For our first look at the classics of fan studies, I want to talk about a book that isn’t a work of fan studies per se but laid the groundwork for most of the research that came after it. In Television Culture, John Fiske talks about how meanings are made in TV series and how they are read by the viewers: 

  • An essential characteristic of television is its polysemy, or multiplicity of meanings. A program provides a potential of meanings which may be realized, or made into actually experienced meanings, by socially situated viewers in the process of reading. This polysemic potential is neither boundless nor structureless: the text delineates the terrain within which meanings may be made and proffers some meanings more vigorously than others. (14)

In this passage, he explains that many different potential meanings can be read from a TV show and, while each text is produced with the intention of pushing some meanings over others, they can be read in different ways by different viewers. The book focuses mostly on the variety of codes used to insert meaning into TV shows and which are then decoded by the audience in a way that is influenced by their personal history. 

As you can guess, this concept is central to fan studies! Fiske pushed the idea that a show can be interpreted in many different ways and that different viewers can have varying interpretations of the same elements. This explains why somebody’s favorite heterosexual comedy might be read as an epic gay love story by others. Keeping Fiske’s work in mind when we witness those conflicting readings helps us to see them as equally valid and simply different interpretations of the codes of this show. Many fan studies scholars use this idea as a starting point in their work!

While his style can be difficult to understand if you’re not used to academic language, Fiske’s book is an interesting read to learn more about how television works and how different interpretations can stem from one TV show.

The Classics of Fan Studies: John Fiske – Television Culture