By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally posted for Fast Company)
Since the dawn of the broadcast era, soap operas have been a central part of television storytelling. The genre, a creation on radio during the 1930s, became a pinnacle form of storytelling during the Great Depression when audiences no longer wanted to or could pay per entertainment and instead were more accepting of “free,” advertising-supported content. Thus, the travails of Ma Perkins and her many sisters on what were initially called “washboard weepers” proliferated, and what was the most robust example of serialized storytelling in media history began, with ongoing 15-minute episodes of shows that stretched on for years.
Soaps made the transition to television, even when many feared (or hoped) that these stories wouldn’t translate well to the visual screen, especially since it was assumed women listened to “their stories” while doing housework during the day. That television would require watching might make the shows less palatable to the busy housewife. Instead, soaps became more central than ever to “the daypart.” The shows expanded from 15 to 30 minutes and then to an hour and became a central driver of consistent network profit, drawing the types of viewers in on a daily basis that most primetime weekly shows would be lucky to draw today.
Throughout the past 60 years of soap operas on television, these shows have not only expanded in length. They’ve moved from black and white to color, from live to taped and edited, and through a wide variety of technological and storytelling changes. They have weathered a significant population shift of women into the workplace, the proliferation of cable television and an unending number of other entertainment options, and they survived the devastating impact of the O.J. Simpson trial (when the shows were all preempted for a significant period of time, all permanently losing a substantial portion of their viewers when they finally returned to the television line-up).
Now, as we enter a “digital era,” soap operas are struggling in the ratings. Procter & Gamble, the last actual “soap company” still making soap operas, ended their soaps, thus canceling the run of As the World Turns (the most popular soap opera in history) andGuiding Light (which had been on the air since its radio days in 1937). For most of their television runs, soaps have slowly seen their ratings dwindle. Yet, the six shows on the air still draw in millions of viewers a week for five weekly episodes with no off-season. That’s 260 episodes or so a year, with the “youngest” soap on the air (CBS’s The Bold and the Beautiful) being almost 25 years old and broadcasting more than 6,000 episodes to date.
I’ve not only spent much of my life as a daily U.S. soap opera viewer and fan but a good portion of the past five-and-a-half years researching, writing, teaching, and arguing about what scholars, students, marketers, viewers, and media content creators can learn from a genre too often maligned as being unable to produce anything of artistic or cultural merit.
In the process, I’ve met a variety of other scholars as fascinated as I am, personally and professionally, with these immersive story worlds which enthrall generations of viewers with stories more frequent and enduring than any other type of narrative. I’ve met passionate members of the soap opera industry, dedicated to preserving and revitalizing their craft not just because they want to hang onto their livelihood but because they see the genre as providing a type of storytelling that cannot be matched or replaced elsewhere. I’ve met many entertainment critics who don’t accept that soap operas are somehow without artistic merit and instead take soaps seriously as art. Rather than dismiss the genre as a whole, they look within the form and constraints of the genre and point out what constitutes “good” soap opera storytelling, highlighting when shows are using the form to (or at least toward) its potential. And I’ve met many, many intelligent and articulate soap opera fans who use these daily texts as part of a creative practice of meaning-making, debate, and a collective remembering and re-telling through interpersonal relationships, through networks of family or friends or through online fan communities.
That’s what led to myself and two colleagues–Abigail De Kosnik at UC-Berkeley and C. Lee Harrington at Miami University–to put together a collection called The Survival of Soap Opera (released late last year), bringing together the perspectives of academics, industry practitioners, critics, and fans to look at the plight the soap opera industry finds itself in today but also what makes the genre unique and important to our culture and areas of promise or potential for seeing the soap opera continuing to thrive. In particular, our contributors examine three areas: making use of the deep history of the story worlds each of these shows have created; continuing experimentation with production, distribution, and storytelling; and learning from and developing new relationships with a diverse audience base. In particular, we look at how the target demographic mentality of primetime television has been particularly harmful for daytime soaps, which have traditionally thrived on being handed down from generation to generation. As the boomer population who grew up during the heyday of television soaps age out of the 18-49 target demographic, soap operas have particularly suffered financially. And, as networks and advertisers have put pressure on these shows to try and lure in young adults in ways that have potentially damaged viewership in other categories, the shows have ultimately damaged their overall ecosystem for gaining and maintaining the very viewers they were hoping to attract.
I had the great fortune of taking part in an event in honor of the enduring legacy of media scholar John Fiske’s work at The University of Wisconsin-Madison last June. At Fiske Matters, we talked about ways that academic publishing on the media might be reformed in a digital era, which inspired me to publish this piece.
In particular, my point of discussion at the conference was on making the anthology once again relevant. Academic anthologies are collections of essays by a range of authors on a common subject. We talked about the need to make such projects come to life, to find ways to use the anthology to bring a variety of voices together, perhaps even including voices from outside “the academy” and certainly potentially from multiple academic disciplines. We discussed as well how to move beyond having a collection of independent essays but rather finding ways, through the logic and structure of the book, to add new meaning to the content in how pieces are put in conversation with one another.
That’s what we have sought to do with The Survival of Soap Opera, for instance: to use “the anthology” as a way to start a conversation of particular relevance. As academics, the soap opera industry, and critics and fans alike all debate where soaps are at, our hope was to archive some of the most compelling arguments of the moment, not to “write the book” on soaps but rather to show that the genre is still a vibrant part of our popular culture and a place worthy of continued study and focus. In short, we wanted to curate what we saw as a crucial moment in the history of this longstanding genre and to make that conversation accessible and relevant both to all the parties who care about soap operas today but also for audiences who care about understanding media, entertainment, and culture, even if they are not invested in the soap opera genre.
In the process, the collection includes soap opera writers reflecting on what draws people into soaps at their heart and in what ways writers do (or should) take on the perspective of their audiences in how they look at the show; soap opera fans explaining the social interactions and community they have built around their shows and the evolving relationships between viewers and producers; critics examining a variety of experiments in storytelling and production in soaps and how the evolution of daytime serial drama exists alongside continuing changes in primetime shows as well as fan organization to support, for instance, a gay male soap couple; and scholars writing about issues from transmedia storytelling, the evolution of camera style and editing, and managing the massive archive of soap operas to the aging of soap opera viewers, the relationship of celebrity culture and soaps, and the unique aspects of the extensive history of soaps’ stories.
What we hope to capture in The Survival of Soap Opera are a variety of perspectives on a common industry and a look at how a variety of stakeholders ultimately determine the value of and contribute to the meaning of any type of media content. After all, what better way to contextualize and truly understand our current media age by looking at a genre that has survived all the many changes to mass media of the past eight decades? Just as marketers have become fascinated with Mad Men and its depiction of the “golden age” of television advertising, a study of soap operas can help brands, storytellers, scholars, and fans alike understand this “digital era” everyone is trying to wrap their heads around, through the perspective of a genre that has adapted and changed through every evolution of mass media since the beginning of the 1930s.