I'm going to start by asking what readers think have been the five biggest media fandoms of the past decade (2000-2010)? From my perspective, I would say they were Harry Potter, Buffy and Angel, Supernatural, Dr. Who, and Stargate Atlantis. And to me one of those things is not like the other.
First, my caveat in these choices is that I'm coming at them from the POV of the size of the property's creative fandom, specifically as seen on LJ. That's a giant bias right there but it narrows down what I see when it comes to what a lot of people are fannish about.
A friend of mine was talking to me about the former WB show Charmed, and asking about its fandom. I realized there was nothing I could tell her, because while I knew there were people who had seen the show, I'd never seen much evidence that people were fannish about it. And yet this show ran for a long time, it was quite successful. Obviously someone had to have been watching it. On the face of it, there should have been overlap with the Buffy audience –- here was a genre show with female leads on the same network. However, my impression was that a lot of people felt about it as I did –- that it was a relatively trivial show that didn't engage me with its storylines or characters. I won't put too much emphasis on the issue of "quality writing and acting" because not only do people's opinions on this differ, but this has clearly not impeded some properties from developing huge fandoms.
What I also knew was that I hadn't been seeing people posting Charmed fanfic or vids, or at least not much. So out of curiosity I went to AO3 and Fanfic.net to see what the numbers were. It was pretty interesting.
To begin with, the contributors to AO3 and FFN probably don't have a lot of overlap. FFN is huge and a long-running multifandom site with a lot of traffic, so there has to be some crossover in its users. But AO3 is very new and draws very heavily from LJ creative circles, where even there it isn't universally known. In terms of actual numbers, there is a vast disparity in use and name recognition, as well as their representation of "legacy" fandoms -- that is, fandoms for closed canon properties which may have largely dissipated over the years. However, AO3 is the best I can do to find some representation of what gets written and doesn't in LJ/DW circles.
AO3 lists a total of 78 stories for Charmed. Carnivale, a short 2 season genre show on HBO, which was canceled over five years ago, has more stories than that -- 88. I don't make this comparison randomly. I believe that Carnivale is a prime example of the sort of property that creative fandom found on LJ/DW tends to latch on to in a way that the audience on FFN does not.
On FFN, Charmed has 12,134 stories. Carnivale has 142, not even twice the number as on AO3. Yet when it comes to large fandoms many of the same names show up. On both sites the largest one is Harry Potter: 10,137 on AO3, and 506,444 on FFN. On FFN it is by far the largest fandom, 50 times larger than it is on AO3. On AO3 however, the combined Stargate fandoms outnumber HP at 12,108, although SGA alone has 7895. Supernatural, the Buffy fandom, and Dr. Who all have enormous quantities of fic at both sites, running over 5000 at AO3 and over 25,000 at FFN. While the quantity is more manageable on AO3, I would define "large fandom" as "has produced more fic than you could read in a decade, if not your lifetime."
Carnivale is a small fandom on AO3, and a miniscule one at FFN. Charmed is a small fandom on AO3 but a medium sized one on FFN. Most interesting is the comparison of fic between the Buffyverse and Charmed fandoms on the two sites. It is noticeable on FFN but vastly different on AO3. The numbers reflect my observation that Charmed was simply not a fandom that grabbed the attention of many people in creative fandom. There may have been a lot of viewers but they weren't really fans. By comparison, I think many of the viewers of Carnivale were fans.
A second issue is that FFN banned both RP stories and Adult rated stories some time ago, which means that what is still showing up is what remains after that content got deleted or was moved by their authors. FFN has its enormous archive without even including actor or musician fic, much less other small fandoms such as political, comedian, reality show, etc. One significant exception is Wrestling, which has over 26,000 fics at FFN and only 200 on AO3. Even this early on, AO3 seems to represent the sort of author that exists on LJ/DW, who is older and more likely to engage with both more sophisticated shows and fanfic content than the younger, more mass-market audience on FFN.
Let's look at Mad Men, one of the current darlings of the "quality television" set. It's a show that has several seasons under its belt. There are 77 stories on AO3 –- small but a respectable number percentage-wise. There are only 53 on FFN when statistically speaking there should between 8-12 times more stories than on AO3.
All of this is to say that while my off-the-cuff pick of largest creative media fandoms proved pretty accurate when I looked at the AO3 numbers, it does not actually represent production in media fandoms that have never been centered on LJ/DW. For example, X-Files has around 1000 fics on AO3 and 8000 on FFN. The Gossamer Project wikipedia entry suggests around 50,000 stories are currently archived there. So neither archive site properly represents everything that's actually been written, whether more mass market or more cultish. But I do think it represents a general truth about particular fandom spaces.
My second point about the top 5 fandoms that started this post is that SPN is the one fandom distinctive for having the shortest canon.
Strictly speaking, I know that SGA had the shortest canon since SPN will be completing its S6 and a S7 is all but announced. However, I think it would be fair to say there's crossover between SG-1 and SGA fandoms, and at the very least the Stargate property as a whole is very long running. I realize that, just as Classic Trek and ST: Enterprise fans may not have much overlap, that there may be hugely different audiences for the Stargate shows. But I do think that fannish infrastructure matters, and so even if a fandom starts with only a core group from an earlier fandom, that this can really shape the growth of the fandom and how big it gets. I'll get back to that in a bit.
The amount of fannishness around seems to me closely connected to the length of canon. Stories that go on, or that are promised to go on (such as with the HP books) tend to attract a lot of people. The more time it's out there, the more attention it will get. I was struck when watching "Pioneers of Television" on PBS how many shows which did poorly at the start ended up being long-running, memorable shows because they were given a chance to develop an audience. Of course, that was in the days when we were talking about massive TV audiences, of the sort even the most popular scripted dramas/comedies these days can't hope for. It's possible for a niche show to go on for a decade as long as it pulls some sort of good demographic and minimum numbers (see Smallville), but the meaning of "big hit" has definitely changed.
Still, I think that the early TV lesson holds true. SPN has done more to break into the public consciousness this year, when its original arc has already been completed, than in its early seasons when it was actually at risk of cancellation. Its viewing numbers are certainly not better, but getting the People's Choice Award, winning the cover of TV Guide, and now getting an article dedicated to them in the NY Times, is a pretty high level of attention. That's in comparison to their obscurity even among shows on their own network, which has been much more successful at getting America's Top Model and Gossip Girl discussed and represented in various venues (presenting awards at last year's Emmys, for example). Yet, in my opinion, this has had nothing to do with the level of writing or performance on the show in recent seasons. I think it's simply an artifact of time spent on the air and the ability to aggregate fans, if not audience. The fact that it has gone into syndication, for example, has been hugely important. Supernatural has now passed Buffy in number of stories on both FFN and AO3 because the fandom is continuing to churn out a large quantity of creative product. And the more that gets written, vidded and drawn, the more new fans are likely to join in. Simple exposure is key.
So to return to my other point about what prompts fannishness, I think it's significant that I was not able to follow Queer as Folk or Battlestar Galactica in real time, but at least a season behind (at least until the last season of BSG). Both of those were fandoms where I probably would have taken part in discussions, written meta, etc. had I not been avoiding them for fear of spoilers. Now, after the fact, I neither feel as disappointed with their endings nor do I feel the need to go back and write about them.
Buffy and SPN were already large fandoms with large bodies of work by the time I took part. And I do find the body of fan work important. For example, I watched Firefly in real time, and I was on LJ by the time Serenity came out. We liked the show, though not with the same passion as Buffy and Angel. There is no question that Firefly has an active, large fandom. However, my impression is that its creative fandom side is relatively small. I think it's just one example of a show whose overall fandom is large, but whose creative side is not equally represented. My sense is that SPN fandom is the opposite, one whose creative fandom is proportionately much larger compared to the overall fandom than is usually the case. And I do think the breakdown of the fandom by sex has a lot to do with that, as well as what infrastructure gets put in place early on.
A key question to me is where the earliest fans come from. I never got the sense that there was a huge crossover between Firefly and Buffyverse fandom. Some, yes, but not a lot. Part of the reason is likely that while there was plenty of cross-promotion between Buffy and Angel, Firefly was on a separate network, and it had a short run on a night with low viewership. By the time a lot of people got around to trying it out, it was almost over. It was also running simultaneously with the other shows instead of in sequence to it.
All of which is to say, that I don't think there was the same effort for a lot of fans to start setting up archives, communities, challenges, newsletters, etc. for Firefly compared to what already existed at the time for the Buffyverse. People were not necessarily casting around for a new fandom, which tends to happen when a large fandom's canon winds to a close. In fact, at the time, the "Save Angel" campaign seemed a much bigger effort than the cries to restore Firefly. But the Angel efforts wound down after a few months, while the ones to renew Firefly have only grown with time (note the current drama over buying the rights from FOX). This also supports my earlier point about how the simple passage of time makes a big difference in how many people become fans.
By comparison, my sense is that SPN fandom started off with a bang, with a lot of fic being written quickly, a newsletter soon started, communities active, etc. Having an easy way to find fanworks, other fans, an audience, and people to do things for you, made it a lot easier for people to get engaged quickly and draw in still more people. And, of course, the show was very closely focused on two attractive men and their relationship.
Going back to Charmed, there's another factor that does not surprise me in its relative obscurity within creative fandom -– its leads were all women. I'm not sure that without at least one really appealing male or male team that a show can reach the sort of level where a lot of fanfic is produced. Although I saw excitement about the Sarah Connor Chronicles around LJ/DW, I see that it has produced a modest amount of fic on AO3 (249 stories). On FFN it has produced nearly 1600, which falls a bit below the 8/12 times multiple between the two archives. SCC, of course, was both somewhat short lived (1 ½ seasons) and somewhat high brow as genre shows went. But it did have something a lot of comedies do not, and that's the possibility for a lot of angst. Fic writers seem to not only enjoy angst in the canon text, but they also like to either write more of it in fic, or resolve the angst in fic and make the stories happier. My hypothesis is that this is the major reason why few comedies have large creative fan bases.
Angst vs Humor
I know that one of my favorite shows of the moment, Community, is pretty popular on LJ/DW. It looks like one of its characters is going to win the Fandom Cage Match this year, and it has a relatively attractive male lead, a variety of characters, and a slashy male pairing. But it has only 133 stories on AO3 and statistically far less at FFN (292). So I'm guessing the comedy angle has a lot to do with what makes people viewers versus creative fans.
By comparison my other favorite shows of the moment, Castle and White Collar, have some interesting stats at AO3 and FFN. Castle has 3,087 stories to WC's 1,448 on FFN (which we'll consider the "mass audience" site). On AO3 Castle has 234 to WC's 945. This suggests two things: First, Castle is a much more popular show among average viewers (statistically it has almost twice as many stories on FFN as AO3). Second, Castle's visibility as a broadcast network show attracts more fanfic writers overall, but fewer long-time cultish fanfic writers. While WC is, as far as I know, doing well for USA, it's not a high profile show.
Castle's greater appeal for fanfic writers on FFN does not surprise me. It has an appealing lead and it has some darker case drama, but is essentially a lighter show when it comes to its characters. Also, the most obvious slash pair has had little angst attached to it, the characters are mostly used for comedic moments, and as of this season both of them have been firmly paired with women. It is, in its very premise, a het show.
White Collar is a lighthearted show on the surface (and its second season has been noticeably lighter), but it has much darker niches in its premise. One of its leads is a criminal, one who charms everyone, including his FBI handler with whom he's had a longstanding battle of the brains. The show revolves around two men, their relationship, and their figurative battle for dominance between them. That FBI handler is happily married (potential angst alert!). Neal's search for Kate was the McGuffin of S1 –- a desperately romantic goal that, at the same time, was entirely one-sided in its presentation, thus leaving character development open for the men. The fandom, not surprisingly, focused on the slash potential of the male pair, one of whom is unusually handsome and marketed to be so. At least another part of the fandom focused on the rather obvious threesome storyline embedded in the show. However, I've noticed that, in the main, creative fandom is not fond of threesomes. Even in canon that has a natural threesome storyline, it doesn't get written anywhere near as often as its subtext would demand. I would go so far as to suggest that the threesome issue (which is now appearing in the show in yet a second form) actually inhibits more fanfic than it creates. When it comes to writing around LJ and DW, female characters seem to be enormous cockblockers instead of adding to the fun.
So to sum up, creative fannishness tends to spring from long-form, high-visibility projects, with at least one attractive male lead and no unpopular roadblocks to a developing relationship among the leads. Around LJ/DW it also profits from a dark underside, even if that potential is never quite exploited in the show. This is no doubt why, while I quite enjoy Castle and Community, I don't feel any particular need to get involved with their fandoms. And while I find myself more intrigued by the potential in WC, it has yet to turn out an episode that grabs me by the neck and makes me see that the writers themselves know what they have on their hands.