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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on January 09, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog

Before the holidays, we published a couple of posts dealing with the writer's strike. As you know, a lot has changed over the past couple of months when the Heroes writers visited MIT while the strike was young. We've seen the late night shows disappear, only to come back in the new year. Letterman and Ferguson have returned with an interim deal in place, while the other late night shows--including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have come back sans writers.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on October 22, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here

One of the big discussions generating a significant amount of buzz among the soap opera industry and the soaps fan community is the decision to make some production changes to Procter & Gamble Productions' two daytime serial dramas, Guiding Light and As the World Turns. As those of you who follow this blog regularly know, the soaps industry is an area of particular fascination with me. My Master's thesis work, which is currently under consideration for publication, deals with the PGP soaps in particular, and I am currently co-editing a collection of contemporary work on the state of soaps with Abigail Derecho from Columbia College Chicago, as well as gearing up to teach a class on soaps in the spring here at MIT.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on October 02, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here

I've been writing about a variety of interesting online video series lately, that have been in one way or another labeled "online soaps." I want to make clear at the outset, though, that I don't personally agree with this definition, or at least would argue that the online soap would be considered a very different format than the daytime soap.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on September 21, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here.

The latest news coming out about an online series ties into writing we've been doing here at the Convergence Culture Consortium about online video, branded entertainment, and soap operas. Procter & Gamble's Tide brand will be the sponsor of a new broadband series through GoTV Networks, a 10-parter called Crescent Heights.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on September 14, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here

A story that's been getting some press in the American daytime drama industry of late is over at Guiding Light, where the character Jonathan Randall returned for a short stint recently after having faked his death, along with his daughter's, in order to escape the domineering figure of Alan Spaulding, his daughter's great-grandfather.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on August 23, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog here.

Those who follow the blog even with casual interest probably know that the world of soap opera is the site of a significant amount of my research and writing. I'm currently in the early stages of preparing a course here at MIT in the spring on soap operas, and my Master's thesis work was on the subject as well.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on August 16, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/ 

Regular C3 readers probably know that I like to talk about hypermasculine soap opera, just as I like to talk about soaps in general. Look at my recent writing on pro wrestling, for instance. But C3 Consulting Researcher and astute television scholar Jason Mittell has a great piece on Rescue Me as hyper-masculine soap over at his blog, Just TV. I wrote a response there and won't post it in full here, but I point out that daytime serial dramas often manage less realistic and more realistic elements simultaneously in a way that primetime shows cannot, likely due to the much larger cast and the much larger amount of time soaps have to tell their stories.

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Sam Ford

This piece was originally published  as part of an entry on August 15, 2007, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/

As the World Turns InTurn. The reality television show which pits several neophyte actors competing for the chance of a continuing stint as a minor supporting character on ATWT must have been decently successful, as the show is now in the process of wrapping up the second season of the Webisode series, InTurn, distributed through the CBS Web site. I wrote about InTurn last August, pointing out that some fans of the soap enjoyed the extension, while others felt that it distracted the company's attention from the main text, which should be the focus. Last year, the finalists appeared in small roles on the main text of the show, giving viewers a chance to choose among the finalists. They were doing a story in which a serial killer was murdering Oakdale teenagers, and each of the InTurns played one of the roles. The winner, Alex Charak, plays the recurring role of Elwood Hoffman, who was the college roommate of a prominent ATWT character for awhile. This season hasn't wrapped up yet, but one of the contestants who didn't make the cut has recently had an extended run in the small part of a barmaid on the show. See more here.

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Sam Ford This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on July 31, 2007.

I have been meaning to post links to the latest two rounds in Henry Jenkins' fan studies and gender discussions, and I also wanted to respond to some detailed comments from Jason Mittell over at his blog, Just TV. Jason is one of our consulting researchers here in the consortium.

First, see the posts and debate surrounding a round of posts from Kristina Busse and Cornell Sandvoss here and here.

This week's posts are from Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea, here and here.

The first round of Abigail and Christian's debate brought up a lot of issues about soap operas and pro wrestling and other massive narratives which exist on the "margins" of popular culture, which of course got me particularly interested in the discussion. Be sure to look through the comments there for more.

Mittell's post on these issues particularly interested me, as he addresses his own works on narrative complexity in primetime television. I have often credited Jason with being one of the few scholars who does not try and hide the ties to daytime serial drama that primetime complexity has, but some in a recent conversation criticized his essay for not going very in-depth with that connection. He brings up quite a valid point in his blog--that many scholars have pointed out that it's hard to understand soaps from the outside and that it's best not to try and analyze them without intimate knowledge of them. Of course, that makes folks who aren't looking particularly at soaps at a loss for how to cover them, since many of their visual and storytelling markers have been so stereotyped, and are often misunderstood.

His point about the nature of the complexity is also important. While both are about serialization, the difference between 13-to-24 episodes per year and 250 are a major difference. I would always say that an individual episode of a good primetime show will almost always be better than an individual episode from a good daytime show, but that's because the two shows place differing degrees of value on the individual episode. Even the most serialized primetime show still gives authority to the single episode and often has some issues to be brought up and resolved in a single day. This is not what daytime dramas are good at, so I don't agree that they should copy this format. So I think that he's quite right that we should consider primetime complex television in its own right, but I think the gripe among some of the fans and scholars writing was the continual exclusion of daytime serial dramas from the conversation altogether. In the comments on Henry's blog, Lynn Liccardo points out that some primetime shows are doing what daytime is good at better than daytime these days, but it's still important to point out that primetime shows CANNOT be as good as a good daytime show at what daytime shows are good at, particularly with their lack of long-term history. Passions is a newbie in the soaps world; there's not been a high-quality long-term serial fictional in primetime that has lasted as long as Passions (since 1999).

Where things get a little more complicated, though, is in the discussion of audience attention. Jason is right that the way shows use that attention is important. For daytime soaps, it's about the day-to-day, the accretion, and not the visual detail. He points out that soaps were intended for the housewife not sitting directly in front of them, so visual detail is not as important. But dialogue is, so the dialogue is always privileged on soaps, and we don't need to tie complexity to the visual, I don't think. I'm not saying here that Jason is making that false connection; his point that the traditional lack of reruns caused redundancy in soaps can't be disputed.

But people outside the genre often greatly overstate the amount of redundancy in soaps, I think. Reader STINKY LULU makes this point, writing, "My basic feeling is that what you call redundancy is actually a pivotal soap pleasure--revisiting key moments from the recent and distant past--not unlike the narrative data mining you describe in contemporary prime time serial drama."

I'd like to develop that thought a little further.

At their worst, soaps are recap-laden. I've seen Days of Our Lives have episodes a few years ago, for instance, that seemed more flashback to earlier in the week than current. That's not good soap, and we have to distinguish between good and bad practices in the genre. However, with five episodes a week and little in terms of reruns, the redundancy is necessary. That's why REaction is so important in soaps. The redundancy becomes a central part of the story. It matters not as much that X happens as it does seeing how everyone in town responds to finding out about X. In that case, the plot is a driver for character-driven stories. Anyone who missed X will find out about it during various scenes retelling and reaction to parts of it, but that retelling process IS the show; it's about interpersonal relationships, not the what. (By the way, my guess is that some of the fans who fast-forward are also some of the ones who archive; fans often pick out particular characters or stories they follow on a show that they actively consume, even while skipping others...)

I think Jason's piece lays out his points well, and, as someone who studies soaps and is a professed fan, I thank him for his acknowledgment of the links between complex primetime shows and daytime serial dramas. My only major caveat would be the point outlined here, that redundancy in daytime, when done correctly, is actually what provides the complexity and the enjoyment from the viewer's perspective. This dialogue is also where the peppered clues come back into play, as soap writers at their best make passing references to past events and characters throughout the dialogue that reward longtime viewers in the way Jason is talking about without distracting newbies.

I really do hope we continue pushing this conversation, as I think some valuable dialogue between primetime and daytime television is on the verge of emerging.

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Sam Ford This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on July 16, 2007.

In my work on soap opera fandom, I keep encountering a document that I think deals with some questions that are at the heart of much of what we are talking about in working with fandoms, especially in thinking toward longstanding media properties with long and complicated histories.

I have written quite a bit lately about a particular form of narrative universe of this type, which I callimmersive story worlds. As I have written about here on the blog before (see here and here), immersive story worlds are fictional universes whose characteristics include seriality, multiple creators, long-term continuity, a character backlog, contemporary ties to a deep history, and a sense of permanence.

In my own research, I have identified soap opera narratives (once a show has passed a certain number of years), comic books, and professional wrestling texts as being the best examples of these sorts of narratives, but the principles--and potential benefits of thinking toward developing and maintaining immersive story worlds--apply to a wide range of products which have some similar characteristics to these massive serial (social) texts.

To return to my point, however, I think that my writing about serial texts is underpinned by a set of creative criteria and an industry perspective perhaps best articulated by the late Douglas Marland, known by a variety of soap opera fan communities as one of the best soaps creators of all time, in particular in his relationship to the fan community and in respecting the continuity and history of soaps, and the nature of serialized storytelling for an immersive story world.

Marland's document, entitled "How Not to Wreck a Show", is a blueprint for head writers of soap operas when taking over a show as the latest creative director. The short list was published in 1993, but I'm not certain when it was actually written, but it is 10 bullet points about how to effectively tell a longstanding narrative. It's amazing how fundamental these principles are but also how they involve a much different concept of storytelling than what the media industry often thinks of.

Among his suggests are such basic concepts as "watch the show," ignoring one's own likes for the likes of the audience, building new characters slowly, not changing a core character, not firing anyone until you get a good grasp on where the narrative is headed and how everyone fits in, and that good soaps are "good storytelling. It's very simple."

But a few of his other gems that seem particularly relevant are:

Read the fan mail. The very characters that are not thrilling to you may be the audience's favorites.

We've moved beyond just fan mail now to a variety of ways to watch fan engagement, in particular online forums in which fans have heated discussions in which producers can learn a lot. The pitfalls of studying online fan communities have often been espoused, while the benefits are fairly examined, and the pitfalls of other industry measures like surveys and focus groups have not been examined often enough.

Talk to everyone; writers and actors especially. There may be something in a character's history that will work beautifully for you, and who would know better than the actor who has been playing the role?

Engaging with people who know the text well just makes sense.

And finally, promoting from within:

Almost all of our producers worked their way up from staff positions, and that means they know the show.

If fandom is looked at as an attitude, it seems like--especially for a creative position--being a fan of the text one is hired to help steer from an "official" standpoint might just be key.

This afternoon, I just thought that these principles might be an interesting place for C3 readers to look toward to help understand what I feel are some fundamental concepts behind good storytelling inimmersive story world spaces.

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Linda Marshall-Smith (QueenRuler, Soapdom.com)
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