Fan action and political participation on The Colbert Report

Marcus Schulzke

State University of New York at Albany, Albany, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The Colbert Report merges the increasingly popular political satire genre with fan activism. The result is that the fan community helps to construct Colbert's malleable character and demonstrates symbolic power through its willingness to act. The fans are usually a nonpartisan force, acting to produce entertainment rather than substantive political change. However, this can be politically meaningful, as the fans' projects promote collective action, parallel political activities like voting and protesting, and encourage critical thinking about political information.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Stephen Colbert; Fan community; Politics; TV

Schulzke, Marcus. 2012. "Fan Action and Political Participation on The Colbert Report." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The Daily Show and its spin-off, The Colbert Report, have become popular sources of entertainment and political commentary for audiences around the world. Each half-hour television program follows the same format of reviewing top news stories and critiquing politicians and members of the media through satire. It is widely acknowledged that these television shows and other news satire programs have become central to American political discourse (Lewis 2006; Waisanen 2009; Day 2011), yet much of the commentary on these programs focuses on their hosts, thereby missing the substantial role of fans. Although Stephen Colbert, the host of The Colbert Report, plays the role of a megalomaniac who only cares about promoting himself and his show, he encourages fans to take action as part of his fan community, the Colbert Nation. Fans participate in the show by helping to create its content and its host. Colbert emphasizes the fans' role not only by calling on them to act on his behalf, but also by providing feedback mechanisms. He reports on the fans' efforts, shows how successful his viewers can be when participating in a common cause, and rewards their creativity by giving fan works airtime.

[1.2] Although The Colbert Report is a highly political show, much of the fan activism it promotes involves comedic projects that may not seem to have any political relevance. Nevertheless, many of the apparently trivial displays of fan activism have direct and indirect political relevance. Many fan campaigns parallel traditional forms of political participation, as they require organization, cooperation to reach a common goal, and perseverance despite setbacks. These demonstrate the power of collective action and empower fans to participate in other events. The Colbert Report fits Jenkins's (2006b) claim that popular culture prepares people for public life by allowing them to express their power in small ways. As Jenkins points out, many of the activities fans undertake are similar to forms of political participation, make use of the same kinds of skills, and encourage the kind individual initiative and creativity that is important for democratic participation. Fan action can also extend the scope of political action beyond traditional forms participation in public life. Some of the Colbert Nation's most politically significant campaigns are those in which the fans challenge information provided by political and media authorities. Like other types of audience participation, such as the CNN/YouTube debates, The Colbert Report provides a forum for what Jenkins (2009) calls audience negation. This is the challenging of politicians and others in positions of authority—an essential skill in an age when the sources of information about politics can be as controversial as the political issues themselves.

[1.3] It is important to note at the outset that I will focus on the fan activities that are part of the production logic of the show—those that are official activities of the Colbert Nation and that therefore display cooperation between the host and fans, as well as between different media. This kind of fan action, as opposed to fan action that takes place without support from the show, is worth special attention because the frequency and scale of the Colbert Nation's campaigns set it apart from other televisions shows. Whatever Colbert's motives in promoting this type of fan activism—whether his intent is to empower fans or simply to exploit their labor—the Colbert Nation campaigns encourage fans to take an active role in producing their entertainment. By extension, fans are encouraged to be more engaged and critical citizens.

[1.4] After a brief overview of Colbert's character, I explain how this character is partly created by fans' participation in the show, and I argue that this encourages fans to take part in Colbert Nation activism. Next, I discuss the technologies and types of interaction that make the Colbert Nation possible. The following sections will explore three of the ways in which the Colbert Nation promotes political participation. First, watching The Colbert Report and taking part in its campaigns demand that one interpret Colbert's satire and the extent to which it has a partisan dimension. Second, because many of the fan campaigns involve voting and other forms of mass action, The Colbert Report encourages fans to take part in electoral politics. It also provides feedback mechanisms that build a sense of efficacy, even when fans fail to achieve their goals. Finally, the show promotes critical analysis of information and the consideration of alternative perspectives.

2. The Colbert character

[2.1] Much has been said about the way Stephen Colbert created a character that is pieced together from conservative commentators (Good 2010; Stanley 2007). His similarities to Bill O'Reilly, whom he reverently calls "Papa Bear," are especially clear and have led O'Reilly to claim that Colbert "tries to convince people that he is me" (Gray, Jones, and Thompson 2009, 130). The relationship between Colbert and O'Reilly was strongest during The Colbert Report's early seasons, but over time, Colbert became a composite of several leading conservatives and of the American conservative movement in general. Colbert has increasingly distanced himself from any particular referent, and by doing so, he has become a less internally consistent character. His values are incoherent and often contradictory. For example, he routinely speaks on behalf of the common man, but he adopts an elite status when it suits his purposes. During the segment "Colbert Platinum," he urges poor viewers to change the channel and discusses the latest trends in ultrarich living. At other times, he criticizes elitists on the left and their distance from "mainstream America." This kind of self-contradiction would be a defect for an ordinary news commentator, but it is essential to Colbert's satire, as it allows him to depict the tensions in American conservatism.

[2.2] The neglect for coherence has aided Colbert in representing an entire movement rather than a single individual. By serving as a living example of the contradictory values of American conservatism, Colbert's character is a constant challenge to the American right. At the same time, by making his character an incoherent mix of values, Colbert makes it easy for fans to find something to identify with and opens the possibility that his character may be re-created in multiple ways according to fans' interests. The incoherence of Colbert's character is therefore an important part of facilitating audience participation in the construction of the character. It is further encouraged by the distance Colbert maintains between himself and the character.

[2.3] To make the self-contradictory character seem real, Stephen Colbert is always careful to maintain the ambiguity of whether he is speaking as himself or as his character. Unlike Colbert, Jon Stewart's stance on the events he discusses is usually clear. He does not avoid sharing his feelings about political controversies in a direct, open manner; Stewart usually plays the role of a liberal commentator who relies on common sense rather than a party line to inform his judgments (Young 2008; Baym 2005). Colbert's views, by contrast, are always hidden by the character he plays. Viewers must struggle to distinguish the real person from the satirical composite of American conservatism. The real Colbert reinforces the ambiguity by making it difficult to determine when he is out of character. When he is clearly himself, Colbert usually declines to comment on anything politically sensitive. This leaves a deep uncertainty about the dividing line between the real person and the character, leading Baym to argue that Colbert is a "postmodern simulation; like Ali G or Borat, he is a spectacle created for the screen" (2007, 368).

[2.4] Gray, Jones, and Thompson go further than Baym in describing the openness of Colbert's character, as they argue that Colbert is a figure representing an entire genre. "Colbert embodies satiric parody. He confounds not only presidents, who tend to see things in black or white, but also anyone seeking easy division between real and fake, comedy and criticism, politics and entertainment" (2009, 30). This is an excellent description, as it shifts the character production away from the individual and makes it the embodiment of an entire genre. It also implies that there is a tremendous gap between the real Colbert and the character he plays. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the role fans play in constructing the character because this is one of the mechanisms of encouraging fan participation. Although Colbert is the one who plays the character and who has authorial control over it, the character is inextricably linked to the thousands of fans who take part in Colbert's campaigns and make Colbert's cultural influence possible. Colbert called the fans to action in the show's very first episode by stating the role he intended to give them in determining his character and the extent to which the character and the fan community would be linked:

[2.5] This show is not about me. No, this program is dedicated to you, the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show, average hard-working Americans. You're not the elites. You're not the country club crowd. I know for a fact my country club would never let you in…You're the folks who say something has to be done. And you're doing something. You're watching TV. (quoted in Burwell and Boler 2008)

[2.6] Colbert's joke about watching television counting as "doing something" has turned out to have a degree of truth. Colbert followed his mission statement by giving his fans many ways of contributing to the show's content. He asks them to vote in online polls, to create fan videos for the show, to support politicians, to buy books and CDs released by "friends of the show," to donate money to charities, and to transform the English language.

[2.7] The fan activities demanding the highest levels of technological proficiency and largest commitments of time involve reworking the show's content. Colbert encourages fans to write their own additions to his "Tek Jansen" stories, to make their own versions of his portrait, and to take scenes shot in front of a green screen and use them to create fan videos. These efforts to mobilize fans to re-create elements of the show's content make The Colbert Report conducive to the formation of a strong fan community. Many television programs and mass media products are hostile to fans' attempts to make their own contributions and they challenge the fans' attempts to rework a show's content (Jenkins 1992, 2006b). Some television programs may have fan feedback mechanisms that erode the line between audience and the program (Enli 2009; Jenkins 2006b), but few have content that is so heavily dependent on audience participation. The Colbert Report makes participation integral to the show.

[2.8] Although these opportunities for fan participation require technical skill, many other forms of engagement require minimal time commitments and little specialized knowledge. The many small participatory acts are inclusive because they can be performed by almost any viewer with Internet access. Even the limited forms of participation, such as voting in online polls to name things after Colbert, allow users to make a contribution to the show and to see Colbert report on that contribution during subsequent episodes. Barely an episode goes by without Colbert calling on his fans for support or asking them to participate in one of his campaigns. As Burwell and Boler (2008) put it, "It is difficult to think about the program without taking into account fans, for the program has not only assigned its audience the role of the 'Colbert Nation,' but has also generated a flurry of fan activity."

[2.9] Of course, the fan contribution to The Colbert Report faces some constraints. As Julie Russo (2009) explains, when television programs encourage fans to make their own contributions, they usually specify the form these contributions can take. Video contests place restrictions on what content can be used or establish subject matter boundaries. This allows television programs to retain control of how fans create new content. When Colbert incites his fans to action, he plays the role of the agenda setter. He rarely, if ever, restricts what fans can borrow from the show, but by setting the goal of a campaign, he at least points fans in a certain direction. For example, responses to his fan video contests must always incorporate certain pieces of footage or fulfill certain functions. This leads them to have a more narrowly defined format than fan videos that are not sanctioned by the television programs (Jenkins 2008). Nevertheless, these contests still leave a great deal of room for fans to take personal initiative and to respond creatively to challenges, as Colbert generally refrains from using his role as agenda setter to predetermine the content of media produced by the fans.

3. Modes of interaction

[3.1] The composition of the Colbert Nation facilitates its activities. Demographic characteristics indicate that the show's fans are likely to participate in political causes and are capable of taking the initiative when called on to take part in a new project. One report found that advertisers specifically targeted the show because of its highly active audience (Bosman 2007). Viewers tend to be educated and to read extensively (Young et al. 2006). They are also technologically adept; this is among their most important traits because most of Colbert's campaigns take place online.

[3.2] Contemporary fan activism often relies heavily on digital media (Van Zoonen 2005; Jenkins 2006a), which have introduced the possibility of political engagement that does not require physical presence (Jones 2006). E-mailing, signing virtual petitions, and joining Facebook groups can supplement or even replace traditional forms of social and political activism. A large body of research suggests that the Internet may provide ways of counteracting the decline of associational life by forming new online places where people can meet and interact (Turkle 1995; Rheingold 2000; Jenkins and Thorburn 2004; Hills 2009; Moyo 2009; Hermes 2006; Blau 2005). For example, Russell et al. find that as a result of the growing use of these media, "the boundaries between producer and consumer, and between public and private, are blurring" (2008, 43). Studies of fan communities often reach the same conclusion, as they show that it is difficult to categorize fans as producers or consumers (Jenkins 2006b, 2007).

[3.3] Russell et al. argue that networked technologies have made a new type of relationship possible: "The top-down, one-to-many relationship between mass media and consumers is being replaced, or at least supplemented, by many-to-many and peer-to-peer relationships" (2008, 43). Colbert fans' activism makes use of new technologies to form this relationship, yet goes beyond this model. It relies on networked technologies, but it takes place through a range of media. It is a product of the same kind of convergence between new media and old media, as Jenkins (2009) notes in events like the CNN/YouTube debates. Colbert fans have a many-to-many interaction with each other, a one-to-many interaction with Colbert when the host provides the background for the fan community, and a many-to-one relationship with Colbert when fans create content for the show and help to produce his character. The Internet is the starting place for the collective and a means of creating a fan identity. Without the Internet, fans would lack many of their avenues of expression, like the forums of the Colbert Nation Web site and the blogs that follow the show. Most actions performed by members of the Colbert Nation also take place online. However, the online activities are usually closely linked to the television program, which performs an agenda-setting function and provides a common experience for fans to identify with.

[3.4] The fan community's reliance on television and networked media is worth special attention because these media may seem to encourage passivity or minimal involvement in political and social life. Nevertheless, the prevalence of Colbert Nation activism online should not be dismissed as a sign of laziness. Most fan communication is online, but whenever there is the chance to act in the real world, fans show as much enthusiasm as when the demands on their time and energy are lower. Thousands of fans visited his portrait at the National Gallery (Neuman 2008) and attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that Colbert cohosted with Jon Stewart, demonstrating that the fans were willing and able to engage in more traditional forms of activism that require a more significant investment of time than online activism. Although one could argue that much of the fan action on television is constructed or framed by Colbert, the instances of direct action allow fans to express themselves in an unmediated way. For example, the rally served as a forum for articulating many different political positions; the diversity of the claims being made are evidenced by the countless messages expressed on attendees' signs.

[3.5] Given the Colbert Nation's various modes of engagement and activism, it fits well with Jenkins's assessment of the changing nature of consumption and the erosion of the producer/consumer dichotomy: "In the old days, the ideal consumer watched television, bought products, and didn't talk back. Today, the ideal consumer talks up the program and spreads word about the brand. The old ideal might have been the couch potato; the new ideal is almost certainly a fan" (Jenkins 2007, 361). Many Colbert Report viewers are fans in this sense, and, as the following sections will show, this kind of fan action can promote political engagement.

4. The partisan message

[4.1] To the extent that Colbert tries to influence America politics directly, he lends his support to either party. He plays a megalomaniac who is far more concerned with self-aggrandizement than with partisanship. He tends to support politicians who appear on the show and who are friendly to his character, regardless of their party allegiances. At times, Colbert even betrays his persona's conservative political ideology to celebrate his personal achievements. The 2006 elections marked a turning point in American politics, with the Democrats taking control of congress. As an ultraconservative, Stephen Colbert should have been disappointed at the news, but instead he celebrated. It was a loss for the Republican Party he claims to support, but a victory for him as a commentator because all 27 members of Congress that he had interviewed for "Better Know a District" (a segment of his show dedicated to interviews with each congressional district representative) were reelected, along with one challenger, John Hall, a Democrat who took New York's 19th district (Baym 2007, 359). Colbert celebrated what he claimed was the show's power over elections—the power of fans to elect politicians who engaged with the show. In other elections, he has followed this pattern of celebrating fans' influence over elections, regardless of which party the winner is affiliated with.

[4.2] When Colbert mobilizes his fans, he rarely asks them to take up partisan causes. The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is a prime example of how fans can take part in traditional political activism and of the nonpartisan activities of the Colbert Nation. The rally was held on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on October 30, 2010, shortly after the more partisan rallies held by Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton. Around 215,000 people attended the event, which was hosted jointly by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (Montopoli 2010). The large turnout made the rally a significant event, but neither Stewart nor Colbert attempted to incite the attendees to vote for a particular candidate or to support a specific cause (Day 2010). Stewart presented medals of reasonableness and blamed those on the left and right equally for the rise of extremist rhetoric. His goal for the rally was not to support a partisan agenda but to promote a certain kind of discourse amenable to various positions along the political spectrum. He encouraged suspicion of extremism, the end of the culture war narrative, and more reasonable political debate. Colbert's satire involved praising irrationality and extremism, but he, like Stewart, avoided any political party. His message of rampant partisanship came without much explicit support for a party, politician, or contentious issue.

[4.3] The hosts portrayed the rally as a call for more rational discourse (Tavernise and Stelter 2010). They even risked upsetting commentators from the left by accusing them of encouraging Americans to adopt polarizing political views. While this is a politically relevant message, it does not in itself support either party. The fact that such a significant gathering did not turn into a partisan event and that Colbert has yet to use his show as a platform for any partisan cause makes it seem unlikely that he will do so in the future. Therefore, when considering the political import of The Colbert Report, it is important to look beyond its support for a party to the subtler ways that fans may be empowered or encouraged to take action.

[4.4] Following from the show's ambiguity and lack of a clear partisan message, the first form of audience participation in The Colbert Report is audience members' ability to interpret Colbert's satire. Although most commentators see Colbert as a liberal satirizing conservatives, fans are free to interpret him in various ways. One study found that viewers had the same perception of whether the show was funny, but that conservatives and liberals had much different impressions of Colbert's own political opinions (LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam 2009). Conservatives tended to see him as actually being conservative and only using humor to express his true feelings. Liberals had much different reactions; they saw Colbert as he is portrayed in most commentaries on the show—as a liberal highlighting the absurdities of extremist conservatism. On the basis of these findings, LaMarre et al. conclude that "the ambiguous deadpan satire offered by Stephen Colbert in The Colbert Report is interpreted by audiences in a manner that best fits with their individual political beliefs" (226). This may explain why the show has at times received harsh reactions from those who are ostensibly the beneficiaries of an attack on conservatism. For example, while serving as the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi discouraged politicians from appearing as guests on the show, and it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who accepted him as a candidate in the 2007 primaries.

[4.5] Baumgartner and Morris (2008) argue that Colbert's message is likely to lead viewers to become more conservative rather than exposing the hypocrisies of the conservative position. As they explain, "Exposure to Colbert increases support for President Bush, Republicans in Congress, and Republican policies on the economy and War on Terror" (634). The ambiguity of Colbert's humor should come as no surprise for scholars of fandom, as it fits with the assessments of the polysemy of popular texts (Fiske 1989, 1991, 1992; Jenkins 1992; Barker and Brooks 1998; Sandvoss 2005), but the polysemy is a matter of political contestation because of the show's political subject matter. Fans' interpretive task requires that they carefully consider the statements made by Colbert and his guests to determine what their intentions are, what implications they have, and the extent to which they support one party over another.

5. The audience and traditional activism

[5.1] One of the most common activities for Colbert fans is voting in elections to name things after the host. These campaigns usually follow the same pattern: fans use Colbert as a write-in candidate in online polls to name something, then Colbert reports on their efforts and encourages other fans to join in, and finally more fans join the campaign while Colbert continually reports on their success. One of the Colbert Nation's first tasks came on August 1, 2006, with the campaign to have a Hungarian bridge named after him in an online poll. The poll was designed for participation by Hungarians, but Colbert encouraged viewers to break the rules in order to win, saying, "Do this as many times as you can, from multiple computers if you have to. Carpal tunnel is a small price to pay for this gift to the Hungarian people" (quoted in Burwell and Boler 2008). He won the election by a huge margin, and he won the second election, which used stricter rules, as well. The Hungarian government declined to name the bridge after Colbert, but the event demonstrated his fans' power to influence events online, and it set the pattern that subsequent efforts would follow.

[5.2] A similar campaign took place in 2009, when NASA announced a contest to name Node 3 of its space station. NASA provided four suggestions, but they also allowed write-ins, giving members of the Colbert Nation the opportunity to submit 230,539 votes for Stephen Colbert. The Nation won by a large margin, as the top NASA suggestion, Serenity, only received 40,000 votes ("Oops: Colbert Wins Space Station Name Contest" 2009). Again, the effort was unsuccessful: NASA refused to name the node after Colbert. Still, the event provided further evidence of fans' desire to become participants in their own entertainment and their commitment to The Colbert Report. The objectives the Colbert Nation sets out to accomplish tend to be relatively unimportant in themselves. The costs of losing and the benefits of winning are usually small. However, these seemingly trivial campaigns may have indirect benefits.

[5.3] Megan Boler has shown that online political action can have a strong positive influence on a person's willingness to play a role in more traditional forms of political action:

[5.4] Our survey of 160 producers evidences that 52 percent agree that, "My online political activity has caused me to take action in my local community (e.g., protest, boycott, etc.)." A majority, 59.5 percent, say that "My online participation in political forums has led me to join at least one political gathering or protest." Since becoming active online, 29.3% are "more active in 'offline' political activities," and 63.1% "spend about the same amount of time in 'offline' political activities." (Boler 2007)

[5.5] This indicates that fans participating in online elections and Colbert's other campaigns are likely to become more involved in traditional forms of political action. The naming contests should therefore be viewed as tools for building a sense of efficacy among the fans who participate in them. Through these contests, fans are able to experience the value of collective action and see that even a relatively small group of people, when acting together, can influence the outcome of an election. Although each person only makes a small investment of time to cast their votes, the collective effort still has an appreciable effect on the outcome of the elections. Individual efforts make the difference between winning or losing in online polls, just as it does in elections for public office. The feedback mechanism of showing the results of the election was itself a kind of victory, as Colbert's coverage of the campaigns provided entertainment and encouragement to members of the Colbert Nation. Even when their efforts are unsuccessful, fans may feel an increased sense of efficacy because their votes are recognized by Colbert and become part of his television program. Colbert's positive coverage of the campaigns helps to reward fans for their efforts and to offset the discouragement fans may feel when their voices are overruled by the contest organizers.

[5.6] As Amber Day (2011) points out, political satire programs can also promote traditional forms of political action by encouraging audiences to become more politically engaged. Day argues that political humor tends to be either satirical or cynical, noting that these two forms of humor have much different implications. While cynical humor encourages passivity and disengagement from politics, the satire of shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report informs and entertains without discouraging. A critical difference is that satirical humor tends to be more issue oriented, as opposed to the ad hominem attacks of cynical humor. Cynical humor is often directed at people; it gives the audience members a chance to feel superior to politicians, but it comes with the high price of also making them feel detached from the world of politics. By focusing on issues, satirical humor encourages viewers to think critically about political issues and to laugh at them without falling into cynical contempt for politics or politicians.

6. Everyday activism

[6.1] In addition to challenging fans to interpret the show's political satire and empowering them to take part in traditional forms of political activity such as voting, petitioning, and direct action, The Colbert Report promotes the expansion of the concept of citizenship to the contestation of information. The show encourages critical appraisal of sources of information, especially information from the experts who have traditionally drawn the line between fact and fiction, and directs fans to take part in determining what information is politically relevant.

[6.2] Jones (2005, 2006, 2011) argues that the nature of citizenship has changed and that television programs like The Colbert Report are both cause and consequence of a shift away from participatory citizenship to a citizenship defined by viewing. Although this shift may seem to undermine democratic governance because of the decline of the participatory element of democracy, the epistemological consequences are highly populist and emancipatory. What Jones calls new political television—a category that includes Politically Incorrect, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report—plays a role in undermining the privileged positions of experts, thereby empowering ordinary people to formulate their own opinions. On the basis of this new kind of action, Jones concludes that "we must alter our conceptions of political citizenship as being determined solely through traditional means, and look more carefully at the fluid interchange of politics and culture in everyday life" (2011, 209). Similarly, Morreale argues that on television satire programs, "discussion, dialogue, provocation, and questioning are valued for their own sake—not because they lead to truth but because they foster a community able to discern untruth" (2009, 121). This suggests that the greatest political benefits for members of a fan community may be intangible lessons and improved powers of critical thinking.

[6.3] Fans have engaged in many projects that demonstrate symbolic resistance or questioning of authorities, such as rewriting Wikipedia pages, creating remixes of the show's content, and propagating Colbert's neologisms or helping him to create new ones (Engstrom 2010). The effort to change Wikipedia pages involved modifying pages to make ridiculous false statements. This was to support Colbert's notion of "wikiality," which holds that truth is created by agreement and not by correspondence to fact. Of course, the suggestion that truth is only a matter of agreement is part of Colbert's satire; it is a critique of politicians and pundits who seem to think that their arguments require no evidence. Many fans took up the call to action and carried out the Wikipedia modifications. This campaign had no lasting influence on the pages—they were quickly changed back to their original form—but it did generate media attention for the Colbert Nation and for the concept of wikiality. Just as in the write-in voting, this campaign encouraged fan activism by giving fans a sense of power and celebrating their collective achievements on the show. However, it also went further, as the idea of wikiality that fans called attention to is a politically significant concept, given the extent to which politicians and media figures take popularity as an indicator of truth.

[6.4] By extending the critique of authority and discursive practices to a broad range of media, the Colbert Nation shows that political action can go beyond the narrow confines of what is done by the government and by citizens on election days. In Jenkins's terms, campaigns to contest information or the discursive strategies used for presenting information fall under the audience's power of negation. Old media like television can marginalize dissenting opinions by refusing to give them coverage or directing attention away from them by framing issues in a particular way (Jenkins 2009, 190). New media, by contrast, have the power of negation: they can challenge authorities, either directly or through humor. Jenkins generally describes this power as something deployed by individuals who use online media such as YouTube videos. This has the strength of allowing many oppositional voices to be heard. Although the Colbert Nation is more uniform and follows more structured agendas, its power of negation is felt on a much greater scale, as it comes from a network of fans acting together. The size of the fan community and its organization allow it to have a much stronger voice whenever its campaigns challenge politicians and media elites.

[6.5] John Hartley (2010) provides further support for the possibilities of fan action creating a new form of citizenship. Citizenship is typically seen in terms of the right to political participation, and perhaps also as the right to take part in contractual agreements or the right to benefit from social programs. These conceptions of citizenship constrain membership in the class of citizens. The borders of these types of citizenship are usually precisely demarcated, and outsiders are excluded from their benefits. The DIY/DIWO citizenship that is promoted by television programs like The Colbert Report is far more inclusive, as its audience is not restricted by age, nationality, place of birth, language, or other characteristics. Anyone with access to cable television or an Internet connection can watch the show, communicate with other fans, generate the show's content, and take part in the Colbert Nation's campaigns.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] Stephen Colbert is a postmodern character who owes much to the dedicated fan community that helps develop his identity and the content of his show. The fans who take part in Colbert's campaigns show an enormous potential for political action, and the actions they take often parallel political acts, even when they are apparently trivial. Fans vote, challenge the terms of political discourse, attend events, and cooperate to bring each of these about. The show encourages these actions by providing fan activists with positive feedback and encouragement. The Colbert Nation confirms studies that show that fan collectives have enormous potential for mobilizing themselves and taking action (Van Zoonen 1998, 2004, 2005) and shows some of the ways in which contemporary fan activism promotes traditional forms of political engagement and the extension of political action while also providing entertainment.

[7.2] It is important to acknowledge some of the limitations on Colbert fan activism and the challenges these raise for future research. Despite the many promising examples of fan engagement that I have discussed, there are several constraints on how fans can participate in the show. First, Colbert retains the largest share of authorial control over his character. Thus far, he has allowed fans to use his name, videos of him, and other materials related to the character to create their own media. Nevertheless, there is always a chance that he may object to some of his fans' uses of the Colbert character or the show's content. Because Colbert has the greatest claim to his character, any decision he makes to exercise greater authorial control might threaten fan activism. This would disrupt the reciprocal exchange that has characterized Colbert fandom and would require a reexamination of the show and its fans.

[7.3] Second, there is the possibility that fan action could be constrained by Viacom, which owns The Colbert Report. Although Viacom has allowed fans to contribute to the show and to create some media based on it, Viacom has also placed restrictions on what media fans are allowed to appropriate. In 2007, Viacom forced YouTube and other video-hosting Web site to remove videos of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. It continues to have a strong influence on the ways fans can use content from its programs. The risk is that Viacom may further limit fan opportunities for activism. Future research could examine the extent to which Viacom has shaped the Colbert Nation's opportunities for activism and how fan engagement changes in response to Viacom's ongoing efforts to protect its copyrights.

[7.4] Finally, there are some signs that Colbert may be unable to respond to his audience's wishes in some circumstances. One of Colbert's most audacious campaigns was the creation of the Colbert super PAC (that is, a political action committee that permits virtually unlimited donations) in 2011. This campaign (still in process as of this writing) presents a challenge for Colbert and his fans. Colbert created the PAC and continually changes its legal status to demonstrate how PACs have circumvented regulations concerning campaign contributions. He encourages fans to make financial contributions to the PAC, which many do, but thus far, he seems unable to decide what to do with the money. At one point he asked fans to tell him what issues they care about, but this only led to an incoherent cloud of keywords ( It failed to provide the Colbert super PAC with much guidance for spending the money. Managing the super PAC may prove to be a significant challenge for Colbert, as misusing the money could alienate fans or lead the Colbert Nation toward a different type of fan activism. Future research should examine this unprecedented campaign once it is finished and determine what lessons it holds for fan activism.

8. Works cited

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Baumgartner, Jody C., and Jonathan S. Morris. 2008. "One 'Nation,' Under Stephen? The Effects of The Colbert Report on American Youth." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 52:622–43.

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