#BreakFree : race, WGN America's Underground, and the changing landscape of audience reception

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Johnson, Jacqueline Elizabeth

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Premiering in March of 2016 on WGN America, Underground became the first regular, primetime television series about American slavery. A certified hit for a station in the midst of rebranding itself, Underground became the network’s second most watched series. During its first season, viewership in the 18-49 demographic rose by 900%. Bridging research on both the cultural phenomenon of “Black Twitter” and scholarship on the politics of Black audience reception, this project seeks to understand Black viewership in the era of media convergence. Using critical technocultural discourse analysis, I examine how Black adoption of Twitter for intragroup discourse illustrates the myriad ways Black viewers negotiate, celebrate, and contest representations of Blackness in contemporary television. Considering the affordances of the micro-blogging platform, this project examines Black viewers’ use of hashtags and media like emojis and GIFs. I analyze how these media forms are used to signify both a minoritized subject positioning and viewers’ affective response to the series. Additionally, I analyze how those affiliated with the show – cast, creators, writers, and producers – used Twitter as an intermediary to structure audience reception, and I position their tweets as paratexts worthy of critical consideration. As social media platforms further collapse the distance between viewers and industrial agents, this thesis considers the shifting relationships between audience, text, industry, and platform.



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