Conceptualizing the Desirable Audience

A television program must have advertisers’ support in order for it to stay on the air. Popularity of a show is really only a small part of an advertiser deciding whether they want to back a show or not. Media scholar Herman Gray breaks down viewers into three “subjects” in order to analyze how advertisers see viewers. Cultural subject: this type of viewer is characterized by its emphasis on “the traditions, practices, identities, and representations that are generated from and recognized to exits within a specific cultural tradition and social location” (Gray 94). Economic subject: the most desirable subject, a group of consumers with large discretionary incomes, and appropriate tastes and viewing habits, as defined by the television industry through “an advertiser-driven system of funding based on audience measurement and accounting” (Gray 93). Political subjects: audiences who are political entities and/or raise interests to the industry or state.

According to Gray, it is race and ethnicity which determine these positions. Whites are seen as economic subjects because of their history of privilege and, therefore, are the most “important”, economically speaking. The goal of the television industry is to appease these consumers in order to satisfy their advertisers. Unlike in recent decades, white consumers are not satisfied with representations of non-white subjects on television. This means that representations in contemporary television are much more focused on a white audience. Even those shows which tend to have more nuanced representations of black individuals still understand that they must appease a mass audience, which is simply code for white.

What is at stake here is that black audiences are thrown into the category of the political subject. They become representative of a group without purchasing power and as one already represented within the state. Because there is no profit in it, television continues to lack representations that question these persistent structural inequalities within the chief social and cultural discourses.


Written by Lee Scandinaro


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