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Which Network is Right for RuPaul’s Drag Race?

Apr 20, 2022
New Vanderbilt Business case study designed with DEI in mind

By Nathaniel Luce

It’s 2017, and Paramount has a tough decision on its hands. The company’s LOGO network has cultivated RuPaul’s Drag Race into a flagship program with a loyal and growing audience, but the network’s size is limiting the show’s reach. The CEO has made financial performance a top priority; relocating RuPaul’s Drag Race to a larger station in the media giant’s portfolio, like MTV or VH1, or even a streaming service, could help management achieve that goal.

A move away from a network that specifically targets the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t come without risk for the trailblazing show. Would the ratings suffer? Would the company have to alter the program to appeal to a wider audience, potentially alienating its original fans?

The decision also invites another question, one that goes beyond revenue projections and positioning: is America ready for drag queens to be featured on a major cable television network?

RuPaul’s Drag Race—From Subculture to Mainstream, a recently published case study by Kelly Goldsmith, Professor of Marketing (and former Survivor contestant), as well as Chris Beless, Penny Dolan, and April Hughes (all MBA’19), details the decision facing Paramount executives and the options available to them. The work bears the hallmarks of any good business school case study – relevance, depth, and a multitude of plausible avenues that students can defend in class – but it was really the subject matter that motivated the authors to create it.

Goldsmith served on Vanderbilt Owen’s D&I Advisory Board, a rotating group of students, faculty, and staff that seek to foster a more diverse and inclusive environment at Vanderbilt’s business school. One item that bubbled up in meetings was the lack of diversity in the case studies across classes. “Underrepresented minorities need to see themselves in the classroom and in the cases they study,” Goldsmith said.

Her co-authors, active participants in professional and affinity clubs at Vanderbilt, noted this deficit in their own studies and wanted to change it for the next generation of students. “In business school, you’re required to read dozens, if not hundreds, of cases,” said Hughes. “And many of those cases lack diversity in the protagonist, industry, and theme. We wanted to author a case that offered a different point of view that focused on DE&I and intersectionality.”

Beless, Dolan, and Hughes worked with Goldsmith while completing their MBAs to identify the case topic, collect the research, and write the study, all of which they completed before graduation.

“As a big fan of the show, I knew a little bit about how great of a businessperson and what a marketing juggernaut RuPaul is, but it was also fascinating to learn more about their accomplishments and impact predating RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said Beless. “RuPaul truly broke down countless barriers for the entire LGBTQIA+ community, so I loved being able to briefly highlight their work throughout the case as to help others understand this as well.”

The authors credit Paramount executives for participating in candid conversations that helped inform the study and confirm its significance. “Seeing that they also had such a strong commitment to help centering and uplifting the LGBTQIA+ community, it was a reinforcement that we had touched on a larger theme that extended beyond our own initial intentions with the case,” noted Dolan.

As DEI and culture become larger factors in corporate decision-making, teaching cases like RuPaul’s Drag Race—From Subculture to Mainstream in the classroom will better prepare students for the situations and choices they will have to make as leaders in the boardroom. Goldsmith notes that the case could be taught to undergraduate or graduate students in a strategy, core marketing, or marketing strategy course.

RuPaul’s Drag Race—From Subculture to Mainstream, is, at its core, about intersectionality with cultures, and how you balance distribution needs with culture considerations,” she says. “What’s the process by which you should make the decision?”

“Business schools are developing the next wave of business leaders, and it’s incredibly important to armor those future leaders with real-world DE&I perspectives they may not search for outside of the classroom,” said Hughes. “If this case effectively broadens the worldview of individuals who have the privilege and power to create positive change – it’s a success.”

RuPaul’s Drag Race–From Subculture to Mainstream is available for purchase through Harvard Business Publishing.

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