The Survival of Soap Opera (Part Three): New Trends In Production and Distribution

The third section of the The Survival of Soap Opera examines how soap operas have been experimenting with both production and distribution, from new ways of taping and editing soaps to the use of transmedia storytelling. Below, several of the contributors to this part of the book answer some questions about these new trends for daytime dramas.

Ernest Alba is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin whose previous work on soap operas can be found at MIT CMS: The American Soap Opera and through the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative. He co-authored a piece for the book with Bernard Timberg, entitled “‘The Rhetoric of the Camera in Television Soap Opera’ Revisited: The Case of General Hospital.

Patrick Erwin is a freelance writer and journalist who has written for the soap opera genre for Marlena De Lacroix’s site and at his blog, A Thousand Other Worlds. His essay in the collection is entitled “Guiding Light: Relevance and Renewal in a Changing Genre.”

Racquel Gonzales is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Irvine and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Radio-Television-Film Master’s program whose research into the soap opera genre includes reception studies of online and offline fan communities and industry history. Her essay in the collection is entitled “From Daytime to Night Shift: Examining the ABC Daytime/SOAPnet Primetime Spin-off Experiment.”

Erick Yates Green is an assistant professor of media production in the School of Communication at East Carolina University and a director and cinematographer. His piece in the book is entitled “The Evolution of the Production Process of Soap Operas Today.”

Deborah Jaramillo is an assistant professor in the Department of Film and Television at Boston University, where her research focuses on television as a complicated collocation of culture, aesthetics, commerce, and politics. Her essay in the book is entitled “It’s Not All Talk: Editing and Storytelling in As the World Turns.”

Elana Levine is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has written about soap operas in her book Wallowing in Sex as well as in Critical Studies in Media Communication, Flow TV and in the anthologies Beyond Prime Time and Convergence Media History. Her piece in the collection is entitled “‘What the hell does TIIC mean?’ Online Content and the Struggle to Save the Soaps.”

Emma Webb is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas whose work focuses on fan influence and online message boards, including multiple academic projects on U.S. daytime soaps and soap opera fans. Her essay in the book is entitled “The Evolution of the Fan Video and the Influence of YouTube on the Creative Decision-Making Process for Fans.”

What do you feel have been some of the most successful or compelling experiments in telling soap opera stories, or distributing that content, in the past few years in the U.S.?

Patrick Erwin: I do think that the Guiding Light experiment I describe in the book was compelling and important. I’ve said before that it’s a case of “the operation was a success, but the patient died.” It may have been too much change for an existing show that had a very defined visual palette. But I believe it was incredibly important in terms of defining what’s possible. As we move increasing towards narrowcasting on TV and the Web, programming will need to be made on a more economic scale.

Racquel Gonzales: Two experiments I found promising and expanding the possibilities of the medium were the SOAPnet Night Shift series (as I’ve explored in my contribution to the book) and the popular, nostalgic past episode blocks featured on SOAPnet and most recently on ABC (though their “past” episodes hardly delve into the so-called “golden era” of soap history). These two share a key element crucial for contemporary resonance with audiences: acknowledgment and embrace of a rich soap past. Soap fans, more than any other TV viewer, can have years and even decades of memories with the same storylines, characters, fictional families, and fictional locations. So much soap viewing pleasure comes from those historical and memory ties between the audiences and the soap themselves and our ability to make those complex narrative connections with the texts. When the soap industry can bring about these moments of remembrance, even in experimental ways like the Night Shift spinoff, they can tap into a shared history of viewing and a soap viewer’s memory of watching. Of course, this can always create a backlash where, for instance, viewers watching a General Hospital episode from 1996 on SOAPnet lament the good ol’ days in comparison with current GH!

Erick Yates Green: The innovative webisode series entitled What If that was aired on ABC.com and SOAPnet.com that brought together central characters from different and established soap operas is innovative. Like previous webseries Imaginary Bitches, Family Dinner, Gotham, and Venice, What If was developed as a series (in this case, 10 webisodes) and was originally aired on July 12, 2010. You can find additional information on the series here and here. Like feature films and TV primetime broadcasting, the world of soap operas distribution is VERY dynamic in our contemporary media playing field. What If, at least, is dealing with the divergent media distribution venues not only with programming that goes first to the web as well as broadcast, BUT, interestingly, as they experiment with divergent distribution, they also experiment with bringing together characters from their different primary shows into an experimental melodramatic melting pot as well.

Deborah Jaramillo: I ran into a great Mexican telenovela this summer on Univision, which, as I sadly noticed at NCA, mass communication scholars continue to forget is a U.S. broadcast network. One of the most amazing things about this novela, Soy Tu Dueña (I Am Your Owner), was that it actually broke into the top 25 broadcast programs in the late summer of 2010. And Univision has recently been beating the English-language broadcast networks in the competition for 18-34 year-olds. Soy Tu Dueña would never have appeared on my radar had it not been for the World Cup in May. Even though the audience for the Mundial is probably more male then female, Univision still promoted the hell out of Soy Tu Dueña during the matches. Soy Tu Dueña features an all-star cast, including Lucero, who sings the title song with Joan Sebastian, and Silvia Piñal, a veteran of Buñuel films (“la primera actriz,” the credits boast). Soy Tu Dueña is actually a remake of La Dueña, produced by Televisa in 1995. This was the complete package–pre-sold product, big stars, an excellent theme song–that rode on the coattails of the biggest sports event in the world. Sports…not exactly novela territory. It was a great experiment, and it worked.

Elana Levine: I’ve seen a few particularly compelling experiments in recent years. One is . While the first season of the series seemed to stretch the GH writing staff too thin and resulted in boring, even unpleasant takes on the daytime program’s characters and stories, the second season (which used a new-to-daytime head writer) was truly remarkable. Drawing on GH history by including favorite actors/characters from years past, introducing a diverse array of engaging new characters, and balancing some hospital-centered, more episodic storytelling with serialized tales featuring the core cast, it was a pure pleasure for GH fans and, I believe, would have been enjoyable for new viewers as well. I don’t know that it was an economically sustainable project in SOAPnet’s eyes, however. In the more promotional realm of webisodes, I have found ABC/SOAPnet’s What If… webisodes to be a fun and engaging means of promoting the shows and appealing to viewers. These webisodes feature characters from different ABC soaps encountering one another, allowing fans to see new combinations of characters they know well but think of as existing in separate universes. But perhaps the most significant new development in distributing soap content in recent years is what has come to seem standard practice–the streaming of soap episodes online. Daytime soaps came to this distribution window later than prime time programming, but I believe that increasing viewers’ access to the shows serves their continuation well.

What have been the biggest failures?

Ernest Alba: I recently gave a lecture to a classroom of 50 undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin based on the essay by Bernard Timberg and myself in The Survival of Soap Opera. During the discussion, I discovered a few surprising things about young people and their relationship to soap opera – primarily that they think they know all about soap operas, don’t like it based on what they know, and they have several misconceptions about them. Based on the discussion of soap opera in that class, I would say that the biggest story is of the failure of soap opera to communicate its value as entertainment to a young audience.

When I posed to them the question, “What are some associations we have with soap people who watch soap operas?” I received several different responses: “Old people,” “My grandma and my grandma’s friends watch it,” “Anyone that has free time during the day watches soaps,” and my favorite: “Lonely people watch soaps.” This class of mostly freshman students associate soap opera not with their parents but with their grandparents! One student related that she watched them with her mother who watched them to learn English. It is clear that young people associate soap opera with people that they perceive as being diametrically opposed to them in their viewing habits and lifestyles.

Furthermore, it seems that they are confused about what soap opera is and how it can be an enjoyable experience. They seem to believe that soap opera is a less realistic form of storytelling than other television formats, like the primetime drama or the reality show. One student made the audacious claim that House M.D. is a soap opera. Immediately a cacophony of protests rose from the class. The way they distinguished their conceptions of soap opera from House was that House had better acting, less exaggerated plots, Hugh Laurie (a single, strong male lead), more comedy, and other things to draw you in as opposed to “sappy” and “exaggerated” drama. The student finally threw up her hands in defeat and said, “Apparently, a lot of people like House and don’t want it to be associated with soap opera.” Despite their acknowledgement of the fakeness of television drama in soap operas, they are unwilling to associate their dislike of “fakeness” with their favorite shows, which are also clearly scripted, staged, and unrealistic depictions of reality. It is this attitude of defining soap opera primarily as that which is antithetical to anything they value that allows them to participate in the tradition of denigrating soap opera as a form of entertainment.

If there is one thing that gives me hope, it is that only two students raised their hands when I asked who had never watched an episode of a soap opera. A full quarter (about 13 or 14 people) raised their hands when I asked if they’d regularly watched a soap opera at some point. One student listed four or five soaps she watched regularly when she was younger. The students know that soap opera exists and some understand it quite thoroughly, but many hold common misconceptions about soap opera because it doesn’t play a role in their life and plays a role in the life of people they don’t consider their peers. They use those misconceptions to further dissuade themselves from watching soap operas.

Patrick Erwin: For me, I think the change in narrative from a more character-based narrative to more of a traditional soap/action adventure hybrid is the biggest failure of the last decade. Even when GH had the Luke and Laura/Ice Princess type of stories, they worked because the narrative was still rooted in the reality of what happened to those people. Soaps have alienated their existing audience and demographic by chasing the youth demographic and have implemented closed-ended storylines that buy short-term attention at the expense of long term fan investment.

Racquel Gonzales: It is difficult to pin these down in a bullet point style, but, broadly, the soap industry has been disconnected with the desires of its audience for a while, and that gap has only gotten wider against the many TV and network changes throughout the 1990s and 2000s. On a very basic level, there are numerous cringeworthy experiments and sensational storylines whose aims were to entice new viewers and keep long-time viewers interested, but their results generated disinterest and audience ire. As a soap fan and scholar, the most disappointing and frustrating failures have been those manipulations of soap history and viewers’ investments for quick fixes on ratings because the soap audience investment in these various often fantastic storylines depend on character continuity, recognizable relational ties, and simply a day-to-day viewing that makes sense.

Deborah Jaramillo: With regard to As The World Turns, I was very disappointed with the quicker pace and the elliptical editing that made my program resemble an hour-long drama rather than a soap. I am not against formal experimentation in any genre–my piece in the anthology elaborates on this theme–but much of the pacing and editing decisions seemed to stem from an atmosphere of panic and not from artistry. I constantly complain to my students (especially when they started to get impatient with Lost several seasons back) that no one knows how to appreciate the beauty of serialized programming because no one watches soaps anymore. So many people deride television viewers’ short attention spans, but watching an old-school soap opera was a daily exercise in patience. We’ve lost those conventions that make us wait and anticipate. We’ve lost process in favor of product, and this has contributed to a spoiled audience.

Elana Levine: As my essay discusses, I think ABC’s character blogs revealed a poor understanding of fans’ investment in soaps. Because these blogs did not do much to expand or delve into the thoughts and experiences of their character-authors and so rigidly reproduced the preferred meanings of current storylines, they revealed themselves as baldly promotional efforts, with no real interest in exploring show history or character depth.

Emma Webb: The first is not distributing free content online earlier. ABC didn’t begin to distribute their soaps this way until 2009, even after they had been making prime-time shows available this way for over a year, and even though many of the networks had been partnering with Hulu since it’s inception in 2007. The second is the lack of investment in production of soaps. As Sara Bibel points out in her chapter in the book, as the ad revenue for each soap has gone down, costing-cutting measures like eliminating breakdown writers and the actors’ rehearsal time (so that each show can speed taping). This has resulted in a change in what I believe is most critical to soaps: the stories. The stories that now show up on screen often have continuity issues, focus on new characters that the audience does not know (as unknown new actors are significantly cheaper to feature than veteran actors that the audience does know), and actors (based on what has been said at personal appearances) are often confused about the direction of the story and their character’s motivation. It is a downward spiral. It appears, based on the rating trends, that, as soaps cut more costs, the quality of each soap goes down, and more viewers tune out, resulting in less ad revenue and more cost cutting.

What lessons can we learn from both these successes and these failures?

Ernest Alba:While I find it encouraging that soap operas like General Hospital and Young and the Restless still have strong ratings, I find it discouraging that old warhorses like Guiding Light and As the World Turns have been cancelled. The biggest failures of soap opera from my perspective are that they have failed to capture a new young audience. It is clear that many students are able to pinpoint some of the strengths of soap opera – emotion, drama, and multi-character narrative structures – but they perceive them as weaknesses. Still, other strengths – longevity of characters and complexity in family structure – are mysteries to them. In our essay for the book, Bernard Timberg discusses the ways in which the camera rhetoric in soaps conveys meaning to an audience. These camera movements and ways of editing and framing a scene are unique to soaps in that they are not the same ones used in serial dramas and do not convey the same meanings. In the way meaning is constructed by the camera, we have argued that soap operas have changed little. But, if the potential audience has changed so much that they are unable to decode the meanings in soaps, it might be time to change the way in which soap opera is filmed and edited so that new audiences who are used to reality shows and documentary-style filmmaking can decode the camera’s rhetoric and, if not understand the intended meaning of the narrative, at least understand the intended meaning of the shot. Some experimentation in this vein has obviously already taken place in several soaps, but the traditional way of filming and editing still dominates. My one suggestion is that we must look/research to ensure that audiences still understand how to decode the stylistic conventions of soap opera filmmaking or begin to encode meaning visually in a different way.

Patrick Erwin: I think it’s important that serialized storytelling return to basics, whether it’s classic TV soaps or new Web soaps. The audience may be smaller, and I don’t think we’ve quite figured out the equation that can make money on the Web, but, again, we need to move from broadcasting to narrowcasting, and soaps need to learn not to try to be everything to everyone….but rather be who they were, and are, proudly.

Racquel Gonzales: It is a difficult road to anticipate the current and future viewing audience, a road soaps have been on since they began on radio. And thinking about what does or doesn’t work right now in soaps really sparks wider questions about contemporary TV viewing in general, especially since seriality has been embraced as a potential element of current “quality TV.”

Deborah Jaramillo: If soap operas are on their way out–if everyone involved in As The World Turns knew the clock was ticking–why mess with the formula? Why try to attract an audience that isn’t going to come? Why not go back to your roots and just celebrate the genre, the form? This is not to say that all changes in soaps happened recently–all genres are static and dynamic–but, if you’re going to pander to an audience, pander to the one that’s stuck with you across generations.

Elana Levine: The first lesson would be the importance of story, of the writing. The second season of Night Shift worked because it was well written by someone (Sri Rao) who understood the rhythms and appeals of soap narrative and who respected and drew from GH history. This seems an obvious set of principles on which to base soap writing, but, too often these days, the insular community of soap writers ends up failing to take advantage of these core generic traits. The disappointments of the ABC character blogs further enforce this point. I believe that these platforms did not provide the kind of attention to history and the pleasures of soap narrative that they might have, and thus they turned off rather than drew in many viewers.

How has transmedia storytelling impacted the U.S. soap opera (or not)?

Racquel Gonzales: Soaps have been exploring transmedia storytelling for quite a while, particularly in print, with different characters’ “diaries” being made available in book form. While these avenues provide alternate revenues, they also create more fragments for audiences to piece together for storyline continuity.

Elana Levine: I don’t think transmedia storytelling has had an important role in US daytime soap opera thus far. Most attempts along these lines have been pretty obviously promotional and not particularly interested in expanding or further developing the story worlds in any substantive ways. Perhaps the current format of US daytime soaps demands so much of both the production staff (churning out so many episodes so quickly) and of viewers (watching five broadcast hours a week in most cases) that there is little time or interest in expanding those story worlds in additional ways.

Emma Webb: I think one of the failures of soaps has been the inability to successfully integrate transmedia storytelling into their shows. There have been attempts (as with Robin’s blog on General Hospital, as described by Elana Levine), and characters writing books (for example, As the World Turns‘ Katie Peretti “writing” Oakdale Confidential), but they don’t appear to have been successful. This may have been because, as Levine points out in her chapter, often times there is the temptation to move the character’s motivation and thoughts from the screen to another other media outlet, leaving viewers frustrated and confused at a character’s on screen motivation rather than providing an alternate entry point for lapsed or new viewers. However, while soaps’ attempts at transmedia storytelling does not appear to have been successful, fans’ attempts at transmedia seems to be more so. For example, in 2005, As the World Turns paired the characters of Lucy and Dusty together, and, in an attempt to help educate potentially new or lapsed viewers, many fans created video synopses of the two characters’ history and storyline together. These videos provided an entry point for those viewers who had not been watching the show. And this type of video could provide a way for lapsed or returning viewers to get a recap of a character’s storyline which could make it easier to catch-up.

How have alternate distribution outlets changed the way fans find and share U.S. soap opera content?

Racquel Gonzales: YouTube has been an amazing tool to bring together shared viewing memories, though I’m not sure the networks themselves appreciate the site like soap viewers. Moreover, in uploading old VHS recordings of soap edits on YT, soap fans have created an invaluable archival resource for fellow soap viewers and soap scholars. The medium makes it impossible to provide a simple DVD set of a soap. Just imagine how many discs would be required to just capture a month of One Life to Live from 1988. On YT, some of these episodes have been made available by fans for fans, while the comments section provides (as I’ve said previously) a shared space of viewing memory.

Debrorah Jaramillo: I’m going to continue with the topic of the Mexican novela on U.S. television, not to be stubborn, but because it presents an interesting complication with regard to transmedia fandom. Unless a novela is an original production of a network like Univision, it is being aired in the U.S. after it has completed its run in its country of origin (or it simply could be delayed by a few weeks). In both cases, it becomes nearly impossible to engage with the novela within the transmedia landscape. I’m terrified to search for Soy Tu Dueña online because I don’t know if it has actually completed its run in Mexico. I don’t want to know what happens, and I don’t want to run across fan commentary. My relationship with this novela is completely untouched by the internet and even print magazines. I feel like I’m watching this in the 1980s, even though the image is in beautiful HD.

Emma Webb: Making soaps available online (either through the network’s website, YouTube, or other sites) has been the biggest change to the way that fans share soap opera content in the last few years. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, this also means that fans don’t need to set their DVRs or watch the show’s broadcast in order to keep up with their favorite soap opera. Another interesting development is that, when the content is considered to be bad or uninteresting by a group of fans, fans often ask their fellow fans if “today was worth watching?” And there are alternatives for fans who don’t want to sit down and watch an entire episode. If a fan thinks that their favorite soaps are boring but still wish to see select scenes, they can easily go to YouTube and watch the scenes that interest them in what is often 10 minutes or less. With these new distribution outlets, it’s even easier for a fan to catch-up if they have become a lapsed viewer. Fans can easily go back and find key moments from a variety of sources. However, this also means that, because this content is available online, fans’ attention to detail about individual characters seems to have become more heightened. So, as soaps struggle with diminishing production values as they cut their budgets, the fans are even more likely to notice the slip in production values.

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