Thursday, October 15, 2009

what if there's no one left in the pen?

A Banyan column in The Economist from a couple weeks ago mourned the demise of the Far East Economic Review. Banyan argued that FEER's cause of death was the simultaneous disappearance of its subject and audience.

Rather than being able to sell advertising space to some nebulous elite pan-Asian consumer, the market fragmented with the ascendancy of the middle class across the region, whose tastes were far more varied than the top five percent who merely tried to ape the West. Advertisers looked for more efficient niche markets beyond (below?) FEER's reach.
Now advertisers—Western and home-grown—want to take aim at buyers more carefully, shaping campaigns for individual markets. For that, they seek out publications in the national (and sometimes regional) markets of China, Malaysia, Indonesia or Japan. Local publications are the beneficiaries, and financial success has helped some develop strong reporting instincts, even taking up the crusading role the Review once had. The Review is a victim because, from an advertiser’s point of view, Asia has ceased to exist.
And that's the larger point: the concept itself ("East" of what, after all?) was steeped in a reductive, outdated (read: colonial), centralized view of "Asia" which didn't bear much scrutiny when viewed against reality.
What if Asia as an idea no longer exists not just for advertisers but for most of those who live within its supposed boundaries? It is a nagging thought that occasionally wakes this correspondent in the early hours, for it could do him out of a job. Certainly, with hindsight there is hubris in the Review’s full title. Its purview is only “Far Eastern” from the perspective of somebody from outside, and even then seems to ignore the indisputably Asian Indian subcontinent. The term, too, was a colonial enterprise. As for Asia, a broader region beyond China’s shadow that the Review more and more came to report on, nobody there can agree on what it is, other than that it is not the West.
There's a blip of an argument making the rounds of far better-traveled blogs about the state of "black theater." It reflects the Far East Economic Review's crisis in the two huge questions it puts on the table: what are you writing, and for whom are you writing it?

Diverse voices are better, and a wider variety of topics is always preferable. But what if the focus of the argument is on the wrong side of the issue? Theater appeals to such a narrow segment of the population to begin with: who cares if the performers and playwrights aren't representative, if the audience isn't? And if you struggle to make sure the performers are diverse while the audience isn't, what's the difference between that and minstrelsy?

The FEER analysis reminded me vividly of our own company's struggles with its discussion of audience segmentation. Off-off-off audiences do not resemble society at large, and while COItc's sample is admittedly small, the crowds (when there are crowds) definitely consist of two mutually exclusive niches: mature and passionate drama hounds and well-meaning but tepid friends, family, and colleagues. Even curious colleagues from the day job tend to drop out of the pool -- I haven't seen mine in two years.

Forget trying to create a single advertiser's profile of that group. And forget for a moment who's experience we're talking about; ask instead who are we talking to, and to what purpose? FEER's dilemma is our own.

(And if you think theater isn't an elitist, neo-colonial institution, well, where have you been?)

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