Constructing an older audience

06May07

As summer approaches, I’ll need to shift into more formal writing, as I’m going to try to complete three articles & 1/3 of a book over the next few months (I still feel optimistic!). So to avoid making the blog completely dormant, I’m going to embrace the logic of the television industry itself: repurposing & reruns! So look for more excerpts from my “official” writing-in-progress appearing on this blog – with an open invitation for comments from anyone with an opinion before these projects head off to press.

Today’s New York Times Magazine includes an interesting article about TV Land’s quest for legitimizing the aging baby boomer audience. Worth reading, with the one caveat that it buys a little too much into the logic that the boomers are the self-appointed rightful center of the universe. What it does well is highlight how notions of the television audience are determined much more by industrial practices, not actual viewers and their habits. So here’s an excerpt from my Television & American Culture textbook, outlining this issue (and as a textbook, the goal is synthesizing the field for ease of explanation – so many of these ideas & arguments will be familiar to people versed in the media studies literature):

One of the more slippery concepts in thinking about television is defining the audience. We need to be careful with the term audience and contrast it with another similar term, viewer. Television viewers are the actual people who watch television—you, your friends and family, and millions of other real people watching television. Television audiences are the way the industry thinks about viewers: categorizes them, measures them, designs programming for them, and sells them to advertisers. But there is a crucial gap between the behaviors of real viewers and the industry’s understanding of audiences, a distinction that directly impacts our understanding of how the television industry functions….

The television industry tries to simplify the complexities of viewing behaviors into more streamlined and quantifiable terms. While certainly advertisers would like to know if you mute or fast-forward through commercials, and creators are interested in what reactions their programs might provoke in you, these are not aspects of viewing that typically are reflected in the industry’s notion of the audience. The television industry poses two central questions about the audience: who is watching? and what are they watching? While particular segments of the industry might examine more nuanced facets of television viewing—such as a network testing a new program’s appeals with a group of viewers, or an ad agency studying what commercials inspire viewers to pay attention—as a whole, the television industry is chiefly interested in knowing the who and what in defining audiences, not the how or why.

In this way, we might claim that the television industry creates audiences, a statement with two meanings. The first would be that television programmers work to attract an audience to their shows, and thus a successful program “creates” an audience. The second meaning is both more abstract and more significant: the television audience is a construction, a concept created by the industry to try to measure the real world behavior of viewers. When you watch television, you are not part of an audience; you are a viewer acting as an individual or part of a small community watching a show. The audience for that program is how the industry understands the behavior of viewers, chiefly in terms of who and what. As an individual, you are never part of the television audience; the audience is a categorical grouping defined by the television industry that does not represent actual viewers.

The distinction between industry-created audiences and everyday viewers can be tricky. It may be useful to think about what other categorical groups you might be considered part of—Arab-American, suburban, college student, Christian, hockey fan, working-class, environmentally-conscious, etc. In each of these cases, you may see yourself as part of a larger category based on who you are, what you believe in, and what you have chosen to do. However if you think about broader cultural assumptions about that category, you may find that you diverge from the common sense ideas about the group—you might be a college student who doesn’t drink alcohol, has a full-time job, or is middle-aged, all of which point away from commonly held ideas about college students as a group. Categories and groups always rely on shared traits and typical behaviors more than acknowledging the diversity of people who may fit into the category. This doesn’t mean that you don’t belong within these groups, but rather that such categories can never capture the broad range of identities and practices that constitute individual’s lives, even around a seemingly simple practice like watching television. For the television industry, the economic need for a common currency to buy and sell leads to a highly simplified and reductive categorization of viewers into audience groups.

So what the Times article so nicely illustrates is that audience categories are created by the industry trying to capitalize on viewer behavior, not organically emerging from people’s practices – ABC in the 1960s leveraged their appeal to young viewers by convincing advertisers that 18-49 year olds was all that mattered (and pushing Nielsen to report demographics). Now TV Land is trying to construct the older audience as a category that matters and thus gains economic value. Many people assume that since TV success is based on ratings, the effect is democratic – one viewer, one vote. Sadly, this is untrue in a number of ways – not only can we not vote (unless you’re tapped by Nielsen), but our practices are only valued in so far as they fit into the industry’s categorical logics. If you’re a boomer, TV Land is trying to make you matter.



2 Responses to “Constructing an older audience”

  1. 1 alex clark

    thank you for writting such an informative, helpful and easy to read article. without your help i wouldnt have been able to finish an essay ive been struggling with for the past two weeks. thanks again.


  1. 1 Fun with ratings « Just TV

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