April 2, 2008
SCMS: Victoria Johnson on Friday Night Lights

The television panel I wrote about in my previous post also included a presentation from Victoria Johnson, who discussed Friday Night Lights and the ways in which the show's promotion, and the difficulties the network has had in promoting the show, can be tied to tensions at the network in how to promote the show and tensions among critics on how the should should be received.

As many of you know (see here, here, and here, among others), FNL is a favorite show among a couple of us here in the Consortium, and I am particularly passionate about what many call "flyover country" and thus was particularly interested in Johnson's research about how the idea of a "quality television" show based on high school football in Texas presented a variety of challenges in how to promote and receive the show.

For the network, it was promoted at first alongside football shows and later as a show not really about football. On the reception side, Johnson presented quite a bit of evidence that critics who liked the show was troubled at liking it and continually felt the need to validate their enjoying the show. I'm hoping to discuss this more with Victoria in coming months and perhaps center more work on this topic in particular. But her SCMS presentation was among the most interesting I heard.

Her presentation on NBC's inability to market the show and critics' befuddlement of the show's quality focused on how taste cultures, market segmentation, and political mapping all rely on a regional division of the country that left people puzzled about how to market a serious drama based on small town Texas and the importance of regional mythology, lifestyle, and aesthetics to this series. She discussed in particular that tension between the show being linked to football but "not about football" and how it was tied into "Red State" myths. One of Victoria's presumptions was that the show might have been marketed better in a broadcast "network" era but, in the current age of narrowcasting and niche audiences, a complex television show about rural life doesn't fit the narrow definitions of subcultures and specific markets shows are aiming toward. Is Friday Night Lights in some ways "after its time"?

She pointed out how FNL was first marketed alongside the return of football to NBC and was pitchd as "America's next heartland family drama," suggesting NBC would be the new home for classic broadcast culture in an increasingly niche era, with motions toward a target audience of 18-34 male. By the next spring, the pitch was instead to the older female audience, "urban-identifying and liberal-skewing," by saying "It's Not All About Football" and pitching it at The OC with guts and authenticity.

She went on to look the issue with critics who both adored the show but also seemed to have some disdain with it, or else guilt for liking it, talking about how it was tied up in Red State vs. Blue State cultural politics, specifically comparing it with the simultaneous rhetoric surrounding Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, also airing on NBC that season. Yet, for the critics who made the assumptions about who the show would appeal to, the demographic realities may have been confusing, especially that it was the second most "upscale" series on broadcast TV, with more affluent six-figure income viewers than almost any other network show. The show also drew well among "early adopter" DVR users, all the more impressive for a show discussed with disdain by many for having "red heartlander mass appeal." Victoria pointed out in her presentation how these reactions "exposed and troubled prevailing mythologies" about heartland audiences.

She pointed out how little reviewers discussed the critically acclaimed book or the film that proceeded Friday Night Lights in their reviews but instead noted that the reviews were characterized by a few tactics. While a few critics saw no need to rationalize the quality of the show, the vast majority wrote in some way about their utter surprise at the show's quality, often based on geographic and cultural biases. Many of these critics--in writing a positive review--sought in some way to distance themselves from the football-ness of the show, sometimes with elaborate rationalizations for why they love the show, tangled up in a variety of issues about geographic identity politics. Victoria pointed out, for instance, how some comments online emphasized how some viewers refused to like the show because it was set in texas, on principle. She pointed out how that the same types of rationalizations weren't present for NBC's launch of Studio 60 or 30 Rock, series that it was okay for critics to like, seemingly.

I'm looking forward to seeing more on Victoria's work on the subject, but I know there are a fair number of regular Consortium blog readers as interested in FNL as I am, so I thought I would pass this along. If you have any further thoughts, feel free to leave a comment or else e-mail me at samford@mit.edu.