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Surplus Audiences, ATWT, and the Luke/Noah Kiss

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This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on August 23, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here.

Those who follow the blog even with casual interest probably know that the world of soap opera is the site of a significant amount of my research and writing. I'm currently in the early stages of preparing a course here at MIT in the spring on soap operas, and my Master's thesis work was on the subject as well.

I'm also really interested in the topic of surplus audiences, those that rest outside the "target demographic" but who still create a valid and significant audience portion. The fact that pro wrestling is sometimes among the most popular content for young adult women, according to some numbers I've seen, or that 25 percent of gamers are over 50, as I wrote about earlier today, are key examples of this.

Perhaps most interesting to me, then, is male soap opera fans, a group I fit into. There are many male soap opera fans, and that's nothing new, but soaps have always been about the 18-49 female demo. Some have gone so far as to say that anyone else simply doesn't matter or doesn't exist, since that's not who shows are selling to advertisers.

But the recent popularity of a soap opera storyline on As the World Turns with online gay communities demonstrate many ways in which surplus audiences can be quite valuable.

First, there's the numbers. If a show isn't doing as well as it would like among the target demographic, what happens if it can appeal to other viewers? After all, I'm an advocate of viewing television as social content in the first place, so even staying within the assumption that ultimately the target demo is what really matters, wouldn't attracting a decent-sized surplus audience be valuable in then working with those folks to help recruit other new fans, many of whom might be in that target demo?

That's what my thesis is about: valuing older audience members as proselytizers for the target demo. And male soaps fans can work just the same.

Here's the story. ATWT gained some significant interest from the online gay community with its storyline depicting the coming out of the teenage son of a prominent family in town, Luke Snyder. In the early part of 2006, Luke's coming out was a major focus on the show. I wrote in February 2006 about Luke's online blog depicting his struggle with the secret.

The coming out was played over several months, in which his father found out and came to grips before Luke ever told anyone else, his mother was in denial, and viewers slowly go to see the reaction of every character on the show, including how several "people" the audience had known for years were reacting to Luke's being gay.

This particularly attracted attention on online gay forums, such as the Dreamcaps Forum I wrote about back in June. There, a thread was started by some ATWT fans pointing out the coming out storyline to others in the community. Soon, people were following the stories and not just Luke's coming out but other stories on the show as well.

I wrote then that:

The discussion about the Luke storyline starts morphing into a dicussion of the distinctive elements of the soap opera genre and its emphasis on dialogue and slow-moving action paced out over several days with multiple storylines juggled simultaneously. Posters begin encourgaging each other to not just watch the Luke storyline but also check out other current stories as well. And the thread has now gone to 17 pages over the past few months as people continuously follow ATWT.

A great example of the power of the fan community, particularly when a show taps into a niche "surplus" audience that is not its primary demographic, which is women 18-49.

ATWT chose to tell the story of Luke's coming out slowly, making him a character in the background for several months and never having a romantic interest after his coming out. Then, Noah entered the picture. A new intern at local television station WOAK (of which Luke's mother is part-owner and where Luke is interning as well) catches Luke's eye. Noah is the son of an army colonel, one who thinks that his choice to go to Northwestern (Oakdale is close to Chicago) instead of enlisting to serve is country proves that he's not much of a man. Noah may be attracted to Luke as well, but he's seeking his father's approval, and he ends up sleeping with and dating another intern at the station, Maddie Coleman.

Last Friday, Luke and Noah had what is the first significant male homosexual kissing scene in American soap opera television history (see Faith's note below). In response, I know that CBS' streaming of ATWT had started running slow, perhaps due to increased traffic, and the most viewed version of the ATWT story has been watched 267,245 times as of this evening, favorited 619 times, and commented on 245 times. (Look here.

From AfterElton, I learned that the clip was originally marked as inappropriate on YouTube, but that other fans responded by posting duplicate clips of the scene, at least 10 at the count Lyle Masaki had.

EP Christopher Goutman expressed his support of the storyline, while a GLAAD press release celebrated teh event, poitning out that there had been a same-sex kiss among females in daytime in 2000 (All My Children) and that the first network airing of a gay male kiss was in 2000.

It also made the main page of celebrity gossip site Perez Hilton. And see a fan site here.

What does this attention from gay male viewers, and the possibility of recruiting more gay male viewers through the story, mean for the target demographic? Immediately, nothing. But this surplus audience could have major repercussions for recruiting other new fans, some of whom may be adult women in the target demo. It will be interesting to see how the show continues to deal with its potential popularity among more gay male fans and what that might mean for the show.

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