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Sam Ford This originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on Dec. 07, 2006.  The site is available at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog.

Back on Nov. 8, I wrote about legacy characters in soaps, basing much of my writing about the short-term reuniting of Luke and Laura on General Hospital the iconic couple of days gone by in the soaps industry, going back to a time when soaps carried many more viewers. The post raised spirited debate, even drawing in the former head writer of the top-rated American soap opera, Kay Alden, who is also an advisor on my thesis project.

My intent now is to start with the comments generated from that last post to move into examining the limited success of the Luke and Laura reuniting and what the industry can learn from it and hopefully not misinterpret. The show re-inventing the Luke and Laura wedding did a 2.9, above the usual average for the show but below what some projected might be possible to reach. And, what's worse for some people, the ratings were back down to a 2.6 average for the show, still putting it atop some of its competition but not resulting in any major sustained growth. However, the reunion did post the highest rating in the history of cable network SoapNet, and it generated quite a bit of publicity.

Kay Alden wrote about how unique thinking about using older characters/viewers to help "reinvent the soap opera viewing audience" was a fascinating way to think about audience-building that the genre had not thought about. "The idea of actively rejecting the consistent concern with more and more youth, and instead reaching out for the multigenerational audience is one that we would be wise to explore and, frankly, exploit."

Alden writes, "No one in my experience has said, let's bring back this old person as a means of drawing old viewers back to the show and getting them re-involved, because these old viewers might be the key to drawing in new viewers from their own families, and helping to re-establish the tradition of soap opera viewing as a family affair, passed down from mothers to daughters to their daughters."

To recap my original points from the first post:

Longevity. Soaps should celebrate what they have on their side, and one of those things is a deep history with a talented ensemble roster, many of whom have been around for years.

The WWE. I pointed to WWE's 24/7 On Demand product which makes episodes available for the archives and also markets historical footage through DVDs, etc., as proof that fans can often care about the pasts of their dramas and the character history of various characters.

Legacy Characters. I argue that legacy characters are a way to tie the current soaps products with the past of those shows and to draw in former viewers, envisioning a way to have familiar faces appear from time to time to show back up and pull them back in. I also point out that you don't have to have all the characters featured be the same age of the target viewers, as people are often interested in stories about characters older/younger than them as well.

Demographics. The problem with older viewers is that they aren't the target demographic. But most people only start watching soaps through a social relationship, whether it be a friend or spouse or parent or grandparent. So, while older viewers may not be beneficial in and of themselves for people who are looking too narrowly at a certain age demographic, they become increasingly important when the economic model shifts and they are considered grassroots marketers for the show.

The Prodigal viewers. I argue that soaps need to concentrate first and foremost on how to get the people watching their show now to love it so much they will spread the word to people who used to watch to come back. This takes time. I wrote, "And what's going to attract these fans back into the fold? Two things: first, familiar faces; and, second, good writing when they get there. I am not arguing at all that you don't need amazing new characters and dazzling young stars because you need something to get these viewers hooked on a new generation, but you have to use the old generation to do that. " However, "the problem is that this type of growth is slow growth...It's not a week or a month fix. And you have to have quality writing when fans get there and younger characters that are compelling and who interact with these legacy characters in ways that gets fans hooked on them as well." So my argument that the most important marketing tool of all is good, long-term, consistent storytelling.


General Hospital

 

Kay writes in depth about her responses from the way Luke and Laura still capture some of the power of soaps but wonders "can it bring in new, younger viewers?" She writes:

Thus, viewers who tune in again for the nostalgia value of Luke and Laura, will witness several things: they will get their nostalgia from the many flashbacks to the Luke and Laura romance that GH will undoubtedly play; viewers will also see what the characters are like now, today, 25 years later, as this story of undying love is rejuvenated; and finally, these old viewers may well find themselves drawn into the stories of the newer characters--the "children of" stories, as well as becoming involved with newer, very powerful characters like Sonny, Alexis, Carly, Jax, who have become more the mainstay of the show, but who would be new to viewers from long ago. In short, it seems to me that General Hospital has the potential to hit it out of the park with the return of Genie Francis and all that this could mean at this time.

Now that the return (and Laura) has come and gone, it appears that it caused a blip in the map, a short-term increase, but nothing major and nothing sustained. It seems that some viewer reaction was largely that it was great to see her but that viewers knew it was short-term from the start and that it was too ephemeral to have great impact. For instance, in one online commentary site--"Snark Weighs In"--the author writes, "In many ways, the situation mirrored the viewers real-life relationship with GH. Luke entered into this ludicrous situation knowing his time with Laura would be short--and so did we. [ . . . ] Luke and Laura's re-wedding, the centerpiece of ABC's promotional campaign, was nothing more than an anti-climactic attempt to ride the coattails of the most famous wedding in TV history. It was the least interesting part of Gene Francis' return." (The author is referring, by the way, to the drug that temporarily pulled Laura out of her catatonic state, much as happened recently with John Larroquette's character on House.)

Other fans weighed in over at Soap Central, debating a wide variety of reasons why fans didn't tune back in--largely talking about flaws in the current way soaps tell stories and the fact that many viewers wouldn't return because they both knew it was short-term and didn't want to see it poorly executed. The same discussions took place at the TV Guide Community. And I would propose another suggestion--that many people simply never heard about it nor was it done long-term enough for them to develop investment in returning to the show.

Inflated Expectations

Toni Fitzgerald with Media Life Magazine wrote about the power of this storyline back in October, when the first numbers came through surrounding Laura's return. She wrote, "That in a nutshell is what's been happening on ABC's "General Hospital," and it's driving big ratings increases. The return of Genie Francis, the actress who plays Laura, for the first time since 2002 helped the show regain the No. 1 slot in daytime among women 18-49 for the first time in six months" and went on to predict more of the same. The problem is not that the event wasn't successful but just that such a short-term jump in numbers was just not enough to get a significant number of people involved in the product once again.

This takes me back to August, when I wrote in response to all the critics after the opening weekend ofSnakes on a Plane did $15 million. Even our own Henry Jenkins said he was eating crow at this "low" number. At the time I wrote, "The problem is that people fell prey to their own hyperbole and expected a campy B-movie to become a blockbuster, which I don't think it was ever designed to be. " And I feel the same way in this instance.

In the comments section of that original post in November, I wrote in response to Kay's comments that "the return of Laura for a limited time is one small incident. I am not predicting it will change the industry or anything of the sort, as one smart decision doesn't turn everything around. I just think that a whole lot of these types of decisions is the way to go and a change in the way the industry thinks overall." Instead, I advocated both grounding long-term and older characters more solidly in stories and create a budgeting shift that would allow for continued short-term returns from various characters from each show's history throughout the year, so that using legacy characters becomes established with fans as a long-term strategy rather than a one-time gimmick.

A History of Quick-Fixes

Soaps have been trying to fix the ratings problems for a while--say 20 years now or so. As cable channels proliferated and choices grew exponentially, soaps slowly lost viewership. The response was to try and appeal directly to the target demographic by drawing them in a variety of ways...to think about how to increase numbers by next week. And all these quick-fixes, even if they led to some momentary jumps in ratings from time-to-time over the years, have seen an overall trend of sliding numbers.

Some quick-fixes have been colorful. My favorites have been with Passions, the only show to not be around in the more "glorious" periods and that has survived by drawing in younger viewers and by parodying the genre in various ways. They've had an animated sequence and a Bollywood episode.Guiding Light surprised everyone with a comic book/superhero crossover, although readers and viewers seemed to fill it was lacking in execution Meanwhile, Days of Our Lives is seeking out interactivity by allowing viewers to name the baby of a prominent character. There have also been interesting promotional campaigns, such as the dance videos promoting As the World Turns and theATWT/Tyson Chicken commercials. And yet another interesting project from SoapNet is a fantasy soaps competition, modeled after fantasy football.

Some of these were intended for varying degrees of short-term promotion, but the overall trajectory of the genre has been quick-fixes. This happens in storyline form as well, with natural disaster stories or plot-driven suspenseful moments that may draw new people in for a week but gives them little to want to stick around for.

I find Laura as another quick-fix, except this time they are using history. My argument about utilizing history is not about for some short-term gains but rather as a change in approach and in practices, in attitude. Bringing Laura back for a few weeks, as an isolated incident, is not an example of a long-term approach to building an audience back. That's not to criticize the storyline but rather to explain why it did not lead to this miraculous turnaround soaps seem to continue seeking. These are all placebos. There's no secret--just good storytelling. And soaps need to realize this and start building for the future before they slowly use up even more of the cultural cache they've built up. No one in the industry wants to see the End of DAYS.

The era of quick-fixes needs to end for the genre to survive, and networks and producers alike have to think about these shows as long-time brands rather than just weekly programming. The question needs to be how shows can tell good stories now that will lead to increased viewership in two years and do everything within that time to improve the storytelling, make shows more inclusive of the whole case, embrace the history, and empower grassroots marketers to draw more viewers back in. That takes a lot of time and a long-term vision, though.

Building Momentum

Let me reiterate--the problem with the long-term approach is that it takes a long time to get results. Sustainable growth, as any city planner will tell you as well, is not just adding new populations in droves. In the soaps industry, that seems to be unlikely to happen in the first place and--if it does--hotshotting only leads to a one-time bump. That's why the approach over the past 20 years may have led to momentary spikes as soaps steal audiences from each other and temporarily draw viewers back in, but a lack of long-term planning and looking at the show as a brand rather than a week-by-week product has led to a steady decline, caused largely by a number of new choices but exacerbated by this lack of long-term vision and miscalculation of the power of the audience and the material.

What soaps need to do is develop this consistent direction and then have the confidence to pull it off. Short-term returns by old characters are just another form of hot-shotting, although particularly more interesting than a slasher storyline.

Look at the pro wrestling world once again for a parallel. Fans of wrestling remember well the 5.5-year"Monday Night War" between Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, in competing shows on Monday nights. When Nitro debuted against incumbent RAW in September 1995, it quickly took over the ratings by presenting a better show. However, after eight or nine months winning the ratings in a row, WCW got complacent and stale. WWF improved its product to the point that, by mid-1997, it was clearly among hardcore fans considered the better show. It was clear that WWF had the momentum on its side.

However, even as that momentum was slowly building, WCW was still winning the ratings battle every week. In fact, it wasn't until mid-1998 that WWF broke what was, by then, an 83-week wining streak for WCW. The key was that the show had to get better almost a full year before it reflected in the ratings. If WWF had shifted its focus anytime during that year, their subsequent unparalleled popularity in the late 1990s and early part of this decade would have never happened. If they had gone for short-time fixes and hotshotting at some point along the way, they would have destroyed what they were building up.

The key was in giving time for word-of-mouth to spread. They started putting on a better show, but people were more dedicated to Nitro. Yet, word slowly started to pass that WWF was putting on the better program week-by-week. Fan advocacy are your best chance of permanently gaining new viewers, but that relationship has to build organically, needing a long-term plan rather than a quick turnaround. Soaps could learn a lot from the wrestling world's lesson (and the wrestling world could do some good at looking back at their own history).

Fans Hold the Secret to Success

Even if some researchers want to claim that watching soaps makes you stupid, fans have often proven to be more savvy than they are given credit for. Some fan forums are known for having intriguing discussions about their shows online. Look, for instance, at how fans discuss product placement in relation to the genre's future, such as here and here. (On a tangential note, see soaps' use ofembedded public service announcements as an interesting aside to product placement in the genre.)

And modern technologies dictate that there is a shrinking distance from producer to consumer. This interactivity and the personalities of other fans become an important part of the viewing experience for many people, especially as they often become fans of other fans themselves. In other words, your most ardent fans who act as historians and resources and commentators and critics to the rest of the fan community have quite a following of their own, and shows would benefit most from interacting with and bolstering those activities rather than hiding from them or minimizing their importance by ignoring that rich history.

So, while some people will decry the use of history as useless for building audiences, this short-term return of a character does not mean that history has no place on shows or that my larger arguments are wrong. Just a good story and a long-term plan that allows for multigenerational storytelling, and these shows may be able to slowly build an audience from their diaspora.


Tagged in: Untagged 
Sam Ford This post originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on Dec. 05, 2006, which is available at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog.

Here's an interesting call for interactivity in the soap opera world. NBC soap Days of Our Lives is asking for fans to choose from a list of final names for the baby of one of the main characters, which is due in January.

Hope will be having a little girl that may be named Cassidy or Darcy or Rori or Bridget or Clara, depending on what the fans choose. Voting is open from Dec. 4 to Dec. 17, at which time the contest will be narrowed down to the top three vote-getting names, and fans can choose again from those top three names from Dec. 18 to Dec. 31.

According to Anna Johns with TV Squad, the site is set up so that each fan can vote as many times as they would like.

This seems like a limited stab at interactivity. Just as with the soaps fantasy game I wrote about over the weekend, the DAYS initiative does provide the chance for fans to have some degree of interaction with the show and, in this case, a decision that will have an impact on the show for years to come--the name of Hope Brady's child--will be made by the collective intelligence of fans. A little trivial, perhaps, but it is an interesting way to get fans involved. It's interactive, without requiring a substantial time commitment, and it allows a little bit of conversation afterward with other voting fans. It doesn't tap into the great power soaps have of provoking discussion and debate in quite the same way as even simply viewing the main product does, but it's a clever way to get more folks interested in the show's Web site.

And, according to the voting site, the folks who conceived of the fan vote are hoping to parlay that into greater online involvement with the show, urging viewers who are voting to "visit the Days of our Lives website to follow the story of Bo and Hope Brady and then join the message boards to discuss your vote!"

The whole process has gotten some fans involved in mini-debates about name choices, such as this exchange from Andre & Demetria's Days page on MySpace.

According to a press release from the show (reprinted at Soapdom), DAYS considers this "another history making interactive first from NBC Daytime. They point to a precedent being a storyline onDAYS in recent years in which fans voted on who the father of a baby would be, and the writers decided to go with the wishes of the fans in that particular storyline. The show touts this as being a chance for fans "to be a part of TV history."

With soap operas considering a lot of innovative moves for its future, NBC Daytime has tried several approaches in recent months, especially after rumors last November that the shows may someday be looking at alternate forms of distribution if the nature of daytime television were to shift away from the ensemble dramas.

DAYS' counterpart on NBC, Passions, has been particularly innovative in new media spaces, including its streaming on NBC's Web site, its distribution through iTunes, its transmedia storytelling project with an online tabloid that exists within the narrative of the show, and interesting genre mixes on the show itself with episodes in animation and in Bollywood style.


Tagged in: Untagged 
Sam Ford

This post originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on Dec. 3, 2006, available at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog.

Many of us have had friends and relatives addicted to fantasy football. And I wrote this summer about an interesting project between MSN and the Schaumburg Flyers called Fan Club: Reality Baseball, where the collective intelligence of fans was touted as being consulted to help manage a minor league baseball team.

A little farther away from "pure" sports, I spent plenty of time in earlier days competing in fantasy pro wrestling leagues, putting together shows and hiring and firing rosters to get the best ratings from a third party who played "the Nielsens," to compete with the managers of competing wrestling shows. And then there's all the people addicted to the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

But I'll have to admit that I've never heard of a venture quite like this one; cable channel SOAPnetlaunched a Fantasy Soap League earlier this month.

According to Linda Marshall-Smith with Soapdom, "SOAPnet's Fantasy Soap League is modeled after fantasy football, but instead of drafting players and rooting for athletes, you select and cheer on favorite soap characters and defining soap moments." The category of "defining soap moments" include the stereotyped soap storylines, like "discovering you have a twin or a "long lost love returns from the dead," which are two of the more extremes (along with amnesia, of course).

The president of ABC Daytime Brian Frons (Disney/ABC also owns SOAPnet) points out that soap fans remember details and story lines for years. As Marshall-Smith writes, "Fans have been known to remember more about the history of their show than the current crop of writeres."

I didn't join because I'm still a graduate student for a few more months, and I didn't want to plunk down the $9.99 to play a 10-week cycle. With all nine soaps involved, you pick a line-up of characters and moments and then earn points depending on what happens on the shows.

The user picks three male characters, three female characters, and four "soap moments," matching the moments and characters with storylines from the shows. Marshall-Smith reports, "The tallying of points is done by the Soap Squad, a group of nine ardent soap viewers, who keep track of points Monday-Friday. You can even make changes to your line-ups Friday-Sunday to maximize points for the upcoming week."

And, to research all the possible characters a player can choose, SOAPnet has provided this listing of the characters available for the game and links to profiles about that character's history.

Gina Keating with Reuters points out that the decision for the game was due somewhat to the success of SOAPnet's brother station ESPN doing so well with Fantasy Football.

SOAPnet claims the game is to help increase the community and involvement of the fans. And, while I think this is a fun diversion, it does not have the authorship of the wrestling fantasy leagues I once participated in or the feeling of influencing the creative of a show in some way, as with the reality baseball proposition. Nevertheless, it is a lighthearted to get fans involved in, and it is much akin to a drinking game in making light of and having fun with some of the most stereotypical aspects of the genre. And fans can choose characters solely from one specific show or across a variety of soaps, giving the chance to only pick characters one is already familiar with. Zack Stern with Joystiq writesthat, while this type of game may have a narrow audience, the idea of a game "rewarding viewers' predictions" could be valuable. and is "a cool idea for soap opera fans."

Nancy K. Baym, author of the fantastic book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community, writes on her blog Online Fandom, that, while a lot of the fun in soaps is predicting what will happen, "the kinds of things that earn you points seem to me kind of banal next to the kinds of predictions I see in the zillions of existing online soap talk communities. Really engaging soaps is so much more complex than guessing who eavesdrops, which is kind of like guessing that in a football game someone's going to run with the ball at some point. Duh."

I think Nancy hits on some important points here about the limited enjoyment one can have in this game. First, the game does not or perhaps cannot allow for the detailed conversations fans have about character motivations and histories that make watching soaps so enjoyable. And what Nancy alludes to but never points out is that the game seems to reward soaps the more cheesy and stereotypical they get, meaning the less original a show is, the more points one can make off it. Is it any surprise that the top performer the first time out was from Passions?

While I may have been too cheap to join, Daisy Whitney with TelevisionWeek quickly joined up. I will finish with a few notes from her detailed account of her initial experiences signing up.

In her Nov. 21 blog entry, she details the process of playing the game. But, actually, Whitney tried at trick that never even occurred to me--"So I do the standard reporter trick. This is actually the first thing you're taught on the job. No, it's not the inverted pyramid, silly. It's how to ask for free things. I email SoapNet's spokeswoman and ask for a comp pass to check out the site. I get it and am ready to play."

She describes the process of picking three female and male characters and then picked her three moments as "daydreaming," "being killed at my wedding," "coming back from the dead," and "transplant." She said, though, that she doesn't think she'll have that great of a chance of winning, since she was "just willy nilly picking characters and moments without thinking about which ones are likely to earn the most points. I mean, is Lily Snyder really going to come back from the dead in the next week? I am probably going up against thousands of others who are diligently researching characters and the mathematical likelihood of said situations occurring."

In a later post, Whitney reveals that the rules of the game were tweaked to allow her to change the lineup and replace non-performers. This is serious business!

But, what do I consider the bottom line? This is a fun casual game that celebrates the campy aspects of soaps but is not particularly a good indication of the type of involvement that draws people further into a community of viewers because the "involvement" in a game like this is too surface to have deep meaning. That's not to criticize the idea at all but rather any logic that finds this to be a deep extension of the fans' involvement in soaps or in the fan community.


Tagged in: Untagged 
Sam Ford

This was originally posted on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on November 25, 2006.

Oakdale Confidential has now entered its first reprinting stage, and just as the writers wove the initial printing of the book into storylines for the soap opera As the World Turns, the reprint is becoming perhaps an even greater catalyst for events happening on the show. The book--which sat at #3 on theNew York Times bestseller list for two weeks in a row and made it as high as number five on Amazon's seller list--is being reprinted with the addition of a new story by author Katie Peretti, a character on the show, who reveals a major town secret in the book now that she has decided to publicly acknowledge her authorship of the book. In a chance to get revenge on her ex-husband for what she sees as ruining her current marriage, she writes what would--in the real world--be sure libel in accusing that ex-husband and his girlfriend of stealing expensive jewels, an accusation that is, in fact, true.

Following the ups and downs of this book's release, both its major success as a transmedia experiment and also its pointing at some of the troubles with creating this type of text and its subsequent instructions on future projects of this sort, has been worth following throughout 2006. Unfortunately, because of what I perceive as a bias that marginalizes certain types of content even as its popularity should rank it as mainstream, the successes of Oakdale Confidential have not been that well covered or examined. I am going to attempt to trace that history a little bit here.

Last December, I wrote about this limiting approach to marginalizing certain types of content, particularly the two types of American entertainment I study most--soap operas and pro wrestling. Both were among the earliest of television staples and both have proven to be immensely popular throughout the past several decades, yet neither are regularly understood or reported on by those supposedly covering "the entertainment industry." Wrestling and soaps are both only covered by their own press, and it is clear when the occasional feature is done on either most of the time that the "mainstream" entertainment press either have a complete lack of understanding of the genre and/or a disdain for the genre that clouds their coverage. That's largely not because there are no journalists who are fans of wrestling or soaps but rather that's the only stories that have the likelihood of getting run. (The reverse is the glowing and too positive stories in which the journalist is so surprised by discovering the popularity of one of these entertainments that they don't give a nuanced account at all.)

At the time, I wrote, "Considering many of the ideas people now celebrate as complex television came from soap opera, and considering how much of an innovator WWE has been in transmedia storytelling and many other aspects of media convergence, it just makes me wonder how many other extremely popular and profitable areas of popular culture are ignored by most mainstream journalists."

The plans for Oakdale Confidential were announced in early 2006. Back in February, I first askedwhat Oakdale Confidential would be. The announcement of a novel that would in some way be related to the show directed a lot of speculation from fans as to who or what would be the driving force behind this book. At the time, I wrote, "Whatever the case--this is another step in the right direction, if done well. How can a novel become a piece of transmedia? If done well, the television plot will in some way hinge on the contents of the book, so that the television show promotes the book but also requires viewers to read the book to understand the full implications of the impact the book has on the residents of Oakdale. The show has been very tight-lipped about what Oakdale Confidential is, and Amazon's page on the book has next to no information about the contents...Which makes all of the fans all the more determined to find out what's going on. There's great potential here for an interesting experiment in transmedia storytelling."

The book was a major success, as mentioned previously. In April, after the book had been released, I wrote, "What makes the book most intriguing is that viewers are looking through the text and examining shows carefully to get clues as to who authored it. There are several factual discrepancies in the book from what we have actually seen on screen that are illuminating for close watchers ofATWT, and my thoughts on the message board look into those parts of the text that stray from the 'truth' we've seen on the screen in detail to get a better sense of who might be the author and why they may have either gotten facts wrong or deliberately chosen to omit certain things in their rendering of the story."

The television writers and the book's author did not sync perfectly with each other, and it's important to realize that the book was written by someone with the company but not on the writing team of the show and that there was not substantial collaboration between the two creative forces. That hindered the quality of the project, and I would argue both that there were major factual inaccuracies that hindered the enjoyment of the book for longtime fans and also that there was not enough coordination between the book's author and the writers of the show to really make for greatly compelling television. But, because it had not been done on the show previously, this type of experiment was intriguing, and it was instructive as to what does and doesn't work for future transmedia projects and also a cautious tipping of the toes in the water that--to me, anyway--proved that there is substantial market interest in this type of project that will hopefully lead to a better coordinated and more earnest attempt the second time around.

This was my sentiments at the time as well, when I wrote, "While the experiment shows how much more coordination is needed between the real author of the book and the television writing team to really exploit all the possibilities of taking the story from one medium to the other, the one thing thatOakdale Confidential has demonstrated quite powerfully is that such an attempt at transmedia storytelling is becoming more and more profitable and that viewers are eager to join into a deep transmedia experience. I am hoping that the experiment not only shows the people at ATWT that this was a good idea but also what to do better the next time around."

I was intrigued by comments from Alina Adams, the book's actual author. She and I have corresponded on several occasions, but she also kept a blog running for a while after the book's publication about Oakdale Confidential. She wrote responses to various criticisms from the fan community of her work, explaining that "Oakdale's characters simply have too much past history for it all to be compressed into a novel. As a result, it was decided that any past events which were not relevant to the plot at hand wouldn't be included." While that makes sense, fans were not happy that it was used to change the relationship of characters in their pasts, to gloss over inaccuracies in people's families (including the complete exclusion of one of the children of a main character in the book), etc. Fans didn't buy this line of argument, but it was great to see her blog entries as a place these discussions played out. She also explained that "some of the "mistakes" in the book are deliberate," reflecting the desired world of the author rather than the reality. Again, I hope the fan response to some of these factual inaccuracies provided a blueprint to the creators for similar projects in the future, but Alina's comments are a great case study for anyone interested in transmedia, and--what's better--the comments were made publicly available for fans. (Also, see her post about the difficulties of writing about the physical attributes of characters when she is really referring to the actors.

While I do sympathize with various fan complaints, the book was well-received as an experiment and encouraged. Yet I never saw that much about its success in the mainstream press. There were snippets here and there and a sidebar, but one would think that a show having a book that was an artifact from on-the-air storylines would be major discussion. And it was. Shortly thereafter. About Lost.

Bad Twin was not a replica experiment, as it's tie-ins to the actual show was more subtle, but it was very similar. And it got tons more publicity. Bad Twin had a better overall Amazon performance, from what I could gather, but the data I found never ranked it on the New York Times list's top 10 (I did find a reference to it making 14, and it may have made even higher). While I couldn't find direct comparisons between the two in overall numbers, suffice to say that both were a major success.

Yet, when the New York Times gave its review for Bad Twin, the ignoring of Oakdale Confidential was evident. As I mentioned, the soaps book did get a sidebar. But, despite having appeared higher on the list than Bad Twin ever did, Bad Twin was the one to get a full book review in the Times, a review that began, "Novels by unidentified authors have made the best-seller lists, as has at least one said to have been written by a soap opera character. But this may be the first time that a book by a nonexistent writer who is thought to have died in a plane crash has cracked the charts."

I'm not a betting man, but I would say that, had Bad Twin came first, if Oakdale Confidential had been mentioned at all, it would have almost been referenced as being derivative of the Lost book.

I'm very supportive of Bad Twin as well, but I wish both books had simply been more consistent stories and that both were most intricately woven into storylines from the shows. But these were experiments. And I'm hoping the success of the re-release of Oakdale Confidential will not just lead to even more ignoring of the book's success. This time around, the writers have done an even better job of weaving the release into the storylines, as Lucinda--the publisher--has hounded Katie on several fronts about getting her copy out, and the pressure of the book's release has played an important part in major decisions made by the character. Her notes about her sleeping with her ex-husband are used as pre-writing for the insert of the book in its re-release, as well as a way for her to sort through feelings about her one night stand, and her husband discovers about the affair when he's trying to print off her pages for Lucinda, who demands to have them immediately since the book needs to go to press and Katie has been dragging the deadline.

The discovery causes Mike to move out and Katie, in her frustration, to write a scathing extra chapter about her ex-husband, which she tries to stop from going to press, but too late. Since that time, we've seen characters around the mall where the book is being sold (and a couple of too obvious decisions to purchase it). On the whole, though, the promotion has been much more integrated into the show in a believable and compelling way this time around.

The press for the rerelease has had one major flaw--making some viewers think of it as a sequel rather than the same book with a few new things inserted in. That is somewhat the show's fault, as I have seen it referred to as a "sequel," although the storyline on the show and the book's description clearly indicates it is a reprinting of the original story with a few new additions.

As of today, the re-release is ranked #625 on Amazon, while the original version is still holding at #3,751. Both editions are hardcover.

Meanwhile, the hardcover edition of Bad Twin ranks #5,335, while the paperback is #6,275. And alarge print hardcover edition is #1,381,487.

The point is that both are doing well in the long tail, and ATWT has had particular success in making the re-release once again part of storylines, despite being acknowledged as the same book. I'm still hoping that both will be models for the two shows to try something even more successful from a narrative perspective in the future now that the economic model is proven to have potential, and also that other shows will look at these successes when thinking of transmedia extensions in the future.

Alina has some great recent posts about how transmedia projects are implemented as well. Onerecent post highlights how a subtext from the book she wrote a year ago, about Katie's underlying interest in her former husband who wasn't even on the show again at the time that Alina was working on the book, has now been identified as fans as proof from back then that Katie was still in love with Simon and that this affair had been coming all along. This was serendipitous, but it demonstrates how transmedia can be deliberately programmed to provide these subtle connections for viewers.

And, as with Luke Snyder's blog earlier this year, these types of projects allow viewers to see what characters on the show are reading and reacting to. Read Alina's posts about the difficulties of trying to coordinate the release of Katie's writing on Amazon's Web site and the book to coincide with when things are done on the daily show itself.


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Sam Ford

This was originally posted on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on November 10, 2006.

When more and more women became part of the workforce, many wondered if it would be the demise of soaps. Plenty of cultural critics have written about how fundamental alterations in conceptions of daytime television came along with the changing conceptions of femininity. Of course, the VCR, the DVR, and a variety of other time-shifting devices has been the answer, and I think that the drop in soap opera popularity over the year is due to a variety of factors. While the change in the number of viewers at home may account for some of it, so does a great proliferation of viewing alternatives for cable and satellite users, as well as a variety of what I would consider ultimately faulty logic in how shows are written and marketed, as I wrote about last week.

One answer to the problem of viewers not being home when soaps air has been SoapNet, the cable network which re-airs a variety of soaps that have aired that day again at night, and in programming blocs on the weekend, to provide another form of time shifting for viewers who are not home during the day. Another has been podcasting, which has worked for The Procter & Gamble soaps, as well asAll My Children.

Now, the NBC soap Passions has announced that it will begin streaming its episodes online. Each episode will be made available in the afternoon after it has aired on the network on NBC's site, as part of an ongoing effort to expand cross-platform content of NBC shows on NBC's site. The content is available free. Linda Marshall-Smith compares this to the previous online effort to distribute soaps, SoapCity.

Passions is an innovative soap when it comes to cross-platform, as it was also the first daytime drama to become available on iTunes. Because the show is the lowest-rated daytime show but pulls good numbers from teenage girls, its efforts at time shifting and its propensity for using new platform models makes sense, since younger viewers are perceived at being more savvy to Web-based and iPod content.

The show is also innovative in other regards, as I have previously written about here and here andhere.

These types of new distribution models may help address questions that popped up last year (and do every year it seems) about the future and survival of the soap opera genre, as I wrote about last November.


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Sam Ford

Along with news this week that CBS has formed CBS Interactive under the helm of Quincy Smith, news has also broken that the network will have new content available on its innertube player and will be launching innertube content onto CBS. One is a discarded pilot, while the other is a reality show based on the soap opera industry.

The first is plans for innertube to feature a pilot that the network did not end up putting into the schedule, a show called The Papdits. The show was created by Anthony Hines, who wrote the popular feature film Borat. The show, which was a pilot for this past season, strikes a similar cord with the popular film. In The Papdits, a family from Kashmir interacts with Americans, very similar to Borat's film, which creates comic misunderstandings and cultural differences. No surprise that CBS decided to pull this one out of the archives now that Borat looks to be a major commercial success at the box office.

The whole act, both Borat and the theme of this show, reminds me of the old Andy Kaufman character that inspired Latka Gravas, in which he did the stand-up as an intentionally bad immigrant comedian who did a series of horrible impersonations. The legend is always that, with Kaufman being an unknown, audiences would either heckle or perhaps give polite applause to the foreign comedian, laughing only about how horrible he was, until he would wow them with an unbelievable Elvis Presley impersonation. The gag got even more laughs when Kaufman became famous.

And the promotion for Borat was especially Kaufman-esque, with his going on each show in character. If only, during the segment I watched with his appearance on David Letterman, he had ended up getting into a fight with someone, a la Jerry "The King" Lawler.

Also, InTurn is in the works for a special on CBS as well. I first wrote about this show back in August. The show chooses several aspiring actors and has them compete for several weeks while receiving instruction and advice from the cast and crew of soap opera As the World Turns. The actors are competing for a short-term contract with the show, with several of them being eliminated before the final few make cameo appearances on the soap's broadcast, allowing the television viewers to participate in the voting process. Both those who followed the innertube show and those who just watched ATWT show itself seemed intrigued by the concept. The winner, Alex, was well-liked on his cameo appearance on the show, when he was murdered by the slasher, a town serial killer that has since been apprehended. He returned in a small recurring role of Elwood, the college roommate of Casey Hughes, one of the feature characters on the show. Elwood has been explained as the cousin of the fallen character who was murdered by the slasher. He has been used sparingly, but producers are planning to keep him around as a recurring character on the show even after their obligations to him are finished.

I don't know if InTurn brought any new fans to the show or not, but it must have been a reasonable success, since it is now being planned for a special compilation video the day after Thanksgiving on CBS.

Back in August, I wrote:

Fans seem divided by this, some who like seeing a different aspect of how ATWT is produced and what it's like to be an actor. These people also seem to believe it's a pretty good way to offer relevant transmedia content that doesn't overlap with what's being done on the show and also that it's a good marketing tool to reach out to people who may not be that interested in ATWT but who would love reality television like whatInTurn offers.

The other camp is angry that time and energy is being wasted on a reality show when it could be used instead to invest further in the fictional world of Oakdale. These people may not have necessarily been opposed to the book released earlier this year or other projects that remain inside the fictional world but see these types of programs as being irrelevant to the show.

Either way, InTurn is another innovative effort from PGP. If the show develops a following, one has to wonder whether that following will come along with the actor who wins once he or she becomes part of the ATWT cast.

In the end, PGP and CBS must be happy with the results, since they are laucnhing the special on the main network while ATWT is off the air that Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving weekend.

CBS supplies a variety of its television series from the network for innertube, as I have written about previously.


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Sam Ford

I originally posted this on the Convergence Culture Consortium Web site on Nov. 9, 2006.

Some of you may have been following the recent Procter & Gamble Productions/Marvel Comics crossover. Now Jonah Weiland, who had some firsthand experience behind the scenes of this partnership, has written about the experience. Jonah's account provides an interesting perspective about how these intriguing narrative crossovers, not only across two entertainment properties but across genres as well, comes about and is mediated.

This crossover first caught my eye back in September, when I saw mention of plans for Marvel characters to make their way to Springfield, the town in which Guiding Light is set in.

At the time, I wrote:

Although I haven't regularly read comic books since I was in high school, I know that my love for the superhero universes can be explained in the same way, especially with Marvel, which has incorporated soap opera-style storytelling in the adventures of its heroes over the years.

The crossover seems an interesting one, as it seems the target demographic of soaps and comic books are drastically different. However, Quesada says that the Avengers-GL crossover "is just one more way that we're trying to reach out beyond our usual audience in an effort to expose those who don't know anything about the greatness of comics and hopefully come back with a few new converts."

In an age of niche targeted demographics for almost everything, that's a refreshing statement to read. With the way things are currently structured, almost every entertainment property has a surplus audience that most writers/producers/performers ignore. Because of the immersive natures of both story types, I can see a very compelling reason why soap opera fans would love comics if they were ever exposed to them in a way that interests them. Hopefully, the Marvel writers can present a compelling story that also stays true to the characters of the soap.

Then, a few weeks later, I found out about plans for quite the reverse, as there was going to be a one-shot episode of GL which explored one of the prominent characters from the show as a super hero herself. My initial qualms about transplanting a super hero storyline in the middle of a soap opera was addressed by this being a one-shot fantasy episode, but it was an interesting example of transmedia, for sure. When I found out about that crossover, I wrote:

My prediction is that the comic book fans who don't enjoy the crossover will be fairly indifferent, while there may be a very vocal group of soaps viewers adamantly opposed to this intrusion on their show. However, with this being a one-day set-apart event and on a show like GL that have had some supernatural and dark stories in the past, it may be a little bit more acceptable.

And, not surprising was the reaction from the TMZ staff, who said, "in a marketing move created to finally satiate the underground fanboy/stay-at-home mom demographic, Marvel Comics will debut their newest superhero on the CBS soap opera Guiding Light."

But, I'm assuming both Marvel and GL knew there would be some doubters, and I'm actually in support of next Wednesday's episode, since it's going to be more of the What If? variety, taking a known GL character and giving her superpowers in a standalone episode. Works much better for me than the isle of the dead on DAYS for instance, since here they are teasing out a fantasy storyline while still preserving the narrative universe of the soap.

As I suggested, some soap fans did not react kindly. For instance, Des at TV Is My Drug writes that calling it embarrassing "would be an understatement" and said it was "UNWATCHABLE." This is the apologetic sort of fan who criticizes the show as a whole throughout explaining an affinity for it. But the breakdown of why Reva Shane should instead be considered as a super hero was quite entertaining.

On the comics side, Brad Curran wrote a lengthy response to the project. As a soaps fan and comics fan, he writes about both his and his mom's reaction to the episode--his mom was slightly amused, while he found it very embarrassing--and ultimately questions whether "the overlap between these two audiences just seems too small, despite the fact that long running super hero serials and soap operas are functionally the same thing on a whole lot of levels." I think quite the opposite, since Im' sure Brad and I aren't the only two soaps/comics fans out there. I think the problem is just in how different the worlds of GL and Marvel are, particularly on the GL side. Of course they played this tongue-in-cheek. The problem is that soaps are best at depicting the small moments of human interaction and everyday life and they have very little production budgets compared to feature films and primetime shows, so it's no surprise that they had serious limitations, in tone and in visualization, of the comic book world.

Also interesting is Tom Spurgeon's account, in which two brothers--one a GL fan, the other a comic book fan--review the episode, concluding that both fandoms would likely be disappointed or even angered by the episode.

Weiland writes about his visits both to Marvel Comics and the set of Guiding Light and his chance to meet the actress playing the role of Harley Davidson Cooper/The Guiding Light. He writes about the tough job of trying to enter a vast narrative universe you aren't completely familiar with and try to do the narrative and the fans justice in crafting a tale, the challenge for the soap writers when trying to understand the Marvel universe and vice versa. Weiland writes:

Writing the eight-page back up story was nerve wracking for McCann. As a comic book collector for over 20 years, he was intimately familiar with Marvel's family of characters, but he admitted that he hadn't always followed the CBS soaps. But, once it became clear the two companies would be working together, "Guiding Light" became a huge part of his life. "I watched about two months of episodes that I DVR'ed and I began to really pay attention to Gus and Harley scenes," said McCann. "Thank God for the Internet and the fans who spend so much time talking and examining the show. They're so vocal, just like our fans. I probably read four months worth of transcripts from the show. The last thing I wanted was a 'Guiding Light' fan to come in, pick up the comic and be completely turned off and say, 'They don't get us at all.' I wanted to make sure it was very truthful to the characters. When I turned in the script, Ellen, Alan and David Kriezman read it and came back with two minor dialogue tweaks."

Be sure to check out the whole interview.


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Sam Ford

This was posted back on Nov. 5 on the Convergence Culture Consortium blog.  Since it related to my work on soaps, I wanted to cross-post it here as well.

This piece originally appeared in our C3 Weekly Update back in July, a forum for internal communication here within our academic and corporate partners. I wanted to share it with everyone else at this point.

An increasing amount of time, scholarship, and focus has been directed toward fan communities, which manifest themselves most often and in the most easily traceable ways online, through chat rooms, message boards, and e-mail lists.

However, a related phenomenon that has a significant impact on the way many fans experience media properties are through the phenomenon of fans of fans. These fans--although they have no official relationship with the media properties shows are focused on--often make important contributions to the ways other fans enjoy a property, or even whether those fans stick around.

This principle is actually something that crops up in many long-standing types of programs. One of these is sports. I first thought about the phenomenon when conducting an ethnography of pro wrestling fans. When I went to some of the events, I found fans were as often entertained by their fellow fans as with the performers in the ring. Everyone who watches wrestling know that the fan are often as significant or more significant a factor in the success of a show than the writers and wrestlers.

But fans even acknowledge or begin to follow certain members of the crowd. Often, wrestling fans will come to the show dressed as a certain villain and supporting them, to the delight/anger of the rest of the crowd. These type of fan-performers enhance everyone's enjoyment of the show, even as they often take attention away from the focus the writers and performers intend. For instance, see the research of Chad Dell and others on the fans who became famous at local arenas during wrestling's regional days, as audiences would as often watch those fans' reactions to matches as they would what was happening in the ring. Perhaps the most famous of these was Hatpin Mary, who would actually bring a hatpin to the ring and attempt to stick the villain wrestlers who came her way.

Even in the nationally touring wrestling organizations like the WWE, these fans can become well-known. Longtime wrestling fans are often well-aware of the Hulk Hogan lookalike who appeared ringside at many of The Hulkster's most important matches over the year. When Hogan first turned into a villain in the mid-1990s, a significant number of fans debated and wondered what Hogan's superfan would do. Would he support Hogan through his "heel" turn or would he consider it a betrayal?

Extreme Championship Wrestling used to have a fan that sat in the front row at most of its events. The man always wore a hat and became known as "Hat Guy" to the fan community. He became an important part of the shows in ECW's home arena in particular, and fans considered him a key part of the ECW mythology. When the organization closed in 2001, documentaries and books about the history of ECW always included Hat Guy as one of the important figures in the ECW mythology.

At the most local of focuses, the "fans of fans" phenomenon is evident at local sports games. I can remember high school basketball games often being fun not because of the game, which could be a blowout, but because of certain members of the local crowd. Just as a colorful wrestling fan can often make a show for the audience, these people become famous for their colorful taunts of the other team--or, most often, their diatribes to the officials. When the ref would make a call, the crowd would regularly turn to the seats of these few characters to see what colorful insults they would hurl.

The earliest traces of these fans gaining followings through their writing may come through fan reviews and fan fiction. It's no secret that many fans' opinions are guided by opinion leaders within the community. This exists both on the macro level, which can be seen in online communities, and at the micro level, through peer influence. Conversely, fan fiction has often helped keep franchises alive, even when no new official material is being produced, or when the official material does not meet the fans' demands. The support of many shows and products has been kept alive through continued fan content production.

To fuel this fan response, though, individual writers within the fan community must become opinion leaders and develop fan followings of their own. This certainly happens within online fan communities when fan reviewers write. Many times, fans seek further enjoyment of a show through the creative reviews of others. Similarly, fan fiction writers often develop strong followings and spark continued debate and criticism of their work, in a process not all that dissimilar from more mainstream writers.

The effect is similar to the discussion Ian Condry had with the C3 team at the retreat in April, about fansubbing. In his example, fans of Japanese anime provided subtitles for products not yet available in the American market. In the process, certain fansubbers developed stronger followings than others, based on the accuracy and expanse of the cultural information and translations provided. In other words, it was not just certain products from Japan but certain groups of fansubbers that gained significant followings.

This process has transferred into the online realm. In his upcoming book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins dedicates a chapter to the spoiler online fan communities. In this case, many fans often demonstrated their lack of interest in the show, if it had not been for the spoiler activities and debates they participated in online. Certain spoilers who claimed to have confidential information that they were passing onto the board, or who knew a friend of a friend, gained followings and sparked intense debate. Again, these types of fans are not a part of the official communication of the show but have a strong and direct bearing of the way a significant number of viewers watch and enjoy the show.

Similarly, on the As the World Turns fan boards I read and participate in, fans often gain followings on their own. On the Media-Domain board dedicated to ATWT, poster MaryHatch became well-known for her sarcasm and her one- line responses to dialogue in the show that she sometimes posts as the show is airing on the message board. Other fans now regularly write on the board, wondering what MaryHatch will think about a certain event or conversation on the show. And whole threads have even started in debate to MaryHatch's importance on the board.

Disgruntled fans are angered at the attention this one poster receives and pose the question to other fans as to whether the board exists as a place of discussion for the show or for MaryHatch. In particular, many fans have said that they have stuck through boring periods of the show just because they liked watching the show and then seeing MaryHatch rip certain parts of it.

This type of fan response is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these fans increase the enjoyment of others and make the fan community as a whole more involved in the entertainment property. On the other hand, these fans are not under the control of the content producers, and they are often very critical of the product--often, their reputation is made on how creatively they can riff or criticize the show.

Nevertheless, these fans are an essential part of the experience of the rest of the community, and the creative powers have to learn to live with that. Attempts to criticize these fans or to censor them may seem like the best way to gain control, but attacking a fan who has a following of his or her own often brings a great degree of ill-will toward the property.

Instead, cultural producers are better off letting these fans have some degree of free reign, especially since they often enhance the experience without pay. And, if producers would follow these "super fans" a little more often, attempt to understand why they gain such a following and why they are so important to the entertainment property, they may learn something new about their products.


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Sam Ford

This post originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog.

Luke and Laura have me thinking and soap operas and legacy characters and the importance of recognizing histories on shows that are fortunate enough to have a wealth of former content to draw from.

A lot of long-standing television forms have not completely grasped the idea that one of the most important selling tools they have is exactly what sets them apart from the more ephemeral primetime fare: longevity.

In this category, I'm talking about any type of program with deep archives but particularly thinking of daytime serial drama, the soap operas; professional wrestling; some long-standing news shows or features on other networks, anything that has been on the air for years, without an end in sight. These programs are special, with formats that have built within viewers the sense that, even if the program hits a down time, that its longevity and format will cause it to be around for years to come.

That's why I've made the argument with both pro wrestling programming and soap operas over the years that you can't really apply the term "jump the shark" to these shows because they have jumped the sharks and back so many times over the past few decades. As the World Turns and Guiding Lighthave both been on the air every weekday and all year long for more than 50 years now, making PGPa brand renowned for longevity. And World Wrestling Entertainment's roots stretch back to 1963 as a regional broadcast, giving WWE a longstanding viewership history that few other primetime shows can match, other than news programs.

Yet, traditionally anyway, these shows only give a cursory glance to their history, instead relying on bragging about their history only in ambiguous terms from time-to-time.

WWE Finding the Right Direction with Legacy Content

Vince McMahon completely ignored wrestling history for a longtime, and it made some degree of business sense when it came to the history of his competitors. He was trying to establish the WWE as the only wrestling history that matters. Now that he's pretty well won the game, though, now that he has established his wrestling empire as the owner of the country's primary wrestling brand, Vince has started to give more than just a passing glance at the wrestling archives.

Enter WWE 24/7 On Demand, which I've written about before. At the time, I wrote:

The point of all this? WWE has been able to draw on nostalgia in a way that appeals to a very concentrated group of fans, those who care enough about professional wrestling to throw down a few bucks a month to watch old pro wrestling programming, tape archives that were otherwise just sitting in a closet somewhere. It's an example of Chris Anderson's Long Tail, in that products like these can be profitable just by finding a fan base. Although the initial costs of digitizing and mapping out these tape libraries may put the product in the red, the long-term sustainability of this niche product should eventually turn a profit, especially considering that the footage can also be used for DVD releases, etc. (The company has found this out, especially with releasing multiple-disc sets of various wrestling personalities.)

And, the WWE has been able to pull in some fans who don't even watch the current product regularly but who love to see the wrestling of yesteryear. In fact, there are some people who are hostile against the company, who do not like Vince McMahon, but are willing to pay him for this archive, to remember wrestling from the regional era before what they see as his corrupting influence came through and changed pro wrestling.

On the other hand, soap operas don't really seem to "get it," as Vince would say. And it's not like Vince always has but rather that he has slowly come around to ways of educating current fans to care about wrestling history and then to promote that wrestling history with the 24/7 product, DVD releases, etc., in order to eventually make money off that content that was just collecting dust otherwise.

The Lesson for Soap Operas

The same needs to take place with soap operas. While every other television industry seems to make its name off target marketing and niche audiences when it comes to demographics, soap operas are the opposite. Almost everyone I know my age, male and female, who watch soaps do so because they started watching them with a relative growing up. In fact, almost everyone I know period started watching soaps this way. When the audience started falling off, soaps began to dumb down the shows' histories more and more, ignoring the past and worrying about losing viewers with such stuff. New characters with little history on the show started being the major focus, and veterans are lucky to make it on the screen a handful of times a month now on many shows.

Why? Soaps are losing their 18-49 female target demographic, and they are trying to appeal to them directly. But they don't understand the value of transgenerational marketing when it comes to soaps, and they've spent the last decade for looking for a quick-fix for the demographic when I believe they would have been better served focusing on better creative and utilizing history more, bolstering their long-term viewers' numbers and letting them act as their proselytizers for younger soap fans. In other words, if you hadn't lost grandma and mom, you would have been able to keep grandson or granddaughter.

Legacy Characters

How do you remedy that, though? Legacy characters. Acknowledging the history. Not only could soaps find more and more ways to make money off the show's archives (when you bring back a legacy character, release online content or DVDs that highlight the history of that characters, their interaction with others who are currently on the show, etc.), but they can also draw back in the prodigal sons and daughters who have drifted from the show by returning some familiar faces.

There has been a lot of talk in the soap fan communities and the industry in the past year about legacy characters and how their return can generate buzz for shows once again. A lot of these legacy characters are out of the demographic that the show is trying to reach, but...gasp...viewers seem to sometimes be interested in characters that aren't necessarily the same age as them, and--when it comes to the large families on most soap operas--these characters are woven into storylines of several generations of other characters on the show, leading to a show that is supposed to be multigenerational in its storylines in order to appeal to multiple generations of viewers.

Ed Martin with Media Village wrote about the return of Laura from the famed Luke and Laura couple on General Hospital and what it means to the show. Martin writes, "Francis' return as one of the most popular characters to ever emerge in daytime drama is worth noting because it calls attention (at a time when much attention is needed) to the enduring power not simply of daytime soap operas but to that of serialized programming overall and to broadcast television itself. Consider the enduring popularity of her character, Laura. This month marks the 25th anniversary of Laura's now-legendary wedding to Luke in a two-part 1981 episode that drew 30 million-plus viewers, still the record-holder for a daytime drama audience."

Later, he points out that this "is what a well-written, well-acted soap opera can do, a point well worth making at a time when most soap operas are fighting for their lives, the victims of repetitive writing, industry indifference, escalating competition from other media and, I am convinced, flawed audience measurement."

Martin shares an anecdote about younger viewers been involved with the storylines of older characters, saying, "Significantly, Alexis is not an ingénue. She's a middle-aged woman. And yet, young viewers remain heavily invested in her storylines. There's another industry perception smashed to bits. But that's a column for another day."

Nice to know that there's someone out there who agrees with me that soaps break the myth of niche demographics and that applying that rubric to soaps has been a driving force in diminishing the soaps audience.

Bringing Back the Prodigal Viewers

But what can shows do about it? Well...it seems fairly obvious, yet I'm afraid that it won't to most of the marketing folks. People like nostalgia. And the only way soaps are going to build their audience back up is first to get a great number of those people who have watched at some point in their lives back into the fold. And, gasp, the majority of those people need not be in the target demographic. I'm talking about getting grandmas and middle-aged mothers and fathers back into the show, so they can get back to work as your grassroots marketers to the younger generations.

And what's going to attract these fans back into the fold? Two things: first, familiar faces; and, second, good writing when they get there. I am not arguing at all that you don't need amazing new characters and dazzling young stars because you need something to get these viewers hooked on a new generation, but you have to use the old generation to do that. First, start by putting the veterans on the show more often, integrating them into storylines. A show like As the World Turns has a cast of Kim and Bob Hughes, Tom and Margo Hughes, Susan Stewart, Emma Snyder, Lucinda Walsh, etc., all characters who still have a lot to give and actors who are still able to carry scenes. I'm not saying that the shows have been completely inept at featuring them, but they haven't been great.

Don't be afraid to put Tom and Margo on the screen. Have young swindler Henry Coleman enter into an illicit affair with the older Lucinda Walsh, throwing the whole town off-balance. And so on. Bite the bullet and bring back Dr. John Dixon, a face many identified with ATWT for so many years. Sure, he's old, but that means that several generations of viewers will recognize him. Bring back some old favorites like Andy Dixon or Kirk Anderson...whatever happened to him, anyway? Dead or alive?

Then, by encouraging fans to promote the current storylines of these characters or one of their returns, by taking advantage and empowering the show's grassroots marketers, some of those old fans will come back into the fold. If they like what they see, they'll bring more back into the fold with them. And that leads to even more grassroots marketers. Then, they may start getting younger viewers tuning back in.

The problem is that this type of growth is slow growth...It's not a week or a month fix. And you have to have quality writing when fans get there and younger characters that are compelling and who interact with these legacy characters in ways that gets fans hooked on them as well. One of the major problems is that a lot of writers currently with shows don't even know the shows' deep histories, since soap writers switch from show to show so often, it seems. But these shows need to get it together and take advantage of their greatest asset: their own histories.

The Best Marketing: Good and Consistent Storytelling

As I said, though, shows have to get good, and be better for a while, before they can regain and audience. Word-of-mouth takes time. This type of approach needs a long-term commitment from the production companies and the network. The problem, though, is that trying one immediate fix after another in the soap industry for more than a decade now has led to continued decline in the numbers. If they had started this process a decade ago and focused on long-term growth, we might not be in the shape that so many creative direction changes and quick fixes have led to by this point.

In the end, the best marketing for a show is good quality. Soaps have the advantage of feeling permanent, and longstanding shows are probably not going to go off-the-air anytime soon. If shows start now with a more long-term approach to growth, incorporating the idea of taking greater advantage of the archives and bringing back legacy characters and empowering proselytizing among fans and the other ideas laid out here, then there may be a turnaround in numbers. But it's going to take a big shift in thinking from the current demographic-driven, short-term thinking that has guided the industry.

For those who are interested further in these ideas, feel free to contact me directly or read some of my previous posts on the soaps industry and pro wrestling industry here at the site. I'm teaching a class on pro wrestling and its cultural history here at MIT next semester, and my thesis research is on the current state of the soap opera industry and how using new technologies and the new relationships with fans can transform the genre and the industry in the 21st Century.

Thanks to Todd Cunningham with MTV Networks for bringing the return of Luke and Laura to my attention.


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Sam Ford

This post originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog at http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog.

NBC's soaps, known for their fantasy and departure of the semi-realistic depiction of the issues of domestic life that is expected from soap operas, are also known for some interesting innovations, particularly the show Passions. Since I've begun writing at the C3 blog, I've written about an animated sequence on the soap, as well as a Bollywood episode. Passions was also the first soap to launch on iTunes. Now, it is making news once again by working with a new storyline and site called Tabloid Truth. The storyline will play out over a 12-week period, with the tabloid--run by gossip columnist J.T. Cornell, who as returned to the town to cause problems, publishing new installments twice a week.

One benefit Passions has, with its irreverent style and its lack of focus on reality, is less concern about an immersive and realistic tabloid site. The site features a convergence of video, pictures, and text, in a transmedia attempt further storylines in interesting ways.

It also includes message boards encouraging readers to do their own gossiping and digging as well. As opposed to materials for an ARG, where every attempt is made to create an authentic product, this is an over-the-top tabloid on the main site for Passions, but it presents an interesting model for a transmedia story. I've long argued that soaps should do these types of crossovers on a more regular basis, including online newspapers for their shows featuring user-generated content.

Since my thesis at MIT is on the soap genre and the developments of new transmedia storytelling initiatives that take advantage of the massive storytelling potential in these narrative universes, I'm interested in how these projects are serving to slowly acclimate soap audiences to this type of storytelling.

More information is provided through the press release, including that each video installment will feature a hidden clue that will forward a story. Again, this storyline is strongest because the tabloid writer is a character on the show, and the rumors and installments in this online space are driving the stories on the show. Soaps are experimenting with transmedia in increasing ways, developing into what may become a fully immersed transmedia storyline at some point. See previous posts about theGuiding Light/Marvel crossover I wrote about yesterday, GL's Springfield Burns, As the World Turns'sOakdale Confidential, and ATWT's blog for character Luke Snyder.


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