I have often acknowledged that fans are the true experts on popular culture: their passionate relationship with a favorite series or franchise often motivates them to research it more deeply, read it more closely, and interpret it more richly than an academic would be able to do. Not all fans know how to articulate their findings in ways that move beyond the particular details and speak to the larger context and implications of their objects of study, but those who do have much to teach us about their particular corners of the popular culture universe.
Lynn Liccardo is an extraordinary soap opera fan, who over the course of her life has moved from a passion for As the World Turns and its creator Irma Phillips, towards more and more active engagement with the soap opera industry (such as it has become) and who has written professionally about soaps for a number of years. I was lucky to meet Liccardo when she served on the thesis committee for one of my MIT graduate students Sam Ford, now co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Network Culture; she has been coming to our Futures of Entertainment conferences ever since; she contributed to Sam’s book on the future of soap operas; and now, she has an e-book of her own, As the World Stopped Turning, which shares some of what she knows about the history, aesthetics, production, and reception of soap operas.
I am the first to admit that soaps are a blind spot for me as a fan and as an academic, though I also would acknowledge that those of us who care about transmedia storytelling and contemporary primetime drama have much to learn from the soap opera tradition about expansive storyworlds and long-form serials in particular. So, I asked Sam Ford if he would interview her for the blog. Below aresome of Liccardo’s thoughts connecting As the World Turns to some of the industry trends and developments over the past six decades that have impacted serialized television storytelling.
As the World Stopped Turning is a full ebook of your essays dedicated to the soap opera As the World Turns. Why is this particular daytime serial drama so important to study, in your opinion? What is As the World Turns‘ particular place in our cultural history?
As The World Turns was the first 30-minute serial, doubling the standard 15-minute episode. But it was more than its length that contributed to the show’s impact on the genre and cultural history. When creator, Irna Phillips, conceived the show, she wanted the additional time not to tell more story, but to develop “better story and characterization.” Before ATWT debuted in 1956, serials concentrated on a single family; in her new creation, Irna contrasted the stories of two families, one united and solidly middle-class, the Hughes, the other, wealthy and divided, the Lowells, “because by the 1950s divorce and separation were becoming a more pronounced element in our social structure.” Irna also believed (more than 30 years before GH’s Luke and Laura), that including teenagers as a major part of the story, “added the valuable asset of longevity to the serial.”
But what set ATWT apart from earlier soaps was Irna’s skillful juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal storytelling axes, with her emphasis on the former (character), which slowed the latter (plot), sometimes to a seeming standstill. In fact, the first year of the show there was virtually no plot, just these rather ordinary characters going about everyday lives that resembled those of many viewers. The intimacy of the connection between viewer and character was reinforced as the camera moved slowly over actors’ faces, laying the groundwork for future audiences to recognize what a character in Ron Howard’s film, Frost/Nixon, called “the reductive power of the close-up.”
Irna gave voice to her deeply-held belief that “nobody is all good or all bad and each human being can exhibit all of these elements, often at the same time,” through stories that gave equal weight to the conflicting emotions within each character, forcing viewers, in the words of critic Robert LaGuardia, “to grieve over the heartbreak of the human condition rather than to hang on to a fixed value judgement.” In her outline, Irna was emphatic that ATWT “not a melodrama,” but rather “a show about people.” That ambiguity deeply permeated the cultural ground water and became the foundation of what’s now called quality television and complex storytelling, although, as I discuss below, for viewers who only know daytime soaps after Luke and Laura, the connection is not at all clear.
The episode below aired about a year into the show’s 54-year run. While it contains none of ATWT’s trademark closeups, it is an elegant example (one of the few still available) of how soap opera historically used character to move plot: a narrative structure that ties current stories to back stories and uses history and memory to contextualize current plot and character development. The power of this episode lies in its four deceptively simple scenes, each a conversation between two of the episode’s four characters. While almost nothing happens in the episode, when it’s over viewers understand the relationships, not just among the characters in the episode, Chris, his father, Pa, and sister,, Edie, who was involved with his law partner, Jim, but between every character on the show: Chris’s wife Nancy, his daughter, Penny, who became estranged from her aunt Edie when Penny’s best friend, Ellen, revealed that her father, Jim, was involved with another woman, Edie. Even a character who never appeared on the show, Chris and Edie’s brother, John, was fully contextualized.
What do you believe were the biggest factors in the demise of As the World Turns?
The demise of ATWT actually began in 1978, when Gloria Monty’s was hired to fix a show on the verge of cancellation, ABC’s General Hospital. At the time, most soap operas followed the model Irna Phillips had created on ATWT: intergenerational families made up of rather ordinary characters living rather ordinary lives that resembled those of most viewers.
Monty altered that model by speeding up the pace of the storytelling by shifting the focus from the day-to-day lives of the doctors and nurses of General Hospital to the young, Laura, and the hip, Luke, who, in the process of saving the world from being frozen by the Ice Princess, also saved General Hospital, thereby forever altering the public’s perception of soaps. As college lounges filled with students following the adventures of Luke and Laura, for the first time it was cool for kids to watch soaps.
But GH wasn’t their mother’s soap opera; ATWT was. How CBS and Procter & Gamble responded to the end of ATWT’s 20-year reign at the top of the ratings is a lesson in what not to do. Rather than take a deep breath and think about ways to exploit the perception of ATWT as “their mothers’ soap opera” to the show’s advantage, the new executive producer, Mary-Ellis Bumin, approached her task from what, in light of GH’s explosive success, seemed like a logical assumption, but ultimately proved deeply flawed: the only way to attract the younger viewers advertisers coveted was by excluding older characters. So, what had been the ATWT’s greatest assets — its 20+-year history and the multi-generational Hughes family — was seen as its greatest weaknesses. Soon after Bunim took over familiar characters were pushed to the sidelines and viewers found themselves watching Tom and Margo (Oakdale’s Luke and Laura) chase a dwarf named Mr. Big — ATWT’s version of the Ice Princess.
But what had worked so brilliantly for GH never caught on with ATWT’s core audience. When Laurence Caso took over CBS’s New York daytime operation in 1983, he realized that ATWT would never succeed by continuing to copy what the ABC soaps were doing. He pushed Procter & Gamble to replace Mary-Ellis Bunim with Robert Calhoun, then hired head writer Douglas Marland, who rebuilt the show around Hughes. ATWT thrived until Marland suddenly died in 1993. A year later, the show was still in the process of rebuilding as the country obsessed over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
ATWT’s missteps of the early 1980s have to be understood in the context of GH’s unprecedented success, which threw all soaps into uncharted waters. But CBS and P&G had clearly failed learn from history when, in 1995, a new regime once again distanced the show from its history and the Hughes family. As the show floundered until its cancellation in 2010, no one even tried to right the ship by reestablishing the centrality of the Hughes. Even if they had, it might well have been too late. P&G’s other two shows, Guiding Light and Another World, were in even worse shape than ATWT. In 2005, P&G eliminated the position of executive in charge of production and subsequently transferred the shows’ day-to-day operations to a subsidiary, TeleNext Media. Then, in 2008, the TeleNext logo replaced P&G’s in the show credits, sending a clear message that P&G was content to let the clock run out on their soaps.
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).