As the World Stopped Turning: A Conversation with Lynn Liccardo on Soap Operas (Part Two)

You provide a very personal account of your own gradual disconnect from enjoying and having an emotional engagement with As the World Turns. How would you describe your relationship to the show, both as a fan and as a critic, and how did that relationship evolve over time?

It’s ironic, and no small testament to the power of its storytelling, that I became so deeply involved with ATWT: Since it aired on the East Coast at 1:30, while I was at school, I was far more familiar with, and have far more vivid memories of, Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light, which were on when my sister and I came home for lunch in grammar school, and Another World, which I could see if I came straight home from junior high school.

 

I only got to watch ATWT on holidays, vacations and sick days, a pattern that continued after I moved to Boston in 1973, found a full time job and worked on my undergraduate degree at night. In those pre-VCR days, what I remember more than specific stories is the familiarity of the characters, who were always there when I was able to watch. That was until I took a year off (1982-3) to complete my degree.  While I had been peripherally aware of the General Hospital phenomenon, I had  no idea that GH’s success was why the ATWT on my screen was so different from what I remembered.  But, I actually enjoyed what I saw and never considered abandoning the show. At the time, I was in advertisers’ target demo, so from that perspective, the change in direction was a success.

 

But, while I was enjoying the ATWT’s new direction, my mother was not. She missed the show she had loved for 25 years and eventually stopped watching. She wasn’t the only one; the show lost more viewers than it gained and a couple of years later (1984-5) the Calhoun-Marland team righted the ship and the show rose in the ratings. But, without my mother, although she continued to watch GL.

 

After college, the combination of a flexible job and a VCR allowed me to become a serious fan. I was writing about nursing (like soaps, strongly associated with women and thereby marginalized. Also, like soaps’ “not your mother’s soap opera,” nursing had internalized the belief that to be valued they had to become something else: “professional” nurses who didn’t want to be seen as “that kind of nurse,” dealing with bodily fluids at the bedside.”)  While writing an article for Soap Opera Weekly on how nurses were portrayed on soaps I interviewed Doug Marland. A few months later, what was supposed to be a short news piece about CBS ending its head writer training program morphed into a longer article about the paths of three head writers (including Marland), which got me thinking seriously about soaps.

 

In 1995, I began pitching a piece to coincide with ATWT’s 40th anniversary in 1996 to Smithsonian Magazine; it took over a year to convince the editor. By the time I arrived on the set in mid-March when the anniversary episode was taped, there was a new production team in place (see above) and the mantra of the executive producer, head writers and publicist was “we’re not 40 years old, we’re 40 years young.”  I could see that things were falling apart, and while I could identify bits and pieces of what was wrong, I couldn’t figure out how those pieces fit together (even if I could, I’m not sure Smithsonian would have been the right place), so I was forced to abandon the piece. I wrote one more article analyzing the demographics of soap opera audience, then turned my attention to writing a screenplay (isn’t everyone:) and short plays.

 

It wasn’t until Sam Ford asked me to be on his thesis committee in 2006 that I was able to begin identifying the “bits and pieces” that had undermined the Smithsonian piece. The task now is to integrate those elements into a cohesive framework within which to consider the full impact of soaps — a task made all the more challenging since there is no obvious hierarchical relationship among the elements.

 

The book begins with a deep look at Irna Phillips and how the details of her own life so intensely shaped many aspects of As the World Turns. You also recently published a piece about Irna for Harvard Magazine. What do you believe Phillips’ place is in the history of the soap opera in particular, and in the greater landscape of U.S. television?

 

Irna Phillips was a risk taker who, rather than fear failure, learned from it. In 1948, she wrote to P&G’s William Ramsey that she had doubts about televising soaps, suggesting that it would be some time before a televised serial could succeed. (She doesn’t explain why, but at the time there were roughly 100,00 television sets in the country, most concentrated in the New York area, up from 44,000 the previous year. As the post-war economy expanded, the number of sets increased exponentially; by 1953, over half of US household had a television.) Yet, just a few months later, in January 1949, Irna approached NBC about creating what many consider the first television soap, These are My Children. Accounts vary (some say the network pulled it after five weeks; Irna says she pulled it after 13 weeks when the network shifted its time slot), but by any measure, the television’s first soap opera was a failure. Whether the show failed because it was bad (according to Television World) or because the low viewership was a function of too few households with televisions is impossible to determine.

 

The success of two early television soaps on CBS (Search for Tomorrow and  Love of Life), convinced Irna that the time was right to move Guiding Light from radio, where it began in 1937, to television. But GL’s owner, P&G believed that only serials created specifically for television would succeed.  Undaunted, Irna revised two GL “highly dramatic” radio scripts (it’s not clear if she secured P&G’s permission), then spent more than $5000 of her own money (in 1952, the median household income was $3900) to tape the episodes and the show premiered on CBS in June, while remaining on radio until 1956 (when 71% of households had at least one television).

 

When Irna first floated the idea of a half-hour soap the suits were again skeptical. One executive told her, “we don’t believe in investing in a possible failure.” But, as with GL, Irna persevered, this time collaborating with longtime colleagues, Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday, to write and finance ($10,000) a pilot for ATWT. According to Irna, the nine cast members were so impressed, “they agreed to hold themselves available for six months” until the pilot was picked up.

 

In the early 1960s, Irna became a consultant for what would become the first successful primetime soap opera, ABC’s Peyton Place (1964-1969). She then created a primetime ATWT spinoff, Our Private World, which ran for 19 weeks (38 episodes) from May 5 – September 10, 1965. CBS’s decision to air the show over the summer, rather than launching it as part of the new fall season, likely contributed to its short run, and may also have reflected a lack of confidence in Irna. Since her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds, ends in late 1963 with her creation of Another World, if Irna had any thoughts about All My Worlds and the two shows she later created, Love is a Many Splendored Thing and A World Apart, they would be in her papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

 

Much of your book focuses on the ways in which management practices and corporate structure in the last 15 years of As the World Turns‘ 54-year run damaged both the quality of the story and the relationship the show maintained with its fans. In the course of your research and writing, in what ways were soap opera fans drawing these connections between industry news and what played out on their screens on an everyday basis? And what can media scholars and those who work in or study other media industries learn from studying the ongoing relationship between longterm viewers and a media property like ATWT?

 

When fan magazines covering soaps first appeared in the late-1960s, soaps had been on television for almost 20 years. Those early publications consisted mainly of interviews with actors and features that took fans behind-the-scenes of the shows. It wasn’t until Soap Opera Weekly came on the scene in November 1989 that fans had timely access to industry news and serious criticism. In addition to episode recaps, Weekly published spoilers that let fans know what would happen when. According to founding editor, Mimi Torchin, fans welcomed information that allowed them to prioritize. Of course, in a extreme example of unintended consequences, spoilers have become a vexing challenge for all serialized storytelling in the digital age.

Both Weekly and its sister publication, Soap Opera Digest, included “Comings and Goings” and “The Revolving Door,” features that alerted fans when actors left roles, or were cast as new characters. This information became a form of spoiler that allowed fans to speculate outside of what they saw on the screen. Producers and writers exacerbated this phenomenon by sharing information about who the new (or recast) character would be paired with, and the direction the story would take.  With the final years of ATWT  characterized by a seemingly endless array of new characters, few of whom were connected to the core Hughes family, when fans heard the news online, many were not inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt and wait to see how stories played out before passing (usually negative) judgment.

Another factor to consider: the unintended consequences of rebranding, which requires a willingness to to alienate, and even lose, existing customers to attract desired customers. This worked brilliantly for AMC when the network shifted its focus from showing old movies to become the HBO of basic cable. But movie buffs had plenty of options; not so with soaps. Whether it was articulated or not, when ATWT shifted the show’s focus in the early-1980s to capture younger viewers, the show seemed willing to lose its existing viewers, like my mother, who left and never returned, even when the show corrected course a few years later. But, with all soaps trying to recreate General Hospital’s success, there was no place for disaffected fans to turn. So many stayed, and with the remote controls that came with their new VCRs in hand,  fast forwarded through many of the new characters that populated the ATWT canvas, contributing to the show’s increasingly fragmented storytelling. One consequence  of fragmented storytelling is a fragmented audience, with each segment expressing its own spin on the genre’s aesthetic. The result: divergent and often conflicting comments that made it difficult to interpret and apply fan feedback.

In 1996 P&G set up a toll-free number to provide viewers with inside information about the ATWT. At the end callers were asked who they wanted to see the troubled Emily Stewart paired with: “press 1 for Diego, 2 for Jeff.” Since “other,” “none of the above” or,”in the case of this particular character, “a good therapist,” were not among the choices, the results were  meaningless. And the way in which the question was posed (the only option to bypass the question was hanging up) made clear that this was not a serious effort on the part of PGP to engage viewers, but rather a ham-handed token.

Another example of the show’s tin ear was someone’s (probably not the executive producer or head writer, both of whom had worked in soaps long enough to understand the subtle intricacies of how time unfolds on soaps; depending on the circumstances, sometimes compressed, sometimes extended.) literal interpretation of a frequent complaint about soaps: “the stories move too slowly.” In 2008, ATWT abandoned soap opera’s traditional narrative structure and began a series of short-term story arcs, some of which wrapped up in a single episode. The combination of self-contained episodes and spoilers made at least one fan happy: “Not sure how or why TPTB have come up with this new concept, but is sure is working well. I think I’ve watched a total of one or two episodes in the last two weeks.” An unintended consequence that inflicted considerable damage in ATWT’s final years.

Without an understanding of not just what’s being said, but what it means, soliciting feedback is at best, futile, at worst, damaging. When it came to soap opera, however, there was no guarantee that those who were conducting the research had ever watched soaps. According to one former network executive I talked with, it was the rare researcher who even took the time to familiarized themselves with the show for which they were collecting feedback. So, while their empirical observations may have been accurate, without a shared experiential frame of reference with their subjects, researchers often lacked to tools to infer, then accurately interpret and apply how fans experience soaps.

When it comes to suspending disbelief, the very nature of daytime soaps demands more of viewers than other dramatic media. But as the genre’s scope expanded over the years, traditional elements — intimate relationships between family, friends and lovers — began to share space with time travel, the supernatural, omnipotent villains and characters whose repeated returns from the dead often defied both logic and the laws of physics. When ATWT’s James Stenbeck first reappeared in 1986 after being presume dead, he provided a simple explanation: “I had a parachute.”  But as explanations for his subsequent resurrections became more and more preposterous, some fans were angry, feeling that the writers were taking advantage of their willingness to suspend disbelief — even insulting their intelligence. Others chalked it up to a “it’s a soap opera. No one gives a shit if it makes sense” mentality on the part of writers and producers. By 2009, when Stenbeck returned from the dead for the fourth and final time, the writers didn’t bother to even go through the motions. And rather than get angry, those fans still watching responded with detached bemusement.

The number of serialized dramas has exploded in the past 15 years, so dominating television programming that a recent piece in TVGuide suggests that serial dramas may be reaching the saturation point. The challenges facing these shows — maintaining the integrity of the storytelling in the face of network interference and the shuffling of show runners, spoilers, time-shifting, and more recent additions to the lexicon, binge watching and, perhaps most important, hate-watching — all have their antecedents in soaps. Current and future storytellers facing the challenge of attracting viewers in a media landscape drowning in serial drama have much to learn by understanding how soaps and their fans have dealt with these issues.

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 Lynn Liccardo is a longtime soap opera journalist and blogger. Her critical observations on soaps – their content, the industry that produces them, and the culture that both loves them and loves to ridicule them – connect soap opera’s past and present with its future and begin to form a larger framework within which to more fully examine the genre. She released an ebook of essays detailing the final years of As the World Turns, entitled as the world stopped turning… Among her other publications are “Who Really Watches the Daytime Soaps” (1996, Soap Opera Weekly); “Irna Phillips: Brief life of soap opera’s single mother 1901-1973″ (2012, Harvard Magazine). Her essay, “The Ironic and Convoluted Relationship between Daytime and Primetime Soap Opera,” was published in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (co-edited by Futures of Entertainment Fellows Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington).

Sam Ford is co-editor (with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington) of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (2011, University Press of Mississippi) and co-author (with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(2013, NYU Press). He is also Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program, and a frequent Fast Company contributor. Sam serves on WOMMA’s Membership Ethics Advisory Panel and was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is a Kentucky Press Association award-winning journalist and has written for Harvard Business ReviewWall Street Journal,BusinessWeekThe Huffington PostPortfolioChief MarketerThe Public Relations StrategistPR News,Bulldog ReporterThe Christian Science Monitor, and CommPRO.biz. Sam lives in Bowling Green, KY, with wife, Amanda, and daughters, Emma and Harper.