Wednesday, November 19, 2008


The Future of Soaps at the MIT Futures of Entertainment Conference This Weekend

This coming weekend, MIT will host its third annual Futures of Entertainment conference (FoE3). The event brings together leading scholars and folks from the media industries to talk about the latest trends in the industry. The conference is sponsored by the research group I helped found and formerly served as project manager for, the Convergence Culture Consortium. This project is dedicated to bringing scholars and the industry together with the thought that a conversation between the two will ultimately breed better work. This year's roster includes respected scholars such as Yochai Benkler, Grant McCracken, John Caldwell, Anita Elberse, and my mentor, Henry Jenkins, as well as one of the executive producers of The Ghost Whisperer, Kim Moses; Tom Boland from World Wrestling Entertainment; renowned production designer Alex McDowell, whose latest project is Watchmen; Gregg Hale, who was producer of The Blair Witch Project; and former As the World Turns Emmy award-winning writer and current soaps blogger Tom Casiello.

What does this conference have to do with soap operas? Many things, actually. Soap operas have a long history of collaboration with academia. The list of soap opera writers who eventually went to academia, or else worked between the two worlds, is long. A dear friend of mine, Kay Alden, came into the soap opera business from academia, where she had been researching the genre's impact on social change. Suzanne Frentz was an academic and former soaps writer who dedicated herself to empowering the conversation between these two worlds. At a time when soap operas--and all television--is in the midst of great change, I think this conversation between soap operas and those who research media, audiences, and entertainment has never been more important. That's why I have dedicated significant time to writing about soaps, including my class on soaps back in the spring, my Master's thesis at MIT, and the book I'm currently co-editing with Abigail De Kosnik from the University of California--Berkeley and C. Lee Harrington at Miami University. I feel that, ironically, soaps have lost some of that connection to academia at a time when collaboration regarding the genre has never been more important.

More directly, though, all this talk about narratives and entertainment that expands across multiple media forms and that creates immersive story worlds has its roots in the U.S. soap opera form. What fictional worlds could possibly be more expansive than Springfield, or perhaps even more appropriately, Oakdale, Ill., where many characters have existed for 50+ years, with deep histories that provide unbelievable and untapped creative potential?

Tom Casiello will be sitting on a panel about narrative franchises. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, for a couple of reasons. First, there has been some recent discussion about how some of the best primetime shows don't gain as high of ratings, perhaps because they aren't as easily to create franchised merchandise around them or fictional extensions. Think Friday Night Lights, a show that has prominently featured ATWT alum Daniella Alonso (ex-Pilar) and Zach Roerig (ex-Casey), and perhaps also Mad Men, another show with strong ATWT ties, from its featuring alum Peyton List (ex-Lucy) to its prominent focus on a controversial episode of the old show The Defenders featuring Kathleen Widdoes (the incomparable Emma Snyder) and a plot line revolving around the supercouple of Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker. Virginia Heffernan argues that shows like these won't be able to get mainstream ratings because they are just good shows and don't present franchising opportunities.

This has been a question for soaps as well. I was recently featured in a roundtable discussion with a variety of scholars at the Flow Conference at the University of Texas in Austin. A podcast will soon be available, and I hope to write a follow-up post here when it's ready. We discussed this very issue, and I posited that perhaps part of the reason is what we've conceived as a narrative franchise or a story extension hasn't worked well for primarily emotional material, of which soap operas fall into, but likewise a show like FNL. Why have soap operas only been able to experiment with expanding the narrative out from the show itself, while its "immersive story world" brethren (and I choose the masculine here intentionally) like comic books and professional wrestling have worlds that generate all sorts of story outside of the "main text" itself (and huge revenues aside from the core show or book series)? Part of it is that soap operas were always seen as a vehicle to promote soap--to sell ads--while professional wrestling television programs were always envisioned as a vehicle to sell the fictional world and the brand of the promotion and its characters, above all else.

I know these are issues many soap opera fans care about, as well as the soap opera industry. How are soap operas going to continue evolving? We're already seeing more of Oakdale and Springfield than we've ever imagined. The Snyder farm has come alive, and we've seen all sorts of spots around town that we would have never seen in prior times. What could be next for soaps? We've seen the TeleNext soaps experiment with a variety of ideas, from Luke Snyder's blog to L.A. Diaries to Oakdale Confidential to Jonathan's Story. But P&G has always experimented, such as with Our Private World in the 1960s.

What's next for soaps? With millions of viewers invested in the genre, some of the richest characters on television, and some of the most talented actors around, the genre still has a lot going for it, in spite of ratings and budget woes.

These are hopefully among the issues Tom will tackle for his part of the panel Saturday. He'll be juxtaposing what's happening with soaps with what's happening in film, the professional wrestling world, and other areas. I know I'll be on hand to ask some questions, and I hope some of you will be as well. His panel will be on Saturday, the same day of my panel on the intersection between industry and the academy. For more information on registration, look here. If you have any questions about the event, you can e-mail me at

Sam Ford is Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom Strategic Communications and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. He writes regularly on the PepperDigital blog.

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