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.
Tremors of this decision had been making their way around the fan community. ATWT has been experimenting with various new aesthetics on the show, including the use of a digital handheld camera and an increase in the use of location shoots, as it has been rare in recent years to have outdoors scenes actually filmed out of the studio. Through using digital cameras, though, PGP has decided that it would actually be a better use of funds to have a permanent "outdoor studio" of sorts, where all outdoor scenes are filmed.
The plan is to make these moves serve two purposes, both to lower the costs of filming by allowing for simultaneous taping and by eliminating the need for as many camera operators. On the other hand, the hope is that, by providing all sets with four walls and moving outdoor scenes outdoors.
I first learned the details of these changes from James Hibberd's TelevisionWeek piece, and of course this has caught my attention. Hibberd writes, "The bottom-line benefit to CBS is finding a way to reduce the shows' cost. Daytime soaps typically run more than $1 million a week and shoot nearly year-round, compared with syndicated daytime fare like court shows (about $10 million a year) or talk shows (about $20 million for 26 to 33 weeks a year)."
However, ATWT has showed some revitalized ratings promise of late, as the TVWeek piece noted it sometimes performs at the bottom of ratings, but the show has risen most recently to be third of eight soaps on the networks in overall viewers, and tied for fourth for women 18-49.
ATWT revolutionized the way that soaps tell their stories visually, and Irna Phillips and her original crew at that show were responsible for creating many of the visuals that have now become the standard for soaps. It would be fitting indeed if it were the PGP shows that again revolutionized how American soaps are taped. It was noted by several fans that this moves the visuals of American soaps more toward the British model. While many fans have their reservations about whether this will be done masterfully or will instead look cheaper instead of naturalistic, my take is that the fan community generally can accept visual changes if it means better chances for the long-term viability of these shows.
Judging from the comments in the TelevisionWeek piece, most fans concur on one thing: that they will be fine with the visual changes but they want to see "The Powers That Be" listen to the online fan community more often when it comes to creative as well, that it is the story and the characters that really matter. Many commentators agree, as Marlena De Lacroix writes, pointing out that the visual changes could be great but that they should not be done at the expense of thinking of ways to improve the way stories are told.
With NBC Daytime firing president Annamarie Kostura (see here), and the issues surrounding the impending strike of the writer's guild, there are a lot of questions surrounding the continuing vitality of these soaps. (See coverage of these issues at Snark Weighs In here, here, here, and here).
However, As the World Turns and Guiding Light have launched the prototypes for their new sites (here and here), so it seems the company has plans in store to do more than experiment with the visuals of the show. Rest assured I will be following these changes closely over the next few weeks. While many fans, and news commentators remain skeptical about what this means for the future of soaps, with cost-cutting measures taking effect, I like that PGP wants to use this as a chance to improve the quality of their show, and I don't think it's quite time to write the eulogy for daytime yet. The audiences may be smaller, but these shows are still very relevant to those who are watching, and there are scores more lapsed fans who still care about these longtime characters, if shows can just find the best way to capitalize on them and bring them back into the fold.
As many of you know, I cover these issues--and address many of the challenges but also potentials facing the PGP shows in particular--in my thesis work. For those of you who are interested in reading a copy of my thesis, it is available here. As a lifelong fan of ATWT, I join many fans, and many folks in the industry, in being heavily invested in the continued vitality of American daytime soaps. I commend PGP for looking at these changes as a chance to improve shows rather than resigning to a course of eventual cancellation, as many have tried to paint for the genre. I just hope that these changes, and these sites become venues through which these shows don't just change production but also take new approaches to reaching their audience and telling their stories. Having their first independent Web presence is a major step in that direction.
I'll be watching these new sites closely to see how these shows plan to utilize them.