Whose Stories Are They? Fans' Engagement with Soap Opera Narratives in Three Sites of Fan Activity

By Beilby, Denise D.; Harrington, Lee et al. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Whose Stories Are They? Fans' Engagement with Soap Opera Narratives in Three Sites of Fan Activity


Beilby, Denise D., Harrington, Lee, Bielby, William T., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Television programs are both commodities and cultural products. Their production takes place within a context of conflict over creative and financial considerations among a variety of different organizations, groups, and individuals (Cantor & Cantor, 1992; DiMaggio, 1977; Montgomery, 1989). Research on the television industry finds that network programmers are confronted with managing the inherent conflicts and contradictions that arise from juggling commercial and aesthetic assessment criteria in their search for financial success (Bielby & Bielby, 1994). Despite network executives' best efforts, there are never guarantees that audiences' tastes will coincide with what programmers hope will be commercially successful products (Gitlin, 1983).

Commercial success is the bottom line for anything that airs on network television. Programmers care primarily that their product appeals to large numbers of viewers with demographic profiles that advertisers value, and care little about the meanings, significance, or ritual that television fulfills as a cultural product to a core audience of dedicated fans (Cantor & Cantor, 1986). In the business of television, viewers matter more than fans, but the product itself matters more to fans than to other viewers. The distinction between a television viewer and a television fan is an important one. To "view" television is to engage, in a relatively private behavior. To be a "fan," however, is to in a range of activities that extend beyond the private act of viewing and reflects an enhanced emotional involvement with a television narrative. Such activities may include purchasing or subscribing to fan magazines, writing letters to actors, producers, writers, or to fan publications, conversing with other fans on electronic bulletin boards, joining fan clubs, attending fan events, and so on (Harrington & Bielby, 1995a; Jenkins, 1992).

While there is a well-established tradition of qualitative research on television viewers, especially since the early 1980s (for a review see Lindlof, 1991), scholarship on fans (as defined above) is more recent. Published in the early 1990s were a series of ethnographically-based analyses of fans of primetime television, particularly "Star Trek," by scholars working within the humanities (e.g. Bacon-Smith, 1992; Jenkins, 1992; Penley, 1991). More recent work has shifted focus from primetime to daytime television (e.g. Harrington & Bielby, 1995a), from fans of domestic to foreign products (e.g. Middleham & Wober, 1997), and from humanistic to social scientific and communications perspectives (e.g. Collins, 1997; Cooper, 1997; Harrington & Bielby, 1995a). Fan research builds upon and extends traditional audience research in several related ways: by expanding the range of activities through which viewers are said to "consume" a television series; by situating this consumption more explicitly within the television production industry; by moving from an isolated-viewer model to an examination of the fan-industry relationship; and by considering other media that shape the relationship between consumers and producers of television, such as the organized fan industry, fan magazines, and electronic communication. Research on fans thus speaks not only to academic scholars, but also potentially to a wide range of industry participants: professional media critics; television actors, producers, and writers; print media editors and writers; those working in the fan industry; and fans themselves.

Our research takes a sociological approach to the study of U.S. soap opera fans. We address the following question: how is fans' public discourse with one another and with industry participants shaped and mediated by the arena or "site" in which it occurs? We draw on qualitative data from three different sites of fan activity -- fan clubs, daytime magazines, and electronic bulletin boards -- to assess the circumstances under which fans' "claims" to a narrative are (or are not) granted legitimacy within the industry.

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