The Survival of Soap Opera (Part Four): Why Fans Matter

The final section of The Survival of Soap Opera focuses on the evolution of fan community practices online, on various soap opera fan experiences/demographics, and on relations between the soap opera industry and its fans. Below, a variety of the contributors to this section answer questions about the relationships fans have with the soap operas they watch and with one another. Tom Casiello is a current member of the writing team for The Young and the Restless, a former associate head writer for One Life to Live and Days of Our Lives, and a two-time Daytime Emmy Award-winning writer with As the World Turns who has written about the genre at his blog, Damn the Man! Save the Empire.

Abigail De Kosnik is an assistant professor at the University of California-Berkeley in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies who writes on media, fandom, and copyright. As editor of the collection, she co-wrote the book's introduction, "The Crisis of Daytime Drama and What It Means for the Future of Television." She also wrote an essay in the collection, entitled "Soaps for Tomorrow: Media Fans Making Online Drama from Celebrity Gossip. C.

Lee Harrington is professor of sociology and a Women's Studies Program Affiliate at Miami University is co-author of the book Soap Fans and who has written on the soap opera genre since the late 1980s for publications including The Journal of Aging Studies, The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Transformative Works and Cultures. As one of the book's co-editors, she co-wrote the book's introduction, "The Crisis of Daytime Drama and What It Means for the Future of Television." She also co-authored a piece for the book with Denise Brothers, entitled "Constructing the Older Audience: Age and Aging in Soaps."

Roger Newcomb is the Editor-in-Chief of soap opera news site We Love Soaps, the producer of two Internet radio soap operas, and executive producer and co-writer of the film Manhattanites. His essay in the book is entitled "As the World Turns' Luke and Noah and Fan Activism."

Radha O'Meara is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in screen studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who has published her work in Screwball Television: Gilmore Girls and in the Austrian journal Metro. Her essay in the book is entitled "The 'Missing Years': How Local Programming Ruptured Days of Our Lives in Australia."

Julie Porter is a longtime newspaper editor and reporter who is webmaster of soap opera site talk!talk!. Her essay in the collection is entitled "Hanging on by a Common Thread."

QueenEve is the pseudonym of a career professional and soap opera fan who has moderated and/or founded several popular soap communities online. The collection features a piece based on Abigail De Kosnik's interview with QueenEve focusing on fan activity around and against soaps.

How has the relationship between U.S. soap operas and their fans evolved over time?

Tom Casiello: I honestly think the relationship between the soaps and the fans hasn't changed nearly as much as others believe. (I also think we have to be very careful not to group them all together as "the soap operas." There are currently six U.S. daytime soaps on the air, all of which should have their own individual identity, wherin their fans expect different things from each show.) At its core, the audience still wants stories and characters they can connect with on a human level, mixed with the element of fantasy and escapism they've come to expect. They want to know the characters they've loved their whole lives, whom they've watched grow and evolve, are in capable, trustworthy hands...and they will continue to live on in their homes daily. While audience demograhics may shift, and trends will come and go, strong, long-term serialized storytelling with heart is all the fans have ever wanted.

Roger Newcomb: Obviously, from radio soap operas to present-day television and internet soaps, the way fans view or listen to their soaps has changed tremendously. The relationship the soaps have with fans has evolved as well. Even 30 years ago, the main feedback mechanisms were snail mail and telephone feedback lines. In 2010, fans can email the shows and their networks, and many times the stars themselves. The shows also have Facebook and Twitters accounts to solicit immediate feedback from fans, and the actors themselves directly interact with fans in a more personal way through social networking. It is not clear whether this increased and immediate interaction has impacted storylines or story direction.

QueenEve: I think it used to be a far more personal relationship shared between female multi-generational family members and the soap opera. Over time, with the growth of soap magazines covering more than just "the stories," suddenly we knew about the actors playing the characters and the writers writing the show, making it a little less personal. We learned about the relationships between the actors playing the parts (marriages, divorces, and kids), entirely separate from their parts, and the experience expanded beyond one among just you, your mother, and the story. Then, with the internet, it became even less intimate and much more of a group activity with other viewers. So, what had been something between female members of a family and the soap eventually involved the actors, the writers, the media, and other viewers who may not have viewed the show and characters as you and your family did. The other side of that is that the "family" element has sort of dropped out, and it is no longer a multi-generational female experience. Some of that is the changing role of women in society, but a large part of it is that soaps have backed away from telling multi-generational female stories in search of the almighty 18-49 demo, and the audience loss has reflected that. So, I think it went from a highly personal and intimate experience to a more expansive but impersonal experience such that viewers don't have the investment they once did.

What changes have we seen in recent years in how fans of U.S. daytime dramas connect with one another?

Tom Casiello: The Internet for one - for the first time in history, it's much easier for those with the same interests to connect instantaneously, on a level playing field. Who they are in their lives, where they come from, their education - it's irrelevant on the Web. Here, they are all equal fans, and that has not only helped organize a stronger group effort in their campaigns but also created a world of discussion to bounce their ideas and opinions off of each other in what is hopefully a moderated environment.

Abigail De Kosnik: The most striking fan activity that the Web, and online communities, have brought about (in my view) is that "fans make their own fun," as one of our contributors, Web site moderator "QueenEve," stated. Since fans have started communicating online, they have basically produced their own virtual soap operas - spreading spoilers and dissecting upcoming plots, posting speculations about what's going to happen next as well as (often very thoughtful) analyses of what happened recently on their favorite shows, in addition to gossiping about behind-the-scenes rumors (Which co-stars won't work together? Why did the Exec Producer fire that actor? When is that former writer coming back to this show?). There's also been a level of drama in the wars between fan bases that matches that of the heightened conflicts depicted on soap operas. The animosity that warring fan bases have borne toward one another has been awesome in its fierceness, and, while I don't want to minimize the fact that some people's feelings have probably been deeply hurt by these acrimonious exchanges, I must say that there's an element of watching or participating in soap fans battle online that is immensely engaging and entertaining. I have taken part in some of these "bitchfests" myself (and it's not always fans vs. other fans; it's also fans vs. the shows or the networks or particular storylines), and I'll always remember those impassioned campaigns as really interesting, exciting times of my life. There's something about the dedication and commitment that soap fans have for their shows that really infused the online fan experience with an intensity that many other Internet fan groups lack. It comes, I think, from the fact that, when the Web became a big part of soap fans' lives, many fans had already been engaged with these soap story worlds for years - in many cases, fans' involvement predated the Internet by decades. The Web, which permits for a really wide range of discussions and actions that can be micro-interventions or can go on for months or years, almost seems like it was specifically built as a platform for soap fans, who have decades' worth of information and insight to discuss.

C. Lee Harrington: While soap viewers were among the first groups to migrate to the Net recreationally, as Nancy Baym discussed in Tune In, Log On, they were slower to create the type of user-generated content currently associated with media fandom, in part because the frequency (daily) and longevity (the average age of US soaps is 40 years) of the "primary"' text created less need for viewers to fill narrative gaps in between episodes or installments. Over the past few years, soap fans have become increasingly engaged in vlogs, video-sharing, fan fiction, podcasts, and mash-ups, while much of soap fans' energy remains devoted to the ongoing daily criticism, discussion, and fan activism which takes place in online forums and the blogosphere.

Roger Newcomb: Fans are connecting on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter and continue to interact on various message boards. The fans seem to be more tech-savvy these days, so the number of message boards and Facebook pages has grown by leaps and bounds. In some ways, this has splintered the online audience, with more websites and social network sites dedicated to particular actors, characters, or soap couples. We Love Soaps TV receives almost 10 percent of our hits from Twitter and, in many cases, from fans who tweet and re-tweet our features. Twitter has become the fastest way of spreading information about soaps around the web.

Julie Porter: Be careful what you wish for! To me, that's the warning label that should be placed on the desire to raise viewership at any cost. The race for ratings - and ad revenue - has had an unintended consequence along the way: a decrease of conflict in storyline. The intense competition for audience share gives soap viewers a powerful amount of clout in determining how stories are resolved - and, generally, they want favorite characters to be happy, and want to see their characters' conflicts resolved. But is that what they really want? Accelerated storytelling satisfies the short-term viewer but weakens the long-term story. Conflict makes for anxiety, but quick resolutions make for an awfully boring soap, long-term. Once, it might have taken three years to resolve a complex story in a big reveal. That's storytelling. But, these days, if the focus groups say to wrap it up - well, it gets wrapped up quickly, and there's short-term satisfaction but a lot of opportunity for story and character development is lost. Faster-paced storytelling throws characters into a revolving door of reaction; the storyline rules, but deep character development is almost nil. And so the viewer who wanted a quick resolution also quickly loses interest. The willingness of networks to give focus groups and online campaigns a strong role in the decision process also leads to a bad end: It places creative control in the hands of executive management rather than writers, and fan feedback becomes the tail that wags the dog. The soap that has evolved into a marketing tool isn't nearly as satisfying as one that does what soaps were intended to do: explore the feelings and lives of people, and their ups and downs.

QueenEve: I think, in the past, you might have a discussion with a neighbor or friend about the soap or the "girls" in the dorm, but fandom was fairly generic. Now, with the internet, you have both a gathering place and a divisive means of organization. That is, people generally check in on the internet to find fans of the characters or couples they like, to the exclusion of a more general audience. It has led to "board wars" in the past, between couple fans especially. The Sonny & Brenda versus Jax & Brenda fans of the 90s on General Hospital was a good representation of that, as were the Robin & Jason fans versus the Carly & Jason fans. So, on the one hand, the internet allowed fans to find each other on the internet and connect while, on the other hand, it leads to divisive and heated fights.

How do the teams who make these shows take into account the fans' feedback and mindset, from your perspective?

Abigail De Kosnik: I know for a fact that the shows do pay attention to soap fans' feedback, to some extent. The contributors to our book who work in the soap industry verified this, and I have heard soap actors often tell fans who want to see changes on their favorite shows that they must write or call in to the network to voice their opinions. One of my e-mails to ABC, urging them to portray professional women - the female nurses, doctors, lawyers - in a more positive light on General Hospital, got quoted almost verbatim by ABC Daytime exec Brian Frons in an interview he did with one of the soap magazines back in 2003. But, on the other hand, I think many fans, and I am one of them, are frustrated by the fact that, although the Internet permits for a much greater flow of feedback from soap viewers to soaps' producers, the shows don't seem to be able to take effective action in response. Several of our industry contributors have told us that, with soaps, time is a huge factor in this - of course, feedback on a storyline comes in well after months of that story are written and shot - but, also, I wonder if the case of soap operas, in which we see this enormous wave of feedback going to TV shows and not that much difference being made, just illustrates the fact that television is a creative industry and, probably on any television program, whether daytime or prime time or a miniseries, the writers just can't care too much about what the audience thinks about a particular storyline or character. I mean, Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner doesn't think about what fans want, or what they've liked about past episodes, when he puts a new season of Mad Men together, except in the most general way (I think he once mentioned that one reason for an increase in child character Sally Draper's air time was that many viewers relate to Sally the most, she's their "way in" to the show, since they were about Sally's age in Mad Men's time period.). So, maybe the frustration of soap fans is just indicative of the fact that online participation isn't a guarantee that "the people" can influence the power centers that much. The Web gives an illusion of what others have called "participatory democracy," but just sending a bunch of e-mails obviously isn't the way to change the minds of the minority who are the decision-makers. However, I do think that there are probably ways to use online connectivity to influence power centers, both in soap operas and in other arenas, like politics. And maybe soap fans can pioneer ways to use digital technologies to share feedback that really creates change, and then political fans and organizations can learn from those tactics!!!

C. Lee Harrington: From what I can tell, soap opera creators have waffled back and forth on this. The production team rightfully knows a projected story arc in ways viewers do not, and there is a longstanding perspective of "trust us to tell a good story," even when viewers are rejecting what they are seeing daily onscreen. The flip side of that is that, with the instantaneous feedback that the internet allows, production teams (or perhaps network honchos) can get too engaged with daily (or minute-by-minute) viewer reaction and respond accordingly, to the long-term detriment of the narrative. The heated debates about the usage of focus groups in...when did that start in daytime? Late 1990s?...preceded the current tension between short and long-term narrative and industry goals.

Roger Newcomb: I personally think, for the most part, the fan feedback online is disregarded. When there is a huge outrage over something (like the abrupt end of the Kyle and Fish storyline on One Life to Live), the shows and networks take notice, but, even then, it doesn't necessarily change the outcome. In general, there are so many opposing views from fans on storylines that it is difficult to know which is the majority. I've also directly heard from writers and producers of daytime soaps that they believe the online audience does not necessarily reflect the perspective of the total viewing audience, even when the online audience number in thousands, a greater number than a supposedly statistically sound Nielsen sample.

QueenEve: From my experience, they couldn't care less about fans' feedback and mindset unless it feeds their agenda and own personal likes and dislikes. Occassionally, the feedback is strong enough that it can change things, but I have seen more often them using the feedback as a means not to change things but rather to force a story even more firmly down the fans' throats. That is, if some new character is not going over with the fans but the show is highly invested, we'll see even more of the character, and we will get overkill of stories trying to make this character more sympathetic and hearing other well loved characters "pimp" and "prop" the new character endlessly.

How has the trend of an aging soap opera audience impacted the soap opera industry in the U.S.?

Tom Casiello: The networks continue to look for new ways to entice younger viewers to their shows, as they've always felt (with good reason) that these shows survive when passed down from generation to generation. However, I do believe we are seeing the first signs of a possible shift in that thinking. Those audience members over fifty are consuming far more than their counterparts from half a century ago did. Consumers with more income in older demographics are proving to be just as valuable as younger demographics. The key is to find a way to welcome new viewers into the fold while trying not to alienate older viewers...and it's a struggle all the soaps have faced for the last fifteen to twenty years, more so than ever as the generation gap grows wider.

C. Lee Harrington: As my chapter with Denise Brothers suggests, the aging of soap opera audiences had a major impact. The age of all television viewers is going up (as the global population ages), and soap viewership is no exception to this trend. However, the core demographic remains 18-49 year old women, which means soap viewers are rapidly aging out of network priorities. This is visibilized on-screen in terms of which actors/characters are prioritized (with vets moved to window-dressing or dropped from contract to recurring status), as well as the story content itself. The older viewers and actors we spoke with for our study are keenly aware of this trend and believe the genre is suffering for it. If soaps do not respond more fully to the aging of its viewership, an older demographic that is more economically powerful than the industry apparently appreciates, the genre will be in even more trouble than it is now.

Roger Newcomb:Obviously, the aging soap audience is one of the contributors to the decrease in viewers. As longtime fans have passed, they weren't replaced by new fans of the genre. Even though the average age of soap viewers is the mid-50s, the shows have continued to focus on younger characters to a large degree. But there have been some shifts in the past year. Days of Our Lives features more over-50 contract actors today than ever in the history of the show. One Life to Live has recently shifted the focus to the veteran actors on the canvas. There seems to be a better mix between younger and older characters, and this may be due to the networks finally realizing who their audience is.

QueenEve: Not at all. The shows keep trying to write for an audience that isn't there -- 18 - 34 -- and are losing the "aging audience" that they simply do not value. It's insane really, because it's not just the soap opera audience that has aged -- it's all of society now that the baby boomers are aging. Why that audience isn't valued is a mystery to me.

What "surplus audiences" outside the target demographic should soap opera producers be paying attention to? What can they learn from these audiences?

Tom Casiello: Diversity is a major issue daytime needs to address. This isn't just a Caucasian versus African-American issue. In a perfect world, these shows would also represent Latino characters, Asian characters, Jewish characters, homosexuals/bisexuals; there's no end to the types of characters these shows should involve in their long-term stories--while always striving to find a balance between honesty and stereotyping, walking that fine line between truth and cliche. All of these demographics can play vital roles in front-burner stories and can present just as many interesting character dilemmas as a middle-aged, Caucasian, heterosexual character can...probably with an added layer of nuance, an original perspective that puts an entirely new spin on the storyline.

C. Lee Harrington: As I noted above, I believe older viewers should be repositioned from "surplus" to "core," given demographic projections. To engage the US viewing population as fully as possible, soaps would benefit from greater diversity in characters and storytelling overall--more LBGTQ characters, more characters of color and immigrant characters, more characters of lower socio-economic classes etc. There are genre-specific risks to this, of course (I have published several articles on the generic challenges that gay and lesbian characters/stories present to daytime), but narratives that better reflect the US population as a whole may engage a wider audience. I also echo Radha O'Meara's call below for greater attunement to audiences in other parts of the world, given the still-central role that serial narratives play in global import/export patterns. As Denise Bielby and I wrote in Global TV (2008), The Young & the Restless and The Bold & the Beautiful has been particularly smart in writing narratives for multiple geographic/cultural audiences, avoiding lengthy on-screen legal trials and certain types of humorous stories that may be perplexing to non-Americans, for example. I'm not sure the extent to which other programs are following suit, but, if not, they should.

Roger Newcomb: The soaps have targeted women 18-49 and 18-34 for decades. Men make up 20-25% of the total viewing audience, but you do not see commercials for men on any of these shows. African-Americans also make up a large portion of the audience, but characterizations of African-Americans are few and far between on daytime soap operas. Gay audiences, targeted by networks like Bravo, would have been a potential goldmine for soaps, but, with the cancelation of As The World Turns, there is only one regular gay character on daytime now--Bianca on All My Children. Targeting various niche groups would seem to be a more lucrative alternative for soaps than the current one-size-fits-all model.

QueenEve: I think the soaps should go back to the beginning and start writing compelling stories about characters of all ages and stop writing for the "sweeps explosions." I think people like the soap opera genre. If they didn't, the genre's serial aspects would not have been adopted by primetime TV and be so successful there. It's ironic because, as soap operas tried to be more like primetime with big explosions, fights, special effects, and adventure, they became less successful. While, as primetime became more like soap operas with ongoing stories that build throughout a season (Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, ER, etc.) they became more successful. Daytime soaps are bleeding viewers not because the soap opera genre is dying but because it is being executed so poorly, compared with primetime TV. People want a better product.

Radha O'Meara: I'm most interested in international surplus audiences for US soap operas, and my contribution to the collection was about the Australian audience for Days of Our Lives. I think that the focus on US audiences for US productions is particularly strong, commercially and critically. If producers and creators give more serious consideration to international soap audiences, they might learn from different strategies and priorities in scheduling, episode duration, and attracting niche audiences, including young people. This might help them to attract greater audiences globally and domestically. I find the strong focus on domestic distribution and audiences for US soap operas in American media studies a little troubling. Although US scholars are cognizant of international distribution and audiences, they seem to maintain a strong emphasis on the US as the principal audience. From an antipodean perspective, it seems American media studies could be more open to the implications of plural global audiences.

Given that many soap operas have long histories with international audiences, there is a wealth of experience and data on which to draw. The broadcast of US soap operas in international markets can highlight the potential of alternatives for scheduling and attracting niche audiences. For example, the most popular US daytime soap opera in Australia is The Bold and the Beautiful. It is broadcast on weekdays on the Ten network in the 4.30 p.m. timeslot. This has allowed the show to garner a significant number of young viewers, who watch it after coming home from the day at primary or high school. Since loyalty to soaps can be so enduring, this early attachment can lead to a lifelong connection. I began watching the show regularly after coming home from high school several decades ago and still enjoy it.

I suspect The Bold and the Beautiful's half-hour format is a significant part of its appeal as the highest-rated U.S. daytime soap in Australia, and indeed the world. This is a contrast to many other US daytime soaps which run for an hour, and particularly those which are screened in Australia (Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital). The half-hour format might be more appealing to Australian viewers, as Australian viewers are more accustomed to popular half-hour soaps made in Australia and Britain, such as Neighbours, Home and Away, Coronation Street, EastEnders. Throughout the long history of US soap operas, program duration has consistently expanded. Early radio and television soaps often ran for 15 minutes, including a single commercial break, but most television soaps expanded in the 1950s to half-hour and later to full hour programs. A few even tried 90 minutes daily. In today's fast-paced world, perhaps US soaps could experiment with episodes of shorter duration. Rather than cancelling soaps with falling ratings, US producers might consider what shorter episodes could do for both international and domestic audiences.

Producers and scholars should consider what makes particular soap operas popular in different regions and the implications this has for definitions of soap opera as a commercially successful genre. Soap opera in the US is much more clearly defined by US programs and by local emphasis on the scheduling and audience distinction between daytime and primetime. These distinctions are much less significant for international viewers. Many Australian soap fans follow daytime and primetime US, UK, and Australian soaps. Despite obvious differences, they often have no trouble grouping them together as soap operas, which share common family traits. In fact, Australian audiences are often unaware of the "original" features used to define programs in the US: US daytime soaps have been broadcast here at midnight, and primetime soaps have been broadcast during the day; daily soaps have been broadcast weekly or bi-weekly, and weekly soaps have been broadcast daily. This means that producers and scholars can learn more about what audiences seek in soaps by exploring broader definitions of the genre and its audiences. According to Christine Geraghty, Australian soaps have influenced British soaps to integrate more male characters, young characters, and "masculine" storylines over the past few decades (Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime Time Soaps, Polity 1991). Perhaps US soaps might also consider such changes.

In my contribution to the collection, I wrote about an unusual rupture in soap opera broadcasting. After screening episodes of NBC daytime drama Days of Our Lives in a continuous sequence for over thirty years, in 2004, Australia's Nine Network skipped approximately one thousand episodes. The Nine Network continued to broadcast the program daily, but most Australian viewers missed four years' worth of episodes. An interesting tension arose from this fissure between those who understood the Australian audience as a component of a global, homogenous audience for Days of Our Lives centered on the US, and those who understood the Australian audience as a unique, local experience. Scholars and producers should both consider their positions on this tension. Similarly, this rupture of Days of our Lives for Australian audiences raised questions about the nature of soap audiences' enduring commitment to particular programs. It highlighted how significant parts of the audience seemed to value their own history with and experience of the program more highly than a wider, communal experience. This deeply personal connection is something that producers presumably want to foster, and new distribution methods may impact on these experiences in even more divergent ways. These are some of the lessons US soap opera producers can learn from international audiences, and they may even help them maintain their domestic audiences.