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As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture: A Summary, Part II: The Current State of Soaps

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This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on January 12, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.

Currently, the soap opera industry is in a state of flux. With Passions moving off NBC, ratings that continue to fall or at best stay even, commentators continue the discussion that has taken place for more than a decade as to the long-term fate of the American soap opera. Reasons for the long-term decline of soaps most often cited include the proliferation of media choices, women moving into the workforce, and the O.J. Simpson case interrupting the daily flow of the soap opera text. However, the inevitability argument posits that nothing can be done to reverse this trend, that soap operas are inevitably on a slowly declining path toward eventual extinction, and also attempts to give a pass to the strategic and creative errors that have expedited or even created many of these negative trends in viewership.

These shows have attempted a series of short-term strategies to gain more viewers specifically in the 18-to-49 female demographic, but this process is often done by focusing on characters within that age demographic as well, ignoring one of the soap opera's strengths--transgenerational storytelling, and particularly transgenerational storytelling that focuses on characters and relationships more than plot progression. In a broad-casting model, soap operas were strengthened by their ability to draw in viewers from multiple generations through texts that examined the relationships in multigenerational families, but the genre has increasingly targeted young adult females at the exclusion of its older viewers and characters as the television industry has become focused on target demographics.

Nevertheless, even if the soap opera industry's emphasis on short-term attempts to generate new young adult viewers has acted contrary to the transgenerational appeal of the show, these shows have been increasingly experimental in trying to adapt to emerging media strategies. Soap opera companies like PGP has launched company blogs and discussion boards to interact with their fan community online, experimented with new types of revenue models including product placement, created a Web-based platform to distribute "classic" episodes from now-cancelled PGP shows, and released a variety of storytelling extensions from the text of the daily show. Since these immersive story worlds are particularly vast, soap opera texts are ripe for these types of extensions, and shows are eager to try all they can to reach new viewers because of the continued decline of Nielsen ratings.

These new projects are attempted, however, without a strong understanding of how these various initiatives fit together and without a clear long-term plan for these shows. Many of these experiments show promise, even if they are not always executed perfectly, and these projects as a whole prove that the industry is keen on revitalizing these programs in the modern convergence culture. However, the industry often seems to continue its lack of valuing a transgenerational approach to its shows in this approach toward a new business model, threatening that new approaches to soap opera storytelling may be mired with some of the same problems that have plagued the industry for the past several years.

These problems are bound up with a television industry that has still not found a clear way to come to terms with qualitative measures of television viewing. The industry is fueled by impressions, Nielsen ratings which measure whether television sets are tuned into a particular station or not and not the nature of the interaction a viewer has with a television program. Soap operas, at their most powerful, draw a deep engagement with fans because there is so much narrative material for fans to immerse themselves in, and thus soap operas are more likely to have "fans" rather than casual viewers, when compared to many other types of television programming.

This thesis describes potential shifts in the soap opera industry's business model which would find new ways to value this depth of interaction and to add qualitative factors of understanding engagement to nuance the current impressions-based television ratings system. As soap operas attempt to redefine themselves in various new media extensions, the shows must realize that their strengths lie both in utilizing new technologies to better understand and to help foster the social consumption of soap opera texts. Further, these shows must understand the aspects of their immersive story worlds that make them particularly appealing in a convergence culture and to utilize those strengths to their capacity. In short, although the soap opera industry has been in decline, the unique attributes of these story worlds point toward the ways in which these shows might be revitalized and revived in light of new media technologies and new ways for fans to communicate with producers and each other.

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