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October 12, 2006

From Viewers for Quality Television to Television Without Pity

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide that originally appeared on my blog, this sidebar takes a look at two very different mechanisms by which audience members expressed their feelings about television programs -- Viewers for Quality Television and Television Without Pity. Each emerged, in part, in response to shifts in the ways the television networks conceptualized their viewership -- TQT reflected a new focus on demographics (and the recognition that middle class consumers were highly desired by advertisers) and TWP reflects a new focus on expressions, that is, on the emotional investments audience members make in the programs they watch. This originally appeared in Chapter Three of the book.

The shift in the ways networks and advertisers think about consumers is reflected in the differences between the two audience forums which can be seen to characterize their respective eras - Viewers for Quality Television (in the 1980s and 1990s) and Television Without Pity (in the early 21st century). As Sue Brower notes, Viewers For Quality Television (VQT) was a product of a specific historic juncture, where Nielsen first began to provide information about audience demographics and media producers sought to exploit this information to sustain shows which had low ratings but attracted highly valued niche audiences. Shows, such as Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and St. Elsewhere, touted themselves as "quality television" because they attracted "quality audiences" and their producers formed alliances with fan groups to construct a case for keeping these series on the air.

Viewers for Quality Television emerged from these grassroots, but corporately supported, efforts to sustain programs that appealed to college educated and upper middle class consumers. The group regularly polled their membership to identify not only what shows they liked but who they were and what products they purchased. Evaluations of quality emerged through consensus within the readership of VQT monthly newsletter, though the group's founder and spokesperson Dorothy Swanson offered this definition: "A quality show is something we anticipate before and savor after. It focuses more on relationships than situations; it explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought and is remembered tomorrow. A quality show colors life in shades of grey."

While the group supported a range of shows, including sitcoms such as Frank's Place, Designing Women, or Brooklyn Bridge, VQT was most closely associated with hour long ensemble-cast serialized dramas, such as ER, Murder One or NYPD Blue. VQT held an annual convention where they announced their list of recognized shows for the year. Their rankings were widely monitored by industry leaders and media observers, who saw them as giving a boost, no matter how small, to deserving series.

If VQT embraced the ensemble cast drama, TWP has become central to building up and sustaining audiences for science fiction, fantasy, reality, and other cult programs. In the summer of 2004, featured series included 24, Alias, Joan of Arcadia, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and The Sopranos, not to mention Survivor and American Idol. Most of these series define their quality more in terms of their contributions to popular genres than in terms of the concept of "novelistic" television Swanson promoted.

If VQT became emblematic for the shift towards "high demographic" programming, TWP may become emblematic for this search for a more interactive, attentive, and committed consumer. The site offers recaps and discussion forums for 25 shows, most which fall into those genres which attract the highest viewer commitments, according to Initiative's research. While VQT asserted itself as an earnest and aesthetically-minded tastemaking community, TWP is an altogether more playful group as suggested by its motto, "Spare the snark and spoil the network." Swanson argued that the most active segments of the television audience were drawn towards quality and that fans of lesser shows wouldn't put the effort into sustaining such collective efforts. Yet, TWP demonstrates that shows which no one would call high quality may provoke strong emotional reactions and generate net chatter.

VQT sought the ear of network leaders and program producers; these same people are increasingly monitoring TWP as a window into their illusive younger consumers. If the networks had to wait a year to learn how VQT ranked their shows, TWP responds instantly and in a much more nuanced fashion: its professional recappers post a detailed and often scathing critique of each episode within days and sometimes hours after it aired; these reviews in turn generate extensive discussion among the site's readers. As the site's FAQ explains, "Our mandate is, more or less, to give people a place to revel in their guilty televisual pleasures. In most cases, we have a complex love/hate relationship with the show, and this site is a way for us to work through those feelings. If we plain hated a show, we wouldn't pay it any attention at all."

While VQT was about quality, TWP is about passion. Many production companies will assign an intern to monitor the TWP lists to see how the audience reacts to various plot twists and character revelations, though many producers, at least those with thick skins, have been known to lurk there themselves. According to Sep, one of the site's resident experts, "It's certainly a tool for networks to see direct and immediate fan reaction that is far more specific than the Nielsen system."

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