April 24, 2008
Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps (1 of 3)

I came to the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture dialogue on LiveJournal and Henry Jenkins' blog from both ends of the producer/consumer scholarship binaries often posed in the discussion. On the one hand, I work for a group called the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which converses with media corporations to look at the intersection between media producers and audiences. On the other, my primary areas of research interest have come from studying the ways in which fans reappropriate media texts in their own performances and discussions, often in ways that run counter to the interests, or at least irrelevant of the interests, of bottom-line driven corporate endeavors.

I also felt some kinship to both sides of the gender divisions being discussed in the debate. On the one hand, my work on professional wrestling occupies a place between sports fandom and media fandom--two worlds that have strangely been separated in academic discourse, as Kimberly Schimmel, Lee Harrington, and Denise Bielby have researched recently. Pro wrestling has often been criticized as "hypermasculine," while my other research interest--soap operas--has often been derided and ghettoized in popular culture in many ways because of its rich history of primarily female authorship, a feminine narrative perspective, and a largely female fan base. For me--as a lifelong fan of both professional wrestling and soaps--I saw great connections between the two, connections I have written about as dealing with the immersiveness of the narrative worlds of both texts.

I was interested in participating in last summer's fan studies discussion because I felt the fan communities I study and participate in--two media forms that are perhaps even more explicitly gendered than most--were not only marginalized in part because of that gendered-ness, but also because of a cultural taste hierarchy in class divisions, regionalism, and long-standing cultural biases about how to value of affective aesthetics--especially in terms of the excess of emotion both pro wrestling and soaps are known (and often stereotyped) for.

With this provocation in particular, I am directing my attention at an area of pro wrestling and soap opera fandom that is particularly problematic: the logic of the target demographic. As media scholars, we understand that advertising-supported media producers are in the primary business not of selling content to audiences but rather selling audiences to advertisers; in particular, they are not selling all audience members to advertisers but rather certain audience members who are understood to have particular value. This notion of the target demographic shapes--and often distorts--the relationships among producers and consumers.

The target demographic has a deep history in advertising logic, but the focus on the teenage and young adult demographic in particular can be traced, in part, back to the 1970s tactic of ABC to try and beat out the more popular CBS and NBC with a new bragging right: that it boasted the highest number of the lucrative baby boomer youth market. Ever since, television has focused its advertising model around the 18-34 and, more broadly, 18-49 demographic. Amanda Lotz' most recent research looks at how industry lore often stays in place until something comes along to challenge it, and the logic behind the mid-1970s focus on a young boomer demographic has held its place, even as that boomer population is now moving into 50+ territory, where they often no longer have economic value, according to industry logic. I'm interested in this "valuing fans" discussion inasmuch as it impacts the fans of media franchises and the texts that are created within this industry logic. The industry logic breaks down when looking at immersive story worlds like the WWE or soap operas, developed to be "worlds without end," franchises that are transgenerational in nature.