Monday, March 17, 2008

GUEST COLUMN: SAM FORD, MIT

Our class on the soap opera in the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT has spent a lot of time this semester discussing exactly what defines a soap opera, in particular the U.S. soap opera model. Some people liken the soap opera to telenovelas and other forms of serial drama around the world which have short-term stories that air several episodes a week, but there’s something fundamentally different--almost opposite--about a show that begins with a finite ending, rather than the U.S. soap opera model that shows like As the World Turns or Guiding Light follow, where the presumption is that these narratives will continue on for generations to come.

We've been talking about what defines the soap opera model launched in the U.S. from not only telenovelas but also primetime soap operas and the various other forms of serial drama in television. You could argue that anything from Friday Night Lights to Survivor to Lost to Heroes to 24 is, in some ways, a soap opera, but it just depends on what your definition of soap opera is.

I wrote about this recently in a post over at my class' blog (see here: http://mitsoaps.wordpress.com/2008/03/16/what-is-a-soap-opera/). I start with a list that scholar Mary Ellen Brown put together in the mid-1980s to define what the soap opera is. But of course it's hard to put a definition on this form. ATWT is not just like Guiding Light, and each of the other U.S. soaps can be quite different. I'd argue that they very well should be. These shows may share the same format, but they often tell very different types of stories.

Nevertheless, there are certainly some common characteristics that make U.S. soap operas fit together as a category, and likewise set them apart from primetime serial dramas and many other distant relatives. Recently, I was honored to be accepted to present my research as part of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies' annual conference in Philadelphia, where I made a presentation entitled "Vast Narratives and Immersive Story Worlds." This was based on research that originated when doing background for my Master's thesis work here at MIT. In that work, I have argued that U.S. soap operas belong to a larger class of entertainment I call "immersive story worlds." According to my definition, these worlds have six characteristics:

1.) A serial storytelling structure
2.) Multiple creative forces both throughout the history of the media property and at any given time
3.) A sense of long-term continuity
4.) A deep character backlog
5.) Contemporary ties to the media property's complex history
6.) A sense of permanence

The other two best fictional examples I could come up with, in addition to the long-running daytime serial dramas such as GL and ATWT, is the Marvel and DC Comics superhero universes and the world of professional wrestling. Each of these worlds requires more knowledge than any one fan could ever have, as well as any one creator. To me, it is the vastness of the worlds that attract people to them.

For me, what makes soap operas unique is this rich history and this idea, even when you begin watching it, that the narrative is bigger than you and that it will outlast any individual viewer, as well as any individual creator. This notion is what drives much of the fan discussion around soap operas and what keeps viewers watching, even when they are sometimes frustrated by the show. I'd love to know what PGP Classic Soaps readers think about this concept I presented at SCMS. Feel free to stop by our class blog to discuss further or see more of my writing on these concepts for the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium:


If you have further thoughts, feel free to e-mail me at samford@mit.edu

2 comments:

supersage21 said...

Sam, the characteristics of a soap are spot on! Just wish GL (and to a point, ATWT) would implement these in its modern day storytelling.

1.) A serial storytelling structure
2.) Multiple creative forces both throughout the history of the media property and at any given time
3.) A sense of long-term continuity
4.) A deep character backlog
5.) Contemporary ties to the media property's complex history
6.) A sense of permanence

Sam Ford said...

Thanks for the feedback, supersage21. This is one of the central aspects of my work here at MIT, looking at how these characteristics intersect with pro wrestling, comic books, and soaps. These categories are more of an overall guiding principle, but I do find them to ring true of what makes these "vast narratives" or "immersive story worlds" particularly unique. I'm hoping to build on this work further, because I think that finding what makes soaps particularly unique as compared to primetime dramas can help us have more of a language to evaluate what makes good soap opera from bad, as well as what makes soap operas particularly valuable from an engagement standpoint as compared to primetime shows.