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Could they?? Fans reacting passionately to murder rumor on soap

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This piece originally appeared on June 26, 2006, on the Convergence Culture Consortium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Sam Ford blogs weekly there about soap operas in relation to fan cultures and innovative storytelling and marketing campaigns, in addition to blogging about many other new media issues updated multiple times daily.  You can visit his blog here.

A couple of years ago, Days of Our Lives got a lot of people's attention by killing off many members of its main cast, later revealing that these veterans had not died but rather had been sent to a deserted island.

That kind of camp may work on a show like DAYS, but it is not what viewers expect from As the World Turns, the long-running CBS soap I follow closely and have blogged about here several times.

Rumors are circulating quite heavily that Summer 2006 will feature a serial killer storyline, and now word is circulating that the story will lead to the demise of a couple of minor and a couple of major characters on the show. Word has begun to circulate in the online community that TV Guide and Soap Opera Digest are breaking news about the serial killer storyline, although no conclusive word has come out about cast members ending their contract so far, indicating that either word is being suppressed about who is leaving the show for as long as possible or that the characters planned to be killed are not played by contracted stars, making it much harder for word to break out (or, a third option, that fans are taking several unrelated news bits and combining them into something blown out of proportion).

Recently, the show killed off newcomer character Nick Kasnoff, who was murdered in self-defense, and is set to kill off Jennifer Munson, a longtime 20-something character on the show, next week to a bout of viral pneumonia.

Fans were upset about Jennifer's death, as she's been a major featured character on the show for a while, but that pales to the reaction that fans have given over the past day or two on the ATWT Media Domain message board about rumors of the death of character Tom Hughes.

Rumors had been circulating that a veteran on the show was unhappy with their contract, and the star who plays Tom's wife Margo--Ellen Dolan--has also voiced her displeasure with ATWT in a letter written to the fan community that I blogged about a couple of months ago. With news that a beloved character was leaving the show and that Tom was going to be attacked breaking out, longtime fans are angered and feel that portrayer Scott Holmes must be fed up with never getting a storyline. While some fans don't particularly care about the character and others feel that Tom's role has been diminished to the point that his leaving wouldn't be that big of a deal, many fans feel such a move would be a slap in the face of the show's history.

For those who know nothing about ATWT, Hughes is the son of the show's early central characters, Bob Hughes and Lisa Miller. He was born in 1961 on the show and has made television history as the only character to have been born and grow up on television for that length of time, having consecutively been a character on the show for all this time. Other characters have been on television longer...(ironically, all of them are also on ATWT, including Tom's parents, Bob and Lisa, and his grandmother, Nancy Hughes, who has been portrayed by the same actress since the first episode in 1956)...but Tom was set to break that record because the character would be on the show for decades to come, only being about 50 now (slightly aged, as soaps tend to do).

After his days as a baby, Tom has been portrayed by 13 different actors, but current portrayer Scott Holmes has been in the role for almost 20 years now. He was a major star of the 1980s and early 1990s on the show but has only been used sparingly as a supporting character for the past several years, despite being what many consider the backbone of the show. Longtime fans could at least stomach his role being diminished, but there has been a major outcry in the past 24 hours regarding the possibility of Hughes' career being ended.

I've posted on the Media Domain board about Hughes as well, feeling that the show would be killing off one of its parts that makes it an historically unparalleled program. Even if the character does not have enough narrative potential to be a major star in the writers' eyes at this point, the amount of cultural and historical cache having a milestone character like that on the show gives ATWT should be valued. In fact, I just finished a semester-long research project about the Tom Hughes character.

I remain highly skeptical that the show would do something like this and feel that, even if the current portrayer is leaving (who I think ranks among the top actors on the show), that the writers and executive producer of the show would not be short-sighted enough to kill Tom Hughes off. I've been working on my research for this show for a while and have met some of the creative team. I don't think a show has forward-thinking as ATWT, coming off the success of innovative moves such as their transmedia novel and their character blog, would do something this short-sighted. Nevertheless, even though these rumors are unsubstantiated at this point beyond piecing bits of potentially unrelated tidbits together, the outrcry from the fan community has been newsworthy on its own.

If these rumors turn out to be no more than gossip, this incident will still be a lesson for producres, since the outcry of the fan community makes it even more clear that Hughes is a supported character on a multigenerational type of programming like soap operas. If nothing else, this episode has demonstrated just how strong fan support of a character can be when people have literally watched them grow up from birth to being district attorney, even if that character has been used primarily in a supporting role for most of the past decade.

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