested in by drawing in an audience that might like shows like Husbands if the viewers were aware it existed.

And finally, Pivot, the upstart network that’s airing shows like the Australian import Please Like Me and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s variety show HitRECord TV, is beefing up its lineup by syndicating — you guessed it — Veronica Mars and that other cult standby, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Just as FX is using its recent acquisition of the entire back catalogue of The Simpsons to draw viewers to FX Now, the streaming service it plans to launch this year that will function like HBO Go or Showtime Anytime, Pivot is hoping to draw new viewers to its network by luring them with programming they already love.

It’s easy to look back at shows that were cancelled for low ratings even a few years ago and to recognize that if they could draw what were formerly dismal viewerships today, they’d be considered hits. That’s not the case for Veronica Mars — the series finale drew 2.15 million viewers, which is a bust even by 2014 standards. But unlike a similarly low-rated show like NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show, which pulled in 1.99 million viewers on January 16, it sometimes seems like every single one of Veronica Mars‘ viewers is a fiercely loyal fan, rather than a casual viewer. And that’s helping Veronica Mars, seven years after its run ended and in a world where ratings no longer mean what they used to, define what it means to be culturally significant.

In 2007, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that two new television outlets would be building their brands with Veronica Mars as the core programming they were using to lure in new viewers. And while we’ve seen fan campaigns to save shows, it was essentially a pipe dream to think that fans might be able to directly fund the production of more of the content that they loved, independent of a studio system that was dependent on traditional distribution networks and required certain profit margins. Veronica Mars is proving that it’s possible to do both. In 2004, Veronica Mars might have been groundbreaking for its treatment of female characters, its handling of a sexual assault storyline, and its diversity. Now, those characteristics, which are the reasons that viewers have stayed attached to Veronica Mars for so long, are helping the show reshape our understanding of what it means for television programming to be successful.

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