Legacy Characters and Rich History: How Soap Operas Must Capitalize on Their History (and Pay Attention to the Lessons of the WWE)

Sam Ford is the backbone of the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Week in and week out, he pulls together some of the most important developments in the entertainment and media sector and offers his own insightful analysis of how they connect to the larger trends we have been researching for our clients. For those of you whose interests were perked by the conversations in and around the Futures of Entertainment conference, the C3 blog is a great place to go to learn more about user-generated content, fan and brand communities, transmedia storytelling, and so forth. There's much more there than I can possibly cover in this blog. I go for depth; Sam goes for breath--though, at his best, he achieves both.

Ford is a masters student in the Comparative Media Studies program who came to us with lots of experience as a small town journalist writing for his local newspaper in Western Kentucky. Ford wrote his undergraduate thesis about professional wrestling as a transmedia and fan phenomenon and is going to be teaching a class on the topic this spring. He is doing his thesis work trying to map some ways that soap operas in general and As The World Turns in particular can exploit aspects of convergence culture to broaden their market and to better satisfy the demands of their hardcore viewers. Like many of our students, he is using blogging to create some public discussion around his thesis ideas. In this case, he has posted a series of lengthy pieces on the C3 site which explore the ways soaps are going transmedia and interacting with their fan communities. I have asked Sam if we can reproduce these posts here in hopes that he may garner insights from my readers on his project.

Sam, by the way, has been nice enough to take over the management of this blog for the next few days while Cynthia and I have gone to Poland for the public debut of the Polish language edition of Convergence Culture -- my first translation. I will be speaking at a conference on the future of culture in Warsaw and will share some of my impressions when I get back.

Now, to turn it over to Sam:

By: Sam Ford

I originally wrote this piece over at the C3 blog at the beginning of November. Since that time, the episode that drove my initial writing has aired, and its success (or lack thereof) has driven a response that will be on the C3 site and will be cross-posted here on Friday. Also, Friday's post will pick up a variety of conversations that began in the comments section on the original post on the C3 blog which involved former Young and the Restless head writer Kay Alden and longtime soaps viewer and critic Lynn Liccardo, who are both serving as my thesis advisors (along with Henry and William Uricchio).

Luke and Laura have me thinking about soap operas and legacy characters and the importance of recognizing histories on shows that are fortunate enough to have a wealth of former content to draw from.

A lot of long-standing television forms have not completely grasped the idea that one of the most important selling tools they have is exactly what sets them apart from the more ephemeral primetime fare: longevity.

In this category, I'm talking about any type of program with deep archives but particularly thinking of daytime serial drama, the soap operas; professional wrestling; some long-standing news shows or features on other networks, anything that has been on the air for years, without an end in sight. These programs are special, with formats that have built within viewers the sense that, even if the program hits a down time, that its longevity and format will cause it to be around for years to come.

That's why I've made the argument with both pro wrestling programming and soap operas over the years that you can't really apply the term "jump the shark" to these shows because they have jumped the shark and back so many times over the past few decades. As the World Turns and Guiding Light have both been on the air every weekday and all year long for more than 50 years now, making PGP a brand renowned for longevity. And World Wrestling Entertainment's roots stretch back to 1963 as a regional broadcast, giving WWE a longstanding viewership history that few other primetime shows can match, other than news programs.

Yet, traditionally anyway, these shows only give a cursory glance to their history, instead relying on bragging about their history only in ambiguous terms from time-to-time.

WWE Finding the Right Direction with Legacy Content

Vince McMahon completely ignored wrestling history for a long time, and it made some degree of business sense when it came to the history of his competitors. He was trying to establish the WWE as the only wrestling history that matters. Now that he's pretty well won the game, though, now that he has established his wrestling empire as the owner of the country's primary wrestling brand, Vince has started to give more than just a passing glance at the wrestling archives.

Enter WWE 24/7 On Demand, which I've written about before. At the time, I wrote:

The point of all this? WWE has been able to draw on nostalgia in a way that appeals to a very concentrated group of fans, those who care enough about professional wrestling to throw down a few bucks a month to watch old pro wrestling programming, tape archives that were otherwise just sitting in a closet somewhere. It's an example of Chris Anderson's Long Tail, in that products like these can be profitable just by finding a fan base. Although the initial costs of digitizing and mapping out these tape libraries may put the product in the red, the long-term sustainability of this niche product should eventually turn a profit, especially considering that the footage can also be used for DVD releases, etc. (The company has found this out, especially with releasing multiple-disc sets of various wrestling personalities.)

And, the WWE has been able to pull in some fans who don't even watch the current product regularly but who love to see the wrestling of yesteryear. In fact, there are some people who are hostile against the company, who do not like Vince McMahon, but are willing to pay him for this archive, to remember wrestling from the regional era before what they see as his corrupting influence came through and changed pro wrestling.

On the other hand, soap operas don't really seem to "get it," as Vince would say. And it's not like Vince always has but rather that he has slowly come around to ways of educating current fans to care about wrestling history and then to promote that wrestling history with the 24/7 product, DVD releases, etc., in order to eventually make money off that content that was just collecting dust otherwise.

The Lesson for Soap Operas

The same needs to take place with soap operas. While every other television industry seems to make its name off target marketing and niche audiences when it comes to demographics, soap operas are the opposite. Almost everyone I know my age, male and female, who watch soaps do so because they started watching them with a relative growing up. In fact, almost everyone I know period started watching soaps this way. When the audience started falling off, soaps began to dumb down the shows' histories more and more, ignoring the past and worrying about losing viewers with such stuff. New characters with little history on the show started being the major focus, and veterans are lucky to make it on the screen a handful of times a month now on many shows.

Why? Soaps are losing their 18-49 female target demographic, and they are trying to appeal to them directly. But they don't understand the value of transgenerational marketing when it comes to soaps, and they've spent the last decade looking for a quick-fix for the target demographic when I believe they would have been better served focusing on improving creative and utilizing their history more effectively. Shows should bolster their longterm viewers' numbers and letting them act as their proselytizers for younger soap fans. In other words, if you hadn't lost grandma and mom, you would have been able to keep grandson or granddaughter.

Legacy Characters

How do you remedy that, though? Legacy characters. Acknowledging the history. Not only could soaps find more and more ways to make money off the show's archives (when you bring back a legacy character, release online content or DVDs that highlight the history of that characters, their interaction with others who are currently on the show, etc.), but they can also draw back in the prodigal sons and daughters who have drifted from the show by returning some familiar faces.

There has been a lot of talk in the soap fan communities and the industry in the past year about legacy characters and how their return can generate buzz for shows once again. A lot of these legacy characters are out of the demographic that the show is trying to reach, but...gasp...viewers seem to sometimes be interested in characters that aren't necessarily the same age as them, and--when it comes to the large families on most soap operas--these characters are woven into storylines of several generations of other characters on the show, leading to a show that is supposed to be multigenerational in its storylines in order to appeal to multiple generations of viewers.

Ed Martin with Media Village wrote about the return of Laura from the famed Luke and Laura couple on General Hospital and what it means to the show. Martin writes, "Francis' return as one of the most popular characters to ever emerge in daytime drama is worth noting because it calls attention (at a time when much attention is needed) to the enduring power not simply of daytime soap operas but to that of serialized programming overall and to broadcast television itself. Consider the enduring popularity of her character, Laura. This month marks the 25th anniversary of Laura's now-legendary wedding to Luke in a two-part 1981 episode that drew 30 million-plus viewers, still the record-holder for a daytime drama audience."

Later, he points out that this "is what a well-written, well-acted soap opera can do, a point well worth making at a time when most soap operas are fighting for their lives, the victims of repetitive writing, industry indifference, escalating competition from other media and, I am convinced, flawed audience measurement."

Martin shares an anecdote about younger viewers been involved with the storylines of older characters, saying, "Significantly, Alexis is not an ingénue. She's a middle-aged woman. And yet, young viewers remain heavily invested in her storylines. There's another industry perception smashed to bits. But that's a column for another day."

Nice to know that there's someone out there who agrees with me that soaps break the myth of niche demographics and that applying that rubric to soaps has been a driving force in diminishing the soaps audience.

Bringing Back the Prodigal Viewers

But what can shows do about it? Well...it seems fairly obvious, yet I'm afraid that it won't to most of the marketing folks. People like nostalgia. And the only way soaps are going to build their audience back up is first to get a great number of those people who have watched at some point in their lives back into the fold. And, gasp, the majority of those people need not be in the target demographic. I'm talking about getting grandmas and middle-aged mothers and fathers back into the show, so they can get back to work as your grassroots marketers to the younger generations.

And what's going to attract these fans back into the fold? Two things: first, familiar faces; and, second, good writing when they get there. I am not arguing at all that you don't need amazing new characters and dazzling young stars because you need something to get these viewers hooked on a new generation, but you have to use the old generation to do that. First, start by putting the veterans on the show more often, integrating them into storylines. A show like As the World Turns has a cast of Kim and Bob Hughes, Tom and Margo Hughes, Susan Stewart, Emma Snyder, Lucinda Walsh, etc., all characters who still have a lot to give and actors who are still able to carry scenes. I'm not saying that the shows have been completely inept at featuring them, but they haven't been great.

Don't be afraid to put Tom and Margo on the screen. Have young swindler Henry Coleman enter into an illicit affair with the older Lucinda Walsh, throwing the whole town off-balance. And so on. Bite the bullet and bring back Dr. John Dixon, a face many identified with ATWT for so many years. Sure, he's old, but that means that several generations of viewers will recognize him. Bring back some old favorites like Andy Dixon or Kirk Anderson...whatever happened to him, anyway? Dead or alive? After all, we found out that a smaller number of fans can nevertheless react very passionately when rumors start circulating that a longtime, yet neglected, character may be booted off the show--as was the case with rumors that Tom would be killed off on ATWT last year--and my post about the fan reaction generated more discussion than almost any post we've had on the C3 blog. Similarly, fans responded passionately about longtime character Hal Munson and his portrayer, Benjamin Hendrickson, after Hendrickson committed suicide earlier this year--the reaction shows both that fans care immensely about these longtime characters and felt a need to express their sympathy becuase they had grown close to the character over the years, and the actor's performances. And also look at how Ellen Dolan, who portrays Margo on ATWT, went directly to the fans to plead the case for better use of her character on the show (and her character has appeared more often in recent months, although that may just be a coincidence).

Then, by encouraging fans to promote the current storylines of these characters or one of their returns, by taking advantage and empowering the show's grassroots marketers, some of those old fans will come back into the fold. If they like what they see, they'll bring more back into the fold with them. And that leads to even more grassroots marketers. Then, they may start getting younger viewers tuning back in.

The problem is that this type of growth is slow growth...It's not a week or a month fix. And you have to have quality writing when fans get there and younger characters that are compelling and who interact with these legacy characters in ways that gets fans hooked on them as well. One of the major problems is that a lot of writers currently with shows don't even know the shows' deep histories, since soap writers switch from show to show so often, it seems. But these shows need to get it together and take advantage of their greatest asset: their own histories.

The Best Marketing: Good and Consistent Storytelling

As I said, though, shows have to get good, and stay better for a while, before they can regain an audience. Word-of-mouth takes time. This type of approach needs a long-term commitment from the production companies and the network. The problem, though, is that trying one immediate fix after another in the soap industry for more than a decade now has led to continued decline in the numbers. If they had started this process a decade ago and focused on long-term growth, we might not be in the shape that so many creative direction changes and quick fixes have led to by this point.

In the end, the best marketing for a show is good quality. Soaps have the advantage of feeling permanent, and longstanding shows are probably not going to go off-the-air anytime soon. If shows start now with a more long-term approach to growth, incorporating the idea of taking greater advantage of the archives and bringing back legacy characters and empowering proselytizing among fans and the other ideas laid out here, then there may be a turnaround in numbers. But it's going to take a big shift in thinking from the current demographic-driven, short-term thinking that has guided the industry.

For those who are interested further in these ideas, feel free to contact me directly or read some of my previous posts on the soaps industry and pro wrestling industry at the C3 site. I'm teaching a class on pro wrestling and its cultural history here at MIT next semester, and my thesis research is on the current state of the soap opera industry and how using new technologies and the new relationships with fans can transform the genre and the industry in the 21st Century.

Thanks to Todd Cunningham with MTV Networks for bringing the return of Luke and Laura to my attention.