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Soap Operas, Target Demographics, and Angry Fans

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This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on May 18, 2007.

One fan exclamation in the soap opera industry that has gotten quite a bit of blogosphere attention came from the Web site The Wreck Center, posted by Jase. The piece, entitled "An Open Letter to Carolyn Hinsey and Daytime Television," is in response to a recent column in Soap Opera Digestmagazine.

First, for those who follow my research, you know that I'm particularly interested in how soap opera fans communicate to soap opera producers, the reasons behind and ways in which soaps can survive the continued ratings decline that started 20 years ago, and the way in which soaps are hindered by notions of a niche target demographic and how to appeal to that demographic. I've written time andtime again about the importance of transgenerational storytelling and empowering audience members outside the target demo to be proselytizers for each soap opera.

The piece from Hinsey is reprinted in its entirety as part of the post, focusing on the disappearance of veteran characters. She begins:

Soaps are a business. They make their money on advertising, and advertisers only value viewers aged 18-49. It's stupid and it's not fair, but it's a FACT. So, the networks do focus groups made up of fans like you and me, and those fans answer questions about who and what they like and don't like on their shows. The shows then take some of that information--faulty though it may be--and use it to decide what to pay their people. That's how business works. The most valuable people make the most money.

In short, Hinsey is espousing the model that I've written about extensively, the one that I believe is quite fractured and misleading for the soaps industry to be following. Further, she celebrates the focus group as the way to tell what fans really want, a research method I am much more highly suspicious of than using online fan communities, because of the constructedness of the model and the idea of considering level of engagement as a meaningless metric.

See a roughly similar discussion that broke out in February 2006, which I wrote about here.

Hinsey concludes, "Whatever it is, trust me. If an older actor is pulling their acting weight, scoring high with the focus groups, and not making unreasonable demands, they are going to stick around." This is her effort to explain the shows not using their older characters/actors. And it got the impassioned response I linked to above from an avid soaps fan, one who is in the target age demographic (although not the target gender--guess he doesn't know that he doesn't matter).

Jase writes, "I am the youth demographic and I am not happy. I am the youth demographic and I can't watch anymore, because I hate it, and it's horribly written, and there's no balance in old and new, and I miss the veterans who are apparently too old for me to care about and the better stories which I supposedly shouldn't notice are gone."

The anger generated here from Jase may not do much to create dialogue with the soaps industry, which I feel would be more fruitful, but it does demonstrate the degree to which soaps fans think about the industry and its future, and it ties in directly with the research I've been working on for the past two years. Again, for anyone interested in these issues, feel free to e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it for more information on my thesis work on soaps, which examines these issues in-depth.

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