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

Perhaps even more frustrated, then, are soap opera fans. Soap opera producers sell the 18-49 female demographic more broadly, and the 18-34 female demographic in particular, to advertisers. Further, since soap operas primarily only exist as a daily television show, there are few economic forces counterbalancing the pervading "logic" of the target demographic, thus leading "the powers that be" (or "the idiots in charge," as soap opera fans more often refer to them) to constantly try to develop stories, and feature characters most prominently, that they believe will play well to the target demo. Since soap opera ratings have been falling steadily for the past 15-20 years, soaps have responded by trying to even more expressly target the target demo. However, the problem with that logic is that it directly defies the transgenerational nature of the narrative itself.

I have found anecdotally that almost all longtime soap opera fans began their relationship with the text of these shows through relationships with other fans. Often, this has been a transgenerational relationship. A grandmother, a mother, an uncle, or a babysitter watched soaps regularly, and the fan grew up with these same soap operas on. Thus, it is the longtime characters that have remained the glue holding them to the show, and it is the relationships built around the show--or the memories of these relationships, for loved ones who have passed away--that keeps them watching today. For more on this appeal, see Lee Harrington and Denise Brothers-McPhail's latest project on aging in soaps, as well as some of the work from Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata at Project Daytime.

That same logic extends to online fan communities around soap operas, where fan discussion boards are energized by conversations across multiple age and gender demographics that position these shows as "social texts" which help drive ongoing discussion among a group that have formed social bonds over time, based in part because of their common interests in these soaps. With the daily nature of the text, and no off-season, these "worlds without end" then give a continuous supply of "official material" that then drives rich fan interpretation, commentary, analysis, parody, speculation, education, and so on. See Nancy Baym's work on the variety of ways these fan communities interact, for instance.

Many of the current economic problems of the soap opera industry might be explained by adhering too closely to this target demographic audience that gave no economic valuation to female viewers over 50, male viewers, etc., and thus ultimately marginalized their interests, for the sake of appealing only to a certain age group of female viewers. As these texts moved on, however, these shows constantly had to "re-market" themselves to a new set of young adult females, thus alienating the previous group of new fans, creating a cycle of continuously alienating fans once they chose to make a long-term commitment to watching the show.

In the process of trying to garner the right kind of fan to sell to advertisers, then, the industry managed to eliminate the very fan community support system that helped "gain and maintain" lasting fans for these shows, by defying the transgenerational nature of soap opera fandom and by undercutting the value placed on "community" which has long been at the heart of soap opera texts and soap opera fans.

My hope is that, by bringing these particular "masculine" and "feminine" texts--and their fan communities--into the conversation, we can better understand the industrial "logics" that shape and distort the way these texts are understood and gendered and how fans continue to build relationships and define their relationship to the texts and these shows' producers in light of those economic pressures.