Alternative Sources for Audience Research (and Flexibility During the Pandemic)

By Charlotte Stevens on January 6th, 2020


For the last couple of years, I have been working with media fanzines housed in North American library collections. Last year I blogged here about visiting one of the collections and about some preliminary findings that came out of that work. My starting point with this material was simply curiosity: I knew there were fanzines at one branch of the Toronto Public Library, and I was going to be visiting Toronto, therefore I would make time to explore. There is a wonderful freedom that comes from diving into an archive without knowing what it holds, and from encountering a set of documents before having research questions in mind. I found there was not much said in the zines about fanvids but I did find general conversation about television and television watching. This was not just discussion of programmes that were the subject of the zine (science fiction series, cop shows) but information around context for viewing; not only interpretation of characters and story, but also discussion of how and where fans watched television.

This relates to the Alternativity theme in a few ways:

  • This kind of fan writing is primary source evidence for spectatorship practices as the spread of videotape changed how fans watched television in the 70s and 80s, documenting the uptake of an alternative to traditional broadcast television viewing
  • This kind of fan writing has not been used as a source for scholarship in the last 20 years, its accounts provide an alternative set of accounts to existing ethnographies from the period
  • This kind of fan writing contains descriptions written between friends of how they watched television and understood their viewing practices, these discussions presume an alternative audience to interviews (or other audience research methods) conducted by academics

I am looking forward to exploring these ideas further, and have recently written a piece for Alphaville that starts wondering at how to use fanzines for (television) research in a way that recognises their difference to other forms of audience accounts – for example, they are not letters to a researcher, they are not (semi-)structured interviews guided by a research question, and neither are they pseudononymous comments on a public web forum as the letter-writers use full names and share home addresses. As I read through comments made between friends that were never intended to be seen outside of a vetted community, the zines feel like past conversations that I’m eavesdropping on from the present day.

This short article for Alphaville (an open access journal) was meant to be a conference paper delivered in Ireland this past May; however, the conference was cancelled and (I gather) the planned special issue of the journal has become the primary outlet for new work that might have been shared in person. This highlights an unexpected way that my work with media fanzines intersects with our Alternativity theme this year. Since the usual way of disseminating preliminary research at a conference was unsafe due to the pandemic, open access journals take on a new meaning alongside the flourishing of online conferences and dissemination events with a wider public in (virtual) attendance. I am excited to finally be sharing work through an open access format, and particularly work that is focused on looking at new ways to access past television audiences.