The BBC America show, which ends its five-season run on Saturday, found success by engaging with and empowering its small but dedicated fan base online.
“Orphan Black” never had huge ratings. A July episode on BBC America, for example, garnered just 645,000 viewers, ranking it 33rd among scripted cable TV series that week.
But what the show does have is the #CloneClub, the name its fiercely loyal fans collectively go by when they gather online. And BBC America has done everything it can to cultivate their dedication.
“Their adamant vocal nature was the reason our show was anything — a success — and seen the way it was,” said Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black” who won an Emmy for best actress in a drama last year.
Or as Sarah Barnett, the president of BBC America put it, “Every TV network, particularly at a time of surfeit of content — peak TV — is absolutely driven in wanting to create fandoms. Everybody is talking about it.”
“Orphan Black” will end its five-season run on Saturday with its final episode. As the show closes out, here’s a look at how the show engaged with and leveraged that online fanbase. In this era of peak TV, it provides a window into how future shows could find and measure success.
Don’t Control the Conversation
“Orphan Black” centers on a character named Sarah Manning who discovers she’s one of a series of clones around the world. Ms. Maslany plays many of those characters. From the start, a certain number of fans were hooked, identifying with the show’s themes of female empowerment and inclusiveness. The name #CloneClub came from a bit of dialogue in the first season.\\
When “Orphan Black” made its debut four years ago, many TV networks were still unsure how to engage with fans talking about their shows on social media.
Should the networks try to police the chatter or engage with the fans? And if they did try to connect with them, would it be with the kind of corporate-speak that is often used in news releases?
After much consideration, BBC America came up with an answer: Just have a normal conversation.
“It sounds like common behavior now but it was actually fairly radical in 2013,” Ms. Barnett said. “You came to realize that you can’t control this. You have to really understand it and embrace it.”
To that end, BBC America decided to let fans create art and fan fiction based on the show, without any supervision from the network. And then it went a step further.
Empower the Fans
The cable network wanted to signal to the fans that they were being heard, and to allow them to participate in the creative process.
In 2014, BBC America often posted GIFs related to the show on social media. When fans showed interest in creating their own, the network encouraged those with the requisite skills to help others in the #CloneClub. “That way we can all become better GIF makers, which is basically one step closer to being better human beings,” it wrote on its Tumblr page. As Ms. Barnett put it, network officials weren’t going to be “patronizing or pretend we have all the answers.”
Fans responded and the network made sure to pass along their instructions to others.
BBC America executives also saw that “Orphan Black” fans were particularly interested in drawing up art based on the show. The network’s social media team took to Tumblr and asked fans to submit ideas that would help inform the marketing for the show. The #CloneClub happily obliged.
Then before the fourth season premiered last year, the network had a fan contest that became the centerpiece of their ad campaign.
“We had a competition and said ‘we will use the fan art we select as the key art for marketing for the show,’” Ms. Barnett said. “We really saw it as a way to actually allow and invite the fans into the shaping of the conversation around the show.”
And then BBC America literally let them shape the conversation of the show. “Orphan Black” often would incorporate bits of dialogue that fans became obsessed with into scripts. There were polls to ask what sort of artwork should be hung on the wall during a scene or what sort of food a character should eat.
“Fans went crazy for it and said, ‘OMG, you’re listening to us, we’re being heard,’” Ms. Barnett said of the #CloneClub.
Though this might be anathema to many showrunners, the creators of “Orphan Black” did not have a problem with it, mainly because they were not asked to adjust the show’s plot in any way.
“They weren’t putting pressure on us story-wise,” Graeme Manson, one of the show’s creators, said of BBC America. “These things weren’t affecting the direction of the show. That’s another issue: When you have all that feedback, it’s easy for us to see what people like and don’t like. Though we’re not taking direction or changing story lines necessarily, it certainly gives you a direction and it tells you what people like about characters and what they want to see from characters.”
From a Tweet to an Emmy
In the last four years, as the number of scripted series on TV has ballooned, network executives have taken to saying that they’re not trying to make everybody’s favorite show. Instead they are trying to make shows that inspire a deep connection.
“That’s what we think is increasingly important for our business,” Ms. Barnett said. “Not just having a shallow breadth of viewers but actually having a really deep, passionate fanbase. As we move to a world with skinny bundles and more direct-to-consumers opportunities, I think mattering in the kind of ways ‘Orphan Black’ matters is actually as crucially important alongside” ratings.
There may be no greater example of the fans’ dedication than Ms. Maslany’s Emmy success.
In 2014, Ms. Maslany failed to receive an Emmy nomination. The #CloneClub was not happy. The following year, she received a nomination. And last year, she won in an upset, besting actresses like Viola Davis, Robin Wright and Claire Danes.
The #CloneClub practically melted down. The biggest topic on Twitter and Facebook during last year’s Emmys broadcast was not “Game of Thrones” or the “People vs. O.J. Simpson.” It was Ms. Maslany’s victory.
“When you love a show and not everyone has seen it and not everyone cares about it the way you do, when it gets that recognition it’s very bolstering,” Ms. Maslany said. “It just meant so much to them.”
It was a reminder of the power of fan loyalty, and with “Orphan Black” going off the air, Ms. Barnett said the key to her network’s future will be cultivating that kind of dedication again and again.
“It’s not just size,” she said of a show’s audience. “Mattering matters.”