'X-Files' fans are mainstream, on-line


Two years ago, the in-crowd huddled around the television each Wednesday night to watch "Seinfeld." The rest of the world, meanwhile, was merrily watching "Home Improvement."

Soon, the rest of the world discovered "Seinfeld" -- and the show surged ahead in the Nielsen ratings.

Now another show is making its way from the backwaters of cult status into the mainstream. It's "The X-Files," the Fox sci-fi show that has become a Friday-night ritual for die-hard fans, who call themselves X-Philes.

The show isn't about to threaten "Roseanne" or "Seinfeld" -- on the Fox network, which has fewer affiliates than the Big Three networks, even the most popular shows appear in the middle of the ratings.

But it is hot enough that during November, Fox will repeat one of last season's "X-Files" episodes every Sunday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Nov. 6, newcomers to the series can tune in to catch the pilot episode.

The year-old "X-Files" centers on FBI agents Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who investigate unsolved cases within the bureau. The cases, however, are not the fodder of standard cop shows.

In one episode, the agents tried to track down a genetically mutated serial killer who emerges every 30 years from hibernation and must consume five human livers. In recent weeks, they have investigated a gigantic fluke-like creature living in the sewers of a small town and then moved on to another town where people were mysteriously slaughtering their neighbors and friends because they began seeing the words "Kill 'em all" in the LED readouts of digital clocks and computers and even elevators.

If it sounds very "Twilight Zone," it is. That's why fans like it.

For the Fox network and the show's producers, that kind of word-of-mouth publicity has been a pleasant surprise. Last season, "The X-Files" averaged a 12 share, meaning that 12 percent of the viewing audience tuned in. This season, 17 percent of the households watching TV at 9 p.m. Fridays were watching "The X-Files."

Among adults 18 to 49 -- the group that advertisers crave -- the show ranks first in its time period and is seen by 26 percent of those adults watching TV. But the core audience is men between 18 and 34.

Although it would be easy to lump the show's fans into the science fiction/"Star Trek" crowd, it's not that simple.

Some are Trekkers; others were "Twin Peaks" aficionados who tuned in to watch Mr. Duchovny, who appeared in Peaks as "Dennis/Denise," the transvestite detective. "X-Files" writers also have included inside jokes for attentive "Peaks" fans, including a poster of murder victim Laura Palmer that hung above Mulder's desk in the premiere of "The X-Files."

But if you want to meet and greet X-Philes, do what the show's producers and writers do: Get on the Internet.

Shortly after "The X-Files" premiered, its fans began hitting their computers, chatting about the show on computer bulletin boards.

Now the Delphi and Prodigy on-line services have devoted bulletin boards to the show. "We've only had the bulletin board a few months," said Delphi spokeswoman Nancy Morrisroe, "but it has really taken off. It gets a couple of hundred postings a day."

Delphi is officially linked to the show, allowing the service to hold forums in which viewers can ask questions of the show's producers. Delphi customers also can order "X-Files" merchandise on-line.

But many fans haven't waited for their computer services to catch on to the show. They started chatting on-line about their show informally -- on whatever TV-related forum or bulletin board they could find.

That's what happened to 28-year-old Jerry Jones of Orlando.

Mr. Jones, a video production technician, stumbled onto "The X-Files" early last year and got hooked right away. After the second episode, he logged on to America Online, went to a chat room devoted to television and began to talk about the show with others.

Mr. Jones wants to make it clear: He is not hooked on "Twin Peaks" or UFOs or anything in particular. "I'm not a fanatic," he said. "The last time I remember a show that I went out of my way to watch was 'Black Sheep Squadron,' when I was a little kid."

Still, he was so captivated that he organized a Saturday night "chat room" devoted to "The X-Files." Now the 800 America Online X-Philes are outgrowing their space.

By computer, fans engage in role-playing as Scully and Mulder. Others write scripts. Many simply trade trivia about the show and name their favorite episodes.

But one of the keys to the show's success, Mr. Jones said, are the intelligent characters. "The women seem to like that Gillian Anderson's character is often smarter than David Duchovny. She's not just another TV bimbo."

And then there's the intelligent scripts. This, Mr. Jones said, is a show that doesn't talk down to the viewers.

"The consensus is that this is intelligent television, which isn't something we normally get," Mr. Jones said. "We're used to 30-minute comedies that are very shallow. On 'The X-Files,' they don't show you everything. They leave it to your imagination. They don't explain everything -- they expect you to figure it out."

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