The Survival of Soap Opera (Part One): The State of the American Soap

Soap operas have been a staple in American broadcasting since the dawn of network radio in the 1930s, yet at a time when several major soaps have been canceled, they seem to be an endangered species. A new book released this week, The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations For a New Media Era, brings together key thinkers about this embattled genre from the worlds of industry, fandom, journalism, and academia to share their reflections on the current state of the American daytime serial and to offer their suggestions on what tactics and strategies might allow it to thrive in a new media era. The book is edited by three researchers -- Sam Ford (Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications), Abigail De Kosnik (assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies), and C. Lee Harrington (professor of sociology and a Women's Studies Program Affiliate at Miami University) -- who have been key contributors to the Convergence Culture Consortium (soon to be rebranded as the Futures of Entertainment Consortium). Ford is also the co-author with Joshua Green and I of my current book project, Spreadable Media, which we hope to release late next year. This book does what the best contemporary media scholarship should be doing -- tackling an issue which has enormous impact on the shape of our communications environment, brokering a conversation which brings key stakeholders to the table and reflects the diversity of perspectives around this topic, and making an intervention which reaps pragmatic rewards even as it sharpens our conceptual understanding of how television production emerges at the intersection between Broadcast networks and networked communications. The prose remains accessible throughout, in part because it is designed to reach an audience far beyond the university book store ghetto. There's an immediacy about the project because it seeks to bring classic scholarly perspectives to bear on a very pressing set of concerns. And there's a passion to the writing because everyone contributing feels a strong stake in these developments, because whatever else they are, they are fans of soaps as a genre and care about their long-term viability.

I have asked the three editors of the book to help organize a forum to be conducted in four installments through this blog, bringing together some key contributors to the book, to share their reactions to its four core themes. This material is at once a sample of what the book offers but also an extension of the book which is able to include some developments which have unfolded since the book went to press.

The first section of the book looks at the many challenges U.S. soap operas face today. Below, a cross-section of the contributors to that section answer some questions about the state of the U.S. soap opera industry today.

Giada Da Ros is a television critic for a weekly Italian newspaper who has published essays on a variety of primetime television dramas, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, The L Word, Lost, and Queer as Folk

Patrick Mulcahey, a current writer with The Bold and the Beautiful, has won four Daytime Emmys and three Writers Guild of America awards for nearly three decades of writing for soap operas, also including General Hospital, Guiding Light, Loving, Santa Barbara, Search for Tomorrow, and Texas. The collection features a piece based on Da Ros' interview with Mulcahey which focuses on changes in soap opera writing contracts. 

Barbara Irwin, a professor of communication studies at Canisius College who has researched soap operas for more than two decades, has co-authored two books on soap opera The Young and the Restless and currently serves both as chair of the soap opera area of the Popular Culture Association national conference and as co-director of the Project Daytime research initiative. The collection features a piece based on C. Lee Harrington's interview with Irwin and research partner Mary Cassata, focused on the state of U.S. soap operas today. 

Jaime J. Nasser is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Film Studies Program; the Gender and Sexuality Program; and the Latin American, Latino and Iberian Peoples and Culture Program at Bryn Mawr College who recently received his doctorate from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts with a dissertation that focused, in part, on the emergence of the telenovela. Nasser's essay in the collection is entitled "Giving Soaps a Good Scrub: ABC's Ugly Betty and the Ethnicity of Television Formats." 

William J. Reynolds is a published historian who writes about the Ossining, New York, area and U.S. presidencies and he researches soap opera history and actively participates in online and offline soap opera community events. The collection features a piece based on Sam Ford's interview with Reynolds on memories of the soap opera The Edge of Night

Tristan Rogers is an actor best known for playing the role of Robert Scorpio for various stints over the past three decades on General Hospital and General Hospital: Night Shift and who currently has roles on both The Young and the Restless and online series The Bay. The book features a piece based on Abigail De Kosnik's interview with Rogers about changes in the soap opera industry, audiences, and texts. 

Melissa C. Scardaville is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Emory University who has published her work on soap operas for American Behavioral Scientist and previously served as the Guiding Light editor for Soap Opera Digest. Scardaville's essay in the book is entitled "The Way We Were: The Institutional Logics of Professionals and Fans in the Soap Opera Industry."

For readers who are not soap opera fans, where do U.S. soap operas find themselves today?

Barbara Irwin: Soap operas today find themselves at a crossroads.  With diminishing ratings, intensifying scrutiny focused on the bottom line, and a new media landscape, questions are being raised as to their lasting power.  In the last year and a half, we've seen the cancellation of two long-time CBS/Procter & Gamble shows, Guiding Light (the longest running scripted series ever in broadcasting) and As The World Turns.  On the heels of these cancellations was the recent announcement that the Disney/ABC-owned cable network, SOAPnet, will end its run in January of 2012.  Viewership of soap operas has declined dramatically over the last 20 years, with three-quarters of the audience vanishing.

In their heyday on radio in the early 1940s, one could listen to as many as 65 different soap operas on any given day.  In 1970, there were more soap operas on television than at any other time - 19 in all.  Today, just six remain. Evolutionary changes in industry and storytelling have brought us to the present state of soap operas.  For their first sixty years (1930-1990), there was little change in soap opera storytelling, due in great part to the close ties the writers and creators had to the originator of the form, Irna Phillips.  Just less than 20 years ago, nine of the 12 soap operas on the air were being written and/or executive produced by individuals with a direct connection to Irna Phillips - what I would call the "second generation" of soap opera creators.  Most of these individuals have by now been replaced, and some have passed away, leaving the writers of today farther removed from Irna and her way of creating and writing soap operas.  The changes evident in storytelling reflect this distance.

Industry forces are also at play.  Today, even the most powerful headwriters are not insulated from the corporate executives whose job it is to ensure that their creative branches remain profitable.  The soap opera industry has made numerous attempts to reduce costs and at the same time regain or build new audience.  Some of the cost-cutting efforts are invisible to viewers, such as going to a 4-day production schedule. Reducing the size of casts and writing out long-standing characters played by high-paid actors, however, changes the soap opera landscape and potentially alienates viewers. Other cost-cutting measures that have affected the soaps include fewer sets, smaller production staffs, and the near elimination of the large production "roxie" scenes and remotes as stories climax.

New means of distribution have been implemented in an effort to regain lost audience and build new audiences.  SOAPnet, launched in 2000, provides same-day re-broadcasts of soaps and weekend marathons in an attempt to provide soap viewers with an opportunity to watch their shows at convenient times.  DVRs offer another avenue for time-shifting.  The Internet offers network soap opera sites, YouTube, and other platforms through which viewers can see full episodes, clips, and features related to the soaps.  But with these new technologies comes the end of habitual, ritualistic viewing.

Webisodes and online soaps represent an innovation in soap opera storytelling, though, with limited story arcs and definite start and end points, these diverge from the traditional soap opera.  This form of storytelling is in its infancy, but it does offer the possibility of driving lost viewers back to their network soaps and to build a new and different audience.  With the proliferation of mobile devices, delivering soaps to viewers on the go may hold some promise.

Advancing technology is something of a double-edged sword.  While it has the potential to help the ailing soap industry, it also has created an environment in which viewers have wide-ranging options on their televisions and an unlimited online world that has increased the competition for viewing soaps immensely.

How would you explain the shift of the soap opera industry's popularity and place in U.S. culture over the past few decades?

Giada Da Ros: Soap operas, as a genre, are at a difficult conjuncture right now. Reasons are different. The main one, in my opinion, is that they are opaque and therefore hard to "read." On the surface, they appear easy to follow. In reality, giving meaning to what is seen on the screen requires time and commitment to the program. I love the genre, yet the idea of following a new soap makes me cringe. I don't care for it. I know that if I want to follow one, I have to give myself time, know to learn who the characters are and what the relationships are. Like in real life: love at first sight can happen, but, for the most part, you need time to care about someone and to learn what is that makes them special, when they are having a good or a bad day, what is the norm or the bizarre about them. It doesn't happen instantly. The shift in people's behaviors and the fact that they don't give themselves time, I believe, reflects in the shift in the soap opera industry's popularity. Soaps are always in flux, yet you must keep a zen-like quality of viewing: you are in the moment, always. You don't know what the future holds. They say it takes at least six months to build a soap audience, and that is for a reason.

Also, viewers are more aware of TV genres and tropes and have expectations that they didn't use to have in the past. They are more visually educated and critical. Trusting this knowledge and the expectations they often incur is a common misconception. Most viewers when approaching soaps expect to see Caravaggio, not Picasso, and they judge it accordingly. Despite appearances, soaps are more conceptual than mimetic. They do not portray reality; they use realistic elements to create a different reality: one of the mind, abstract and symbolic, which borders with the superficial "illusion of reality." Several planes of reality intersect, and the emotional reality emerges. Conventions of the genre, narrative and of other kind (like recasting, being back from the dead, the twin sibling, or inside jokes) are proof of how an intellectual leap beyond reality is required of the viewer. Awareness of this gap comes only progressively. The occasional viewer mistrusts and misjudges these aspects that are specific of the genre. I believe this misjudgment was less likely to occur in the past because people had fewer expectations about TV in general.

What are the primary reasons for the decline in U.S. soap opera viewership in the past few decades?

Barbara Irwin: Two critical factors appear to be related to the decline in audience.  Most of today's viewers, from the oldest to young middle-age, likely established their soap opera viewing habits directly as a result of their mothers' or grandmothers' viewing.  But, as the overall viewership declines, the likelihood of being "taught" soap opera viewing at the knee of one's mother is diminishing.  If soap opera creators are to initiate a new generation in the habit of viewing, they will have to connect with them directly. And a second factor making an impact on the diminishing audience of soap operas today is the proliferation of alternative viewing options.  With the dramatic increase in the number of television channels available in US households and increased time spent online, competition for viewing time is fierce.

The soap opera audience's awareness of alternative viewing options may be linked to the 1995 broadcast of the O.J. Simpson trial.  For thirty-seven consecutive weeks, the daily soap opera line-up was preempted and interrupted regularly.  The trial also received wall-to-wall coverage on cable's Court TV (now truTV).  It could be argued that the real-life drama unfolding before viewers' eyes was more dramatic than what the soaps had to offer. Many viewers did not return to their soaps after the trial ended, having discovered that the reality played out on Court TV and other cable networks was more worthy of their viewing time.

While the Simpson trial cannot be blamed for single-handedly causing a crisis in the soap opera industry, it points to the larger picture. During this time, loyal soap opera viewers became aware of the vast array of viewing options available to them, and broadcast and cable programmers noted the types of programming viewers responded to. Reality-based programming began to flourish, and the sordid lives of real people were played out on myriad talk shows, court shows, magazine, and tabloid shows, all competing for - and many winning over - the soap opera audience.

Giada Da Ros:  I truly believe two main elements work against soap operas and help their decline at the present moment: their cultural standing in the public opinion and the way they are sold to the audience. In the mainstream, the regard for the professionalism and skill of soap operas is quite low. In  a culture that relishes being media-savvy and hip, choosing soap operas is not desirable, quite the contrary. This is an obstacle insofar as, to go against the current, you must truly love the genre. Otherwise, it is simply not worth it, because you do not get "rewarded" for it; you get "punished." Fans are bullied into thinking they are not cool and, for the most part, they are afraid to come out as defenders of a genre they love. Hence the decline.

Also, I believe the way soaps are promoted to be misguided at best. Promo ads are packed with the gist of twists: short, fast segments. This is the way it is done in primetime; this is the common sense. But I don't think it's the smart choice for soaps. It may bring a viewer to check out a soap, but it doesn't guarantee you stay. You see fast; you want fast. I argue you should go the other way. Show just one segment: plain, ordinary, yet meaningful. Don't go for what attracts; go for what pulls you in, for what ultimately lets you stay and gives you pleasure in watching soaps. Give a half-a-minute soap in the ad spot that leaves you with the idea that there is abundance, that there is more, and that you can have it by watching the program. You want two things from the audience you need to attract: that it craves the ritualistic, soothing return to the show and that it is able to see beyond the genre's rhetoric and conventions and use them as tools to enjoy the narrative. You don't want a viewer that is so fixed on the grammar and syntax of the genre that he or she is unable to understand it but rather one that speaks its narrative language. The only way to do that is to concentrate on what soaps do best without having them try being something else and being sold as something else. The way the industry is selling its product helps its decline.

Jaime Nasser: The shift of the soap opera industry's popularity and place in U.S. culture over the past few decades is partly linked to the decline in U.S. soap opera viewership in the past few decades. There are two reasons that stand out which are interconnected: First, the increasing popularity and availability of  television programming on demand and DVD means that there will be a decline in viewership of programs of limited availability. By "limited availability" I refer to programming that is available only via traditional broadcasting such as the case with most soap operas. Second, the shift in prime time programming from primarily an episodic to serial format offers similar, or comparable pleasures to the daytime soap opera format. I am not saying that prime time serials are the same as daytime soap operas but they share strong similarities that increasingly blur the lines between daytime and prime time serials. The industry is able to provide high budget serials that are considered "high quality" and whose narratives are sufficiently self contained that allow for effective digital marketing (DVD and on demand), as opposed to the open ended and expansive nature of the daytime soap opera whose main feature is that it does not end. In conclusion, the increase in consumption and availability of contemporary high budget, serialized television texts on demand (DVD and the internet) partly explain the decline of the soap opera's popularity and place in U.S. culture over the past few decades. An observation: The soap opera might have a comeback once technology catches up to the expansive nature of the format. That is, it becomes profitable to sell soap opera's and/or make them available for on demand viewing.

Melissa Scardaville: Many people will say it's because of the Internet, more choices in television programming, and the style of soap opera storytelling now being the purview of multiple genres. These are all valid reasons, and all played a role. What is often left out of the discussion are the Nielsen ratings. We never, ever accurately measured television audiences in the past, so it's very difficult to discuss the decline. We don't really know how many people watched, so we don't know why they left and who they were.

That said, even if we can't quantitatively devise an appropriate number, we can say qualitatively that soap viewership has declined. Why? Very simply is that the audience no longer trust the shows. They do not trust that their shows will stay on the air. They do not trust that, if they get invested in a storyline, there will be any payoff. They no longer trust there will be consistency. Your investment as a soap fan pays off because, if you watch today, you will get an even deeper understanding of the events of tomorrow. Audiences no longer trust that this will occur, so they stopped investing in the first place.

How have declines in budgets for these shows impacted their quality?

Tristan Rogers: It is doubtful that budget reductions have seriously been at fault when it comes to the soaps.  At day's end, it all comes down to the way the shows are managed, and this started way before budget cuts crept in.  You can trace this back to the 80s.  For me personally, it all started on General Hospital when Gloria Monty stepped down.  She realized what was happening and had made a plan to get out.  Shortly after this, Capital Cities took over ABC, and many things changed, although, on the stage level, this was never evident.  At the managerial level, it was.  The "free wheeling" days were over.  Still, this was never an issue for the show.  The changes were made at a much higher level.  I never had the feeling there was a desire to preserve what we "had." There was a constant desire to pursue the "heydays of the early 80s," and they were gone.   Hence, the use of location shoots increased, something I felt to be a waste of time.  Better to go back to story and use what was happening "real-time," something that has never been fully exploited.

Daytime has always been hampered by the restrictions that are put on what can be done and said.  I will admit things have changed radically in the area of speech.  You can say things undream't of back in the 80s, but this looseness has not been extended to story. You still can't get out there and really take a current situation and project it with the drama and edge it requires.  The point has to be "blunted." And so we get this "merry-go-round" of situations and relationships.  I would love to have  a character evolve with a dark side that was "Dexterish" in nature.  But that just won't happen.  Or, if it did, the character would have to be made "cartoonish" in order to be acceptable. Stories with that kind of edge and background are not the domain of daytime. And this is precisely what they need to be, or we are left with what we currently have.  Daytime needs to reflect more of what is happening in the world. I mean, apart from the luridness and drama of interpersonal relationships, which daytime does well and pretty much pioneered.  Everyone learned from daytime and then went on from there.  We need to be accorded "some" of that license. And this doesn't require a bigger budget.  In the end, it all comes back to story,  not bigger budgets, gimmicks, or stunts.

Melissa Scardaville: If we trace the organizational linage of television to its radio days, we see that the medium is deeply rooted in theatre and literature. In the 1990s, television became a more visual medium as it adopted film techniques for the smaller screen. That's not the say that soaps could not be visually stunning prior to 1990, but large-scale, technically complicated displays were usually reserved to advance major story. Over time, explosions, car wrecks, natural disasters, and location shoots became expected. Money was challenged to the visual elements of soaps.

The declining budget also meant a severe restriction in dayplayers, under fives, and non-contract players. Soaps only have one character: its community. When that community no longer has inhabitants, you lose the very fabric that ties it all together.

Third, in soap operas, characters are defined by their relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but who this person is as a parent, a co-worker, a best friend, a neighbor, etc. Declining budgets meant core characters could not be used as often, which weakened their ties to others and which diluted the character's identity. Budget cuts also meant that it was more advantageous to use the same small set of characters who only have ties to each other and not the larger community. This approach conditions the audience to watch for specific characters and/or couples and to not be invested in the soap as a larger town. Thus, soaps developed a fractured audience where Pine Valley, Oakdale, or Springfield were defined by viewers in irreconcilable ways. Therefore, communities went from having multiple definitions and understandings to having rigid and fixed identities.

So, in short, the decline in budgets affected the:

a) Channeling of money to visual and away from storytelling

b) Loss of community ties

c) Characters with few ties

What are the chief differences between today's soap operas and the soap operas of yesteryear in the U.S.?

Patrick Mulcahey: Formerly, soaps operas were to American small-town life what shows like Cheyenne and Gunsmoke were to the American West.  Our Springfields and Pine Valleys celebrated and mythologized the close-knit communities and families our viewers came from or wished they had.  For mothers home alone with children or single working women in the urban centers, the big canvas we worked on supplied an ersatz sense of community and of extended family, too, that was lost or imperiled in their real lives.  That Feels like home appeal is crudely explicit in the earliest radio serials.  Knowing your neighbors.  Fearing the town gossips.  Parents who never let go, of each other or you.  Seeing your siblings every day.

The strategies of serial storytelling itself have hardly changed since Homer.  But the insistence, by program and advertising executives from other genres and other media, on sex and fantasy romance as the soap's raisons d'être represented a fatal misreading of what soaps were about that hastened us to our doom.  It was difficult enough to design big stories in a time when social attitudes toward sexuality and marriage were splintering.  But the network-prescribed emphasis on personal feelings, personal choices, loves-me-loves-me-not dilemmas existing in a vacuum because they're now nobody else's business; the unremitting emphasis on even individual bodies, gleaming and twisting in protracted candle-and-bedsheet scenes. All this spelled the end of what soap operas did best and made of us a cheaper, cheesier version of entertainments better done elsewhere.

William Reynolds: The soaps of yesterday, which were only thirty minutes in length, told more in-depth stories than today's hour-long shows.  Today's soap producers feel compelled to outdo themselves and their comeptition with large-scale special effects and exotic remote location shoots.  Soaps feel compelled to give us tornadoes,  floods, and explosions to draw the audience in.  However, sets do not have to be elaborate, nor do special effects have to be over-the-top. Soaps have lost their intimacy.  A longtime soap viewer like myself does not feel as if they are looking in our neighbor's window and seeing two people converse over a cup of coffee and listening in on their conversation. Today, all intimacy is gone because the viewer knows that this is "big business," and everything being done is on a large scale.

Finally, and this is strictly from my personal viewpoint, soaps have crossed the line and, in some instances, border on being pornographic.  I would normally tune into CBS in anticipation of seeing As the World Turns and would catch some of The Bold and the Beautiful, and what I would see on my screen would be something that I would expect to see in an adult movie. I also heard about a scene in which one of the genre's grande dames, Robin Strasser, gave (the allusion) of giving oral sex to a male counterpart on One Life to Live.  I have the greatest respect and admiration for Robin Strasser and her career that has spanned four decades, but my skin crawled when I heard about this.  My heart ached for her when I heard this. And, on Guiding Light there was a male character, I think it was Coop, who had a conversation with his significant body part. Call me old-fashioned, but I remember, when I was only 4 or 5 years old, hearing Lisa on As the World Turnssaying for nine long months simply that she was 'carrying Bob's child.'  The soaps have come a long way since then, and, in my opinion, not for the better.

Melissa Scardaville: The differences between today's soap operas and the soap operas of yesteryear stem from two discrete influences. First, changing business strategies in the television industry have affected both daytime and primetime. Overall, there is faster storytelling, quicker delivery of dialogue, more emphasis on youth and beauty, and less flexibility given to grow an audience. These changes negatively impacted soaps because the genre, contrary to popular opinion, is really about nuance, paradox, and multiplicity: hard concepts to convey in a very fast-paced environment. When one attempts to translate subtly and complicity into a fast-paced, visually oriented environment obsessed with immediate gratification, you lose the emotional authenticity key to soap operas.

Applicable directly to soaps is the increasing role the network plays in creative decisions and the declining resources soaps have to manage that feedback. Let's be clear. Networks have always played some role, and soaps have always made some bad decisions. It's not that there are more bad decisions now, but more people with more power over long-term story have the opportunity to make more decisions. Resources that soaps have long used to facilitate these decisions -- multiple rehearsals, extensive writing staffs trained as writers, spontaneity born out of a show running short -- have been eliminated. Soaps have turned into inflexible organizations where one wrong turn leads to a permanent break rather than a temporary re-routing. Together, in today's current soap climate, this inflexibility and the overall change in business strategies affect what stories are told, who gets to tell them, and how.