Wednesday, August 27, 2008

GUEST COLUMN: SAM FORD, MIT Convergence Culture Consortium

Studying Soap Operas: What's the Differentiator?

In my ongoing research of the history, cultural relevance, and fan communities surrounding the U.S. soap opera industry, I’ve found one meeting place of kindred spirits who are interested in talking about soap operas from a more analytical perspective: the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association’s annual meeting, which features a pro wrestling area.

The division was formed, in part, by Suzanne Frentz, editor of the 1992 collection of academic essays Staying Tuned and a former writer for The Young and the Restless. Sadly, Frentz passed away last year, so this past spring’s soap opera area was built around a tribute to Suzanne’s interest in finding a meeting place between the industry and academic word.

Today, the PCA/ACA soap opera panels (which consist of the majority of one day of the conference, for those who want to attend each soap opera panel) are organized by Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata of Project Daytime, a research project housed at the University of Buffalo.

My trip to this year’s panel was to present my own research about how important it is for soap operas to take a “brand management” viewpoint in thinking about how to promote and build their shows. While most television series come and go, what sets shows apart—especially TeleNext Media programs such as As the World Turns and Guiding Light—is their permanence as part of our television (and radio) culture.

Most primetime series are considered successful if they last four or five seasons; a soap opera that has been on the air for four or five years is still considered “new,” by and large, on the U.S. daytime lineup. Further, the full run of almost any primetime series cannot compare to the number of episodes aired in one year for a daytime drama.

My research presentation focused on what soap operas should build around: the points that differentiate daytime from all other fictional drama. And what are these aspects that only daytime soaps can deliver? Deep history. A transgenerational appeal, both in terms of multiple generations of characters and multiple generations of audience members.

As the World Turns is perhaps the best example of what’s possible in this regard. There are actors whose version of their characters debuted on the show in the 1950s and early 1960s (Nancy Hughes, Bob Hughes, Lisa Grimaldi); the late 1960s (Susan Stewart); the 1970s (Kim Hughes, Barbara Ryan); the early 1980s (James Stenbeck); the mid 1980s (Emma Snyder, Holden Snyder, Lucinda Walsh); the late 1980s (Tom and Margo Hughes); the early 1990s (Emily Stewart); the mid 1990s (Carly Tenney); the late 1990s (Jack Snyder, Katie Peretti, Henry Coleman); and the early 2000s (Aaron Snyder, Dusty Donovan).

In other words, there are faces that debuted from every era throughout the show's history and who a whole generation of viewers might identify with the show. That sort of narrative which crosses generations is something that only a soap opera can accomplish, and something ATWT in particular accomplishes like no other. The question is, how do soap operas market this sort of differentiation, especially in a media industry so focused on target demographics? And how can storytellers best take advantage of the rich possibilities of telling stories across multiple generations to an audience that spans multiple generations (and huge numbers of former viewers who stand some chance of tuning back in to see familiar faces).

These are the sorts of questions that we not only tackled in my MIT course on soaps this spring that I’ll continue to write about here at the Classic Soaps site, but likewise the types of issues that communities like the PCA/ACA Soap Opera area meet and discuss on a regular basis. We know that there are many people in the soap opera industry and who are fans of these shows who care about these issues and want to think through why soap operas, at their best, achieve an artistry that no other text can and perhaps best exemplifies what a television series can do.

For more information on the soap opera area at PCA/ACA, look here:

If you have any thoughts, feel free to get in touch directly at


supersage21 said...

Question: How can storytellers best take advantage of the rich possibilities of telling stories across multiple generations to an audience that spans multiple generations (and huge numbers of former viewers who stand some chance of tuning back in to see familiar faces).

Answer: By utilizing experienced writers and producers who care enough to research the history of the characters and, therefore, write FOR the characters. The writers and producers care enough to write multi-generational stories that make sense, not forgetting that we were once shown the "way to soaps" by our mothers and grandmothers.

Sam Ford said...

I agree completely about the importance of understanding the social structure around soap operas that have successfully brought generations to the shows, and developing storytelling techniques that allows that process to flourish. That's been the single most difficult element of the soap opera business model as target demos became, more and more, the single focus.