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Sam Ford This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 10, 2007.

Web-Based Communication Among Soaps Fans

While these previous modes of communication lacked the potential for a large community of fans to build around daily discussion of texts, the Internet created a space where the one-on-one interpersonal model of fan discussion that empowered soap opera viewing could take place on a wider scale. With a forum for a concentrated discussion that was public, the Internet empowered fans with new ways to organize themselves to get the attention of "the powers that be," or TPTB, as fans often abbreviate.

As Jennifer Hayward points out through her essay "Consuming Pleasures" which came form her 1997 book by the same title, the Internet provided "a more collaborative forum for soaps discussion" than was possible by individual fan letters or other previous modes of communication (515). Further, the Internet's hybrid of concentrated niche spaces that are nevertheless public gave fans unprecedented ability to create their own texts based on their reception of the show through public commentaries and discussions.

Hayward is among the first to include excerpts from online fan interactions surrounding soap texts She writes about the rape storyline of popular One Life to Live character Todd Manning in the 1990s as an instance to examine the complicated interaction between producers and consumers.

In my research on pro wrestling fan communities, I have previously outlined five ways in which fans interact with the texts of shows: fan discussion, fan criticism, fan theories, fan performance, and fan community building. This framework applies to soap opera fandom as well. In these online forums, soap fans can simultaneously discuss, critique, theorize, write their own written parodies and alternative storylines, and form a community around these shows, along with the potential for explicit political organization to rally for directions in story, casting, or airtime that they see best.

John Fiske writes about the aspects of gossip and oral culture in soap opera fandom in his 1987 bookTelevision Culture. He traces the history of scholarship on gossip in women's culture and its intersection with work on soap opera, concluding that soaps work cohesively within this gossip culture by providing daily interaction that can be discussed and debated by viewers. Mary Ellen Brown expands on the role of gossip and women's talk in framing the enjoyment of soap opera, as she finds her own enjoyment of soaps greatly limited until she becomes part of the fan culture and joins discussions about the soaps in her 1994 book Soap Opera and Women's Talk: The Pleasure of Resistance. The development of Brown's work corresponds with Henry Jenkins' seminal Textual Poachers, which forms some of the underpinnings of both later scholarship on soap opera fan communities and my own work here in the Convergence Culture Consortium, of which Jenkins is the director. For more of this type of academic work, see John Tullock's 2000 essay "Talking About Television Soap Opera," in which he focuses on how this "women's talk" aspect of both the show and the fan community make stories about important health issues and contemporary social issues particularly intriguing.

Understanding that soap opera fan communities can serve these and many other functions simultaneously is key in grasping the power of these online forums in the viewing experience, as well as in the social lives of these fans. In their 1995 book Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life, C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby point out that some work on soaps has attempted to frame all audience interaction with soaps according to one particular theoretical framework, while the diversity of interests and interactions surrounding soap texts are much too varied to fit neatly into one overarching explanation.

In his 1985 book Speaking of Soap Opears, Robert C. Allen calls the soap opera an over-codednarrative form in which "characters, events, situations, and relationships are invested with signifying possibilities greatly in excess of those necessary to their narrative functions." Here, the power granted to the soaps audience becomes evident in understanding and interpreting the spaces of the fictional town, the facial expressions of various characters, and the overwhelming amount of weekly dialogue.

As Allen writes, "the spatial worlds of soap operas can be represented as an aggregate of atomistic interiors whose relationship to each other in space is constructed in the mind of the viewer" (84).

In her 2000 book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community, Nancy K. Baym suggests that Allen's concept of over-coding is particularly appropriate in application to online communities, where "viewers watch soap operas in close and distant ways simultaneously" in order to use all these codes (63). Her point relates to the five categories of interaction around the soap opera text I outlined earlier: fan discussion, fan criticism, fan theories, fan performance, and fan community building.

Baym writes specifically about how fans perform through writing synopses of episodes or updates for message boards, becoming storytellers themselves and gaining a following for their performances through their analysis, interpretation, and cynicism (85-86). In this way, fans help bolster each others' support of the show so that, even if the show does not meet their expectations, fan discussion and even griping and parodying of the show can actually help keep people with the program through a creative draught.

One aspect of creative generation on the part of the fan community focuses on constructing a cohesive narrative space for the show. On As the World Turns, Oakdale is simultaneously considered a small town and the home of several major corporations. Paul Ryan's penthouse shows a skyline view of a few very tall buildings in the middle of Oakdale, even while other residents complain of being in such a small town that you run into your enemies wherever you go.

How can the town be both? By never definitively showing us the setting, the creative team requires viewers to make sense of these various comments and settings into a comprehensive Oakdale. In his 2002 book Fan Cultures, Matt Hills defines these spaces implied but never shown as hyperdiegesis, "the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text," but which still tries to have some sort of internal logic (137). Of course, as Steven D. Stark points out in his 1997 book Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, the reason these exteriors are never shown has to do with budget and filming, since on-location filming is extremely rare for soaps.

Nevertheless, these narrative gaps empower much of the fan energy surrounding immersive story worlds (look here and here, in that the shows raise as many questions as they provide answers, and the fan communities use much of their time to bring up issues of continuity and fleshing out the space in which these shows take place. In my thesis, I argue that the shows can and should create new tools to tap into this aspect of fan creation by providing spaces that could help turn user-generated content into official content for the story world.

Baym points out, though, that these creative activities on the fans' part also address flaws in continuity on the writers' part and that fan communities particularly focus on the "violation of the truth of the fiction established through prior shows," and particularly on character inconsistency (99). While aspects of fandom like fan fiction are not popular in most of these soap fan communities, community members often establish followings from other fans through their ability to both find breaks in continuity and also to create potential ways to make sense of those breaks in relation to the history of the show. Some of these community members who gain followings of their own I have written about previously as creating the phenomenon of "fans of fans."

This open-ended process of understanding and analyzing the text of the show fuels much of the fan communities' discussion, even as the other elements of fan communication take place. Baym finds that only 16 percent of the postings in the fan community she studied were "non-interpretive," and each of those threads often contained some interpretive responses, with 53 percent of the responses she studied focusing specifically on character motivation (71-72) For instance, in a soap opera love triangle, it is common to have almost as many fans support one side of a relationship as the other. Since the text does not provide answers but only visuals, it is up to fans to debate the meaning that might be implied by images. Producers and writers can help facilitate these types of discussions by providing "shades of gray" scenarios which do not clearly privilege one character's perspective or leave a particular character in the clear moral right.

Audience members will openly bring up their own histories to help explain characters' actions in many cases. If a character on a soap opera is raped or is the victim of domestic abuse, members of the fan community who have been victims or who have known victims of these atrocities may have the courage to share their own stories and then use that information to evaluate why characters may act in certain, initially puzzling ways.

Baym claims that, "in one sense, soap operas are a game in which the text offers clues to how the plots will unfold and viewers use those clues to unravel the shows' puzzles" (80). If one accepts the veracity of this statement (which I do), then it becomes easy to see why soap opera fans might be particularly receptive to transmedia storytelling or alternate reality games. Although projects likeOakdale Confidential, the successful novel based on ATWT and used in the television narrative while also being sold in stores, have only scratched the surface of this potential, the ability of online fan communities to interpret and communally digest and discuss the story world of Oakdale indicates that the soap genre might be particularly able to expand its narrative, due to such a rich and over-coded narrative universe for these longtime shows.

As opposed to the more aggressive spoiler behaviors of Survivor fan communities examined by Jenkins in Convergence Culture, Baym points out a particular fan who indicates that the term spoilersare a misnomer because, in a genre where how and why matter much more than what happens, nothing is spoiled when an upcoming plot is revealed (88). This particular view ignores the fact that soaps often build to scenes in which an astonishing truth is revealed or in which a character's return is meant to be a surprise, though, moments that are certainly dampened considerably by the pervasiveness of spoilers. Even as soaps are driven more by reaction than action, it is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that the plot is not important.

However, it is also important to realize that a significant portion of soap opera fans are probably not online. Soap operas air on broadcast television, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 98.2 percent of households had at least one television set in 2001. Look here and here.

Meanwhile, in 2003, 61.8 percent of American households were estimated to have a computer in the home, while 54.7 percent had Internet access in the home. Having a computer and Internet in the home was least prevalent for Americans 65 and older, with 34.7 percent having a computer and 29.4 percent having Internet access. Look here.

A significant portion of the behaviors and storyline extensions examined in this thesis require an Internet connection, and some even require a broadband Internet connection for streaming video, for which a significant portion of online users do not have access at this point. This study is completed with that limitation in mind. Nevertheless, the Internet provides a significant platform for extending the social networks built around soaps, and a significant number of new soap viewers are joining discussion boards or reading soap opera sites each year, as the consistent introductions of first-time posters in fan forums emphasize.


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Sam Ford This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 10, 2007.

The Soap Opera Press

One factor that changed the way soap operas relate to their fans is the creation of the soap opera press. While soaps were often covered in some degree by TV Guide and certain big events might be mentioned in newspapers or magazines, daytime--despite its visibility and popularity--was left behind, even as primetime television programming was granted an increasing amount of attention from serious critics.

While there is much less scholarly attention given to the artistry of soaps as compared to the best primetime has to offer, there is also much less serious consideration of soaps in the popular press. This niche is filled somewhat by magazines focusing particularly on soaps that are now a staple of checkout lines in grocery stores. Whereas previous forms of fan communication involved private exchanges (local discussions, fan mail, and fan clubs) and most publications did not regularly report or include reader letters about soap operas, soap opera magazines provided a new forum in which the reception of soap operas could become texts themselves, through official industry news and behind-the-scenes information, official columnists, and fan letters and polls.

Soap Opera Digest was launched in November 1975 as a monthly magazine. In addition to publishing both "official" critiques from staff writers and fan perspectives on the various daytime serial dramas, SOD created an annual set of awards, similar to the Daytime Emmy Awards, for daytime serial dramas in 1977. The launch of the magazine also coincides with the height of soaps popularity, when shows switched from a live format to a taped program (thus increasing the quality and reliability of acting and reducing the chance for obvious production errors) and an expansion from 30 minutes to one hour that also caused a doubling of most casts.

SOD became bi-weekly in 1979. News Corp. bought the magazine in 1989 and then launched a sister publication, Soap Opera Weekly, as a weekly companion to SOD. The publications were sold to K-III in 1991, which has now changed its name to Primedia. In 1997, SOD became a weekly publication as well. In May 2007, Primedia sold both of its soaps magazines--and more than 70 magazines in all from its "Enthusiast Media" division--to Source Interlink.

According to a personal interview I conducted with Lynn Liccardo, the intent of SOW when the magazine was first launched, according to fans, was to provide a more nuanced and critical examination of soap opera texts, relying less on an analysis of hair, makeup, style, and the physical attributes of actors and more on analysis and commentary. However, that focus gradually shifted so that much of the material in both SOD and SOW is similar. Liccardo formerly published in the magazine on occasion before its gradual shift to a less serious critical engagement with soap opera texts.

According to SOW's Wikipedia page, the magazine shifted its focus in 2000 "to include coverage of prime-time drama and reality series with soap themes and continuing storylines." In the first half of 2006, SOD was listed with a total circulation of 527,925, with 345,640 subscribers and 182,285 newsstand single copy sales, the 58th most popular magazine on the newsstand. SOW was listed with a circulation of 239,704, with 101,386 subscribers and138,318 newsstand single copy sales, the 82nd most popular magazine on the stand. Both sets of data was presented by the Magazine Publishers of America Web site.

These numbers make them the 10th and 11th most popular weekly magazines on the newsstand, behind the various tabloids, Woman's World, and TV Guide. This information was part of a media kitfrom USA Today highlighting the performance of Sports Weekly and listed ABC Fas-Fax from 30 June 2006 as its source.

According to The Millard Group, SOD's subscribers are 83 percent female and 17 percent male with the median age of 50 and median household income of $38,000. SOW's subscribers are listed as 84 percent female and 16 percent male with an average age of 50, according to a similar Millard report. The shift in using median age in one list and average age in the other may indicate a desire to have the lowest age possible listed.

Competitor Bauer Publishing runs its own weekly magazine called Soaps In Depth, which focuses on ABC soap operas one week and CBS the next. An April 2006 press release touted 71,405 subscribers for CBS Soaps In Depth and 79,665 subscribers for ABC Soaps In Depth.

In the first half of 2006, the ABC version was listed as having 272,672 verified weekly readers, with 60,760 verified subscribers and 211,912 newsstand sales, while the CBS version has 249,514 verified weekly readers, with 56,220 verified subscribers and 193,294 newsstand sales, the 53rd and 57th most popular magazines on the newsstand. This information was also part of the USA Todaymedia kit. Bauer also publishes such supermarket line staples as Woman's World, Life & Style Weekly, and In Touch.

There have also been several other soap opera magazines, now defunct, in the past few decades. These magazines have a much higher readership than their subscriptions and newsstand sales would indicate, since many people flip through the issues while in the store without ever purchasing it, trying to find the few relevant pages about their soap in particular.

The soap opera press provides enough critical information for fans to consider them relevant and still play a part in the modern interactions between audience members and the show's creative and marketing staff. However, one cannot take lightly the impact that these publications have served over the past three decades, even if there is a lack of critical engagement in these weekly publications.

The fact that they are the one source that focuses on American soap operas on a consistent basis drives a lot of fan interest in what the magazines include and provides a space through which the shows can send news to fans through interviews and scoops; in return, fans have been able to have their opinions expressed on a national stage, through polls and published letters. These publications might not have completely satisfied the fan community's interest in "official" and fan-produced media about the soap opera industry, but they provided the first forum for such writing nonetheless.


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Sam Ford This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 10, 2007.

Fan Clubs and Fan Letters

The earliest attempts at official connection for soaps, not surprisingly, came through letter writing to the network and fan clubs. I have found little information about the history of fan clubs, and my correspondence with the current president of both the As the World Turns and Guiding Light official fan clubs, Mindi Schulman, emphasized that there had not been an institutional history passed down and that she did not know much about the history of the organization prior to her taking over in 1999.

No matter how long this "official" fan club has been in operation, evidence indicates that various fan clubs have existed around these shows for some time. The current ATWT Fan Club hosts an annual luncheon with various current and former cast members and provides members with pen pal lists and various documents about the current creative team behind the show and the names and birthdays of current actors. The fan club also provides two resources to fans that echo the earliest powers that fans employed: a list of people to contact in the press in reaction to soaps, as well as a list of the executive producer, head writer, and contacts for both Procter & Gamble Productions/TeleVest Daytime Programs and the Senior Vice-President of CBS Daytime, all of whom fans might be interested in sending praise or (more likely) complaints.

Other accounts of fan correspondence directed toward soap producers and stars are anecdotal and perhaps colored by the biases of unreliable narrators such as actors themselves, or else historical claims that may nor may not be able to be directly substantiated. For As the World Turns, the famous incident that drove a significant amount of fan letters to the show involved what the official historian for the show labeled "the first soap supercouple before the phrase was even coined," the relationship between Jeff Baker and Penny Hughes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In her 1996 book on the show, ATWT historian Julie Poll, in fact, directly attributes the show's rise to the top of soaps ratings (where it would reside from 1958 until 1978) as being "propelled" by the romance of these two characters. At the height of popularity for this couple, the actor who portrayed Jeff Baker opted to leave the show, and his character was quickly written off with a car crash.

According to a retrospective on the show's 50th anniversary from TelevisionWeek, "the on-and-off love story of Penny and Jeff so captivated the nation that CBS was deluged with protest letters when Jeff was killed." The Wikipedia entry on As the World Turns points out that TV Guide considered the death of Jeff Baker "the car accident that shook the nation," and the event was listed among its 100 most shocking events in TV history.

The only direct historical evidence I tracked down from the time was an August 1962 Time article on the death of Jeff Baker. The author writes that the actor, Mark Rydell, had been "held to the show by salary and sentiment ($50,000 and 5,000 fan letters a year)" but that his aspirations to work in primetime television had caused continued problems for those scripting the show who planned his death. Rydel went on to be an actor and director on other television shows and in films.) A letter then appeared two weeks later in Time responding to the article, detailing how what the reader identifies as "our group" had "a reception on Penny and Jeff's wedding day" and was subsequently "suitably attired in black to watch As the World Turns on the day Jeff died."

The audience's backlash to Jeff's death has become part of soaps--and television--lore, although it is somewhat hard to distinguish the actual response from the hyperbole generated by the industry and fans to promote the width and depth of soap opera fandom.

Even harder to distinguish is how much hyperbole is involved in actor accounts of fan interaction. While the show's producers have long been the target of fan mail protesting and complaining about certain creative decisions or directions, there has been reported an equally--or perhaps more--ardent collection of fan mail for actors, who are the most recognizable components of the show for fans.

As the World Turns' Eileen Fulton, who has played the character of Lisa for about 45 years now, provides a typical account of what actors remember most and like to tell others about their fan mail in her memoir with Desmond Atholl and Michael Cherikinian, As My World Still Turns. She claims that, shortly after she began with the show in 1960, "it wasn't long before viewers started calling in and sending telegrams from all over the country, declaring, 'If that bitch Lisa marries Bob I'll never watch your show again. I can't stand that conniving little tramp. She's wrong for the Hughes family. Stop her!!'" (x).

Even more dubious than her claims about delusional fans over the years is the hyperbole involved in Fulton's description of fan reaction when she left the show for brief periods of time. At one point, another actress temporarily replaced her. "Phone calls started coming through by the hundreds and letters and telegrams by the thousands, begging for the return of the real Lisa. Even the newspapers picked up on it" (67).

In an earlier attempt to provide an insider's account of the business, Madeleine and David Rounds describe fan reactions to cancelled or preempted shows in their 1973 book The Soaps: Daytime Serials of Radio and TV, claiming that CBS got "at least 35,000 letters" protesting the cancellation of some of its least popular daytime shows. "The cancellation of a day's episode in order to show some national event--such as an Apollo launching, a presidential funeral, or a Senate hearing--brings an avalanche of protest mail." However, Edmondson and Rounds claim that the majority of mail received by the networks "could be classified as morality mail. Almost anything offends someone, and soap watchers are quick to complain" (195).

Each of these accounts was either written by people within the industry or dependant upon numbers quoted by the industry. One would guess that these authors may take some degree of creative license to exaggerate the quantity and quality of this viewer passion in order to bolster their own stories and to make more emphatic statements about the emotions that soap opera texts generate. Nevertheless, whether these accounts are completely accurate or not, the fact remains that fan mail has long been a viable and popular form of interaction between producers and consumers in the soap opera industry.

In his1985 book All for Love: A Study in Soap Opera, Peter Buckman writes about the types of comments that are sent into shows for the producers to read, such as comments sent to Guiding Lightin 1982, focusing on the fact that the show had slipped to ninth place in the ratings (then five from the bottom). "Do you want to know the reason - Boring!! GL, you are boring, boring, boring. The writers must be tapped out" (188). Buckman points out that fan letters are often sent to producers to prove the audience's self-awareness and to attempt to assert some power over the current direction of the show, writing, "The viewers have, if you like, a political sense of their own power, and its limitations. They know that it is on their loyalty that the programme makers rely - and yet [ . . . ] the older viewers at least are aware that they are not a strong enough market force to have a great influence on the producers" (189).

In her 2001 essay "Toward a Paradigm for Media Production Research: Behind the Scenes atGeneral Hospital", Elana Levine describes the more recent handling of fan mail for General Hospitalon ABC, pointing out that the show's main way to handle understanding fan responses in the late 1990s, in addition to focus groups, was to have writers' assistants and student interns group the mail and make appropriate reports on that fan response. Fan mail is considered negative if the audience member says he or she will quit watching the show, but fan mail is considered positive even if it is criticism when the viewer does not threaten to quit watching.

It is important to note that this process was a case study of one particular time period for one specific show. While I am using it here as a point of comparison as to how soap opera fan letters are received and responded to, this is not necessarily representative of the industry's handling of fan mail in general.

Levine writes:

While the system in place to handle audience response is thorough and efficient, it does not really account for most viewers' perspectives, as the letters must be neatly classified into positive or negative categories and the actual words of audience members are only rarely seen by anyone higher in the chain of command than a writer's assistant.

Fulton writes, "Most soap viewers don't realize how much power they have. Enough letters, telegrams, and phone calls can kill characters and story lines or turn a temporary part (like Lisa) into a long-term love affair" (67). While she--like Edmondson and Rounds--may be inclined to exaggerate and--in Fulton's case--to concentrate on some of her stranger fan interactions over the years, her point about the power that fandom can yield when organized is an important component of soaps history.

The problem of a disconnect in the direction of the creative team and the most common directions desired by fans can often be overcome when fans find ways to articulate themselves in ways that the shows' producers understand. However, these floods of letters were generally not collective action, as there were few ways for soaps fans to organize themselves. As Buckman emphasizes, producers often ignore that physical fan mail, perhaps because of its lack of collective engagement. It may be easier to dismiss the singular desires of fans rather than a large and social collective action.


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 10, 2007.

At this year's Media in Transition 5 conference, I presented a portion of the work I have been doing on soap operas. I wanted to share that work here on the blog in a series of posts this weekend. I've been fortunate enough to get a great deal of feedback from members of the soap opera fan community while working on this research, some of which I haven't been able to incorporate back into the work thus far, but I look forward to any thoughts you all might have as well. Thanks again to Henry Jenkins, William Uricchio, Lynn Liccardo, and Kay Alden for all their help on this project, as well as a variety of others.

Soap Opera and Fan Discussion

Soaps do not exist in a vacuum, and the show's daily texts can only be completely understood in the context of the community of fans surrounding them. Instead of imagining the audience as a passive sea of eyeballs measured through impressions, this approach views soap operas as the central piece and catalyst for a social network of fans. Acting as dynamic social texts, soap operas are created as much by the audience that debates, critiques, and interprets them than through the production team itself. Of course, the power of the reader is not new ground. For instance, see Roland Barthes' 1967 essay "The Death of the Author." While Barthes focuses on the solitary reader's ability to "author" the text, the social connectivity of today's media landscape enables much more widespread meaning-making from the audience.

This collective attribution of meaning has been proven to be a strong motivation for viewing the show, whether those discussions take place in conversations between families while the show is on, post-"story" phone calls among friends and relatives, or else at the workplace or on soaps discussion boards. The changing ways that viewers conceive their relationships with these shows creates a shift in soap opera texts are conceived, produced, and received. The public discussions now facilitated by Internet discussion leads not only to new ways for fans to connect but also a new dynamic between consumer and producer that has impacted and could further substantially change the ways in which soap operas operate.

Soaps have always had a close correlation with the daily lives of their viewers. Watching the drama of people's personal lives unfold on a daily basis was seen as a discourse with housewives, inviting them to perceive the characters first on radio and later on television serial dramas as friends and relatives whose daily lives one was privy to. Soaps were driven not just by the actions of characters but also by the reaction to those events as news spreads across the social connections on a show.

Much of the scholarship about soap operas has focused on this intended dialogue between the show and the viewer and the intimacy that the visual image accords the viewer with characters. For instance, in his 1983 essay "The Rhetoric of the Camera in Television Soap Opera," Bernard Timberg posits that the direct involvement audience members (himself included) feel when watching soaps is aided by the way the episode is filmed, "making (viewers) feel somehow complicit in the ebb and flow of relationships and emotions."

This degree of intimacy and connectedness may have indeed caused soaps characters to feel somehow more "real" than those on other shows, and anecdotal evidence has always pointed toward that being the case. One of my high school teachers recalled visiting with her mother while she was on the phone with an aunt one day, and listening in horror as her mother described a bad situation that one of their friends was going through. Only later did she realize that it wasn't a story about someone who lived on their block but rather about one of the Lowells on As the World Turns.

The lack of documentation about the power of social connectedness in soaps in these earlier days is not surprising because these discussions happened informally and in unobservable everyday conversations. Even as the channels through which fans can discuss soaps have changed, this personal interaction with family and friends over the text of the show that was at the heart of the social connections surrounding soaps texts from the beginning of the genre has not, as a more recent essay by Elaine Rapping demonstrates in her 2002 essay "Daytime Utopias: If You Lived in Pine Valley, You'd Be Home."

Because social connections around soaps were limited to these direct interpersonal relationships in the earliest days of soaps viewing, soap opera characters may have seemed particularly localized. These characters may have seemed like members of the community or the family, and these stories may very well have seemed to be a personal possession of a small number of viewers who conversed about them, without a wider forum of discussion for these shows.


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Sam Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on May 07, 2007.

The first part of this excerpt from my thesis work was presented on the C3 blog earlier today, available here. That portion focused on my own history with immersive story worlds, defining the term, and looking at seriality as one aspect of an immersive story world.

Multiple Creators

All three examples of immersive story worlds provided here are too large for any one creator to accomplish. Each of these worlds have passed through many creative hands over the years, with no one creator necessarily being THE defining vision of what this world means. In each case, there is a sense of the narrative world having a life of its own and being bigger than any particular creative regime. The fact that all three of these narrative worlds have stood the test of time is evidenced in the way they have weathered passing off from one creative hand to the other. Although Stan Lee is often credited with being a defining force in the initial creation of the modern Marvel Universe, along with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and others, many writers, artists, and editors have helped shape the trajectory of these characters through the following decades. Not only have various creative regimes had control of an individual series over the years, there are creative teams working on each title within the Marvel Universe at any one time, meaning that--although Marvel as a content producer has centralized control over the official narrative universe of its characters, there is still a decentralized process of creating the Marvel Universe and fleshing out all its corners, developed through the many creative forces who have passed through the company over what is now almost 50 years.

Soap operas may have a defining creator, such as Irna Phillips and Bill Bell and Agnes Nixon, and the creative vision of each of these people have often helped define the long-term feel for many of these shows. However, the number of writers that work on a show at any one time, from the creative influence of the executive producer to the overall stories of the head writer(s) to the way that is broken down into scenes and dialogue, demonstrates the hundreds of creators who have had an influence on soaps stories through the years. Consider how much impact the thousands of actors who have appeared on these shows have had as well, in addition to directors and other creative forces, and there is certainly no clear "author" of any of these soap opera texts. Even if fans have particular writing teams that they have preferred over others or certain periods of a show that they consider "golden eras," there is no single writer that can be seen as the single defining source of a show, especially once it has been on the air for decades.

As for pro wrestling, the fact that wrestling narratives often spilled over from territory to territory and that wrestlers who retain the copyright to their own characters would jump from one show to the other ensures that, in addition to the constant shifting of creative forces within the bookers of any particular wrestling organization, there was also a meta text that fans would follow which branched across every wrestling show in the country. In the regional days of wrestling, fans would follow characters as they moved across the country, being written by a variety of creative forces along the way. Now that the WWE is the major show left in wrestling, there are three WWE divisions, each with their own head writer; and there are still alternative wrestling promotions that often take characters who leave the WWE, like TNA wrestling on Spike TV. In addition, the wrestlers themselves are traditionally known for developing many of their own attributes, and the performance of the audience affects every show as well (and audiences often stray from the intent of the people who scripted the reactions they are "supposed" to have on live shows). It's hard to identify who "creates" the final product of any particular wrestling show, much less the ongoing narratives of the various characters.

Long-Term Continuity

Although fans in all three genres would likely sometimes debate that creators care enough about this category of immersive story worlds, there is at least some semblance of long-term continuity in developing these worlds. This is what sets the long-term development of iconic characters apart from these continued story worlds, in that these story worlds are only created if there is some idea of prior stories being relevant to the next one rather than a series of adventures that seem completely removed from the next. Continuity is the way writers are often graded in all three genres. Generally, creators in each genre both praise the creative potential gained by such extensive back stories and also complain about the restraints that history places on their creative abilities when fans are watching their current content closely with how it measures up to the history of characters and stories. For fans, though, since they know these story worlds were around long before the current creative team came along and believe that they will continue to be around long after they are gone, continuity is often considered the most important aspect of the product, and they see it as their job to uphold it through amassing their collective intelligence.

Soap operas--because they are the most blatantly serial of the three-- is where continuity often matters most. Certain aspects of the genre have been accepted as defying continuity. For instance, when the actor portraying a central character leaves the show, recasts are sometimes accepted as necessary evils. Also, fans accept what has been called the Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome (SORAS). Often, younger characters are SORASed when there is an actor switch, advancing their age by a couple of years. When a character leaves town to go to college, they sometimes return a few years older than they should be non-soap opera aging standards. For instance, Tom Hughes may have been born in 1961, but he somehow ended up in Vietnam before the end of the war. Various viewers combined their collective intelligence to construct both when characters first appeared or were born on the show and also their apparent current age, comparing this to the age of the actor playing the role, and particularly how the various numbers often do not add up.

Aside from these deviations, however, soap fans expect writers to research the histories of these characters and to write current storylines according to that history. Writers are most often graded with their ability to write characters consistently, both within their own duration with the show and consistent with the long-term history of the show. If characters appear in a scene who have had a long history with each other that the current writers seem ignorant of or if a long-time family member no longer on the show seems to be forgotten by the current writing team, veteran fans are vocal about what they feel is poorly researched writing. Conversely, if writers make subtle references to important stories in a character's past--as long as those comments are relevant to the current story and do not get in the way of contemporary fans' enjoyment of the story--writers are generally praised for having shown some degree of mastery of the text.

Soaps writers are often haunted by this legacy and the fact that the fans collectively have much stronger knowledge of the product than they do. In a Winter 2006 interview with Soaps In Depth, As the World Turns head writer Jean Passanante complained about the impossible learning curve involved with trying to write characters. Not surprisingly, bashed her for having been with the show for years and still not seeming to be able to dedicate the time to learn the history as well as she should. Since these fans are amassing their collective intelligence to understand the continuity of the show for free based solely on their own interest in the narrative, they hold the people who are paid to be the gatekeepers for the story world to higher standards.

Pro wrestling has been most notoriously lax in its use of continuity, especially with turning characters from good to bad and often having rivals one year be partners the next. However, fans still have long- term memories and try to make sense of the narrative, even when writers drop the ball. The WWE writers do sometimes make veryeffective use of history, however, especially in creating iconic moments at events that are then drawn upon again and again. The art of slowly building a feud, beginning with subtle hints and then arguments and then a major clash, with several plot twists along the way, is the way legendary characters and matches are created in wrestling, and they are most often successful when the writers have the strongest grasp on maintaining continuity with the characters and the feud.

Comic books have to maintain a somewhat slippery use of continuity. Because the characters cannot age with real time and must somehow be contemporary while also maintaining a degree of timelessness, there have been plenty of contradictions along the way. Particularly because comics are not tied to actors like the pro wrestling and soap opera worlds, there is more opportunities to create alternate universes and several versions of the Marvel Universe being produced simultaneously, for instance, so that there are multiple continuities from the Marvel creative team.

Fans are often known for trying to police continuity, and Marvel's interactive section of their comics was often known for rewarding readers when they catch continuity slips from the creative team and attempted to come up with their own explanations of how that seemingly discordant event somehow makes sense in the larger Marvel Universe narrative. Marvel writers sometimes tried to emphasize continuity by making random references to old issues, but the best use of continuity comes when writers demonstrate a mastery of the history of the universe and make reference to prior events when they are germane to the current story. Prolific contemporary Marvel creator Brian Michael Bendis considers maintaining the continuity of the universe both a blessing and a curse, giving him headaches but providing a wealth of inspiration from the past of each character.

Character Backlog

All three story worlds have many more characters in their histories than can be featured at any one time, yet fan activities often surround understanding and cataloguing the wealth of characters in the universe. Each character backlog is indexed and managed in much different ways and for divergent purposes, however. The soap opera universe is full of character histories, the majority of which are not currently featured on the shows. As shows have been on the air for decades, some characters drop completely out of relevance for the contemporary product, although fans interested in the history of a particular show might be interested in finding out the importance of that character in years past. However, many of the soaps characters not currently on a show are directly relevant to storylines that are still ongoing. Often, brothers and sisters, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, ex-husbands and wives, of current characters are no longer on the shows but must be acknowledged in current storylines. For fans, this means that the current official product they are watching on television is only a small part of the whole story world, and there is always the potential for characters who have not been killed (and sometimes even those who have) to return to the show or at least to be mentioned from time-to-time. In other words, the fictional world of Oakdale or Springfield or Genoa City or Salem or Llanview is much bigger than the town itself and its current inhabitants, and fans have that broader view in mind when they question what these various characters would think about storylines or if they will return to the show for the wedding of a relative.

Wrestling's character backlog is more complicated in its relevance, as competitors only have so many years in which they can perform at their physical prime. Legends in wrestling are often still used, either for nostalgia's sake or else as supporting players in the characters of the modern product (whether as commentators or managers or officials who play a part in the current drama, or as returning recurring characters from time-to-time). In wrestling, former competitors are built up as legends and often drawn upon for comparisons with modern stars or to evoke the history of the narrative. The nostalgia for this backlog of characters helps fuel publications, DVD releases, and the WWE 24/7 On Demand product, for instance, which airs "classic" matches featuring these various legends who may now be members of the WWE Hall of Fame.

The Marvel and DC universes likely have the most expansive character lists of all, and returning characters in these worlds are much more fluid, since these characters are not tied to portrayers. Any super hero or villain from the vast reserve of the history of each universe can be drawn upon at any time, and some of the best work of contemporary creators have been in restoring the validity of lesser- known characters from the past through current storylines, such as with Bendis' Alias or the MarvelBlack Panther series, or DC's 52, in which a several relatively minor DC characters become the featured cast. As Henry Jenkins writes in Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, this modern revisiting of neglected characters from a comic universe's history in an alternate or contemporary text can reconceptualize characters "to up their 'coolness' factor," while still playing off the knowledge fans have of those characters in the long-standing narrative.

Contemporary Ties to a Deep History

As I have alluded to several times in the previous sections, the art of an immersive story world often lies in tying events from the rich pasts of these narrative universes into the contemporary product. Bringing up relevant back story and tying it into the current plights of featured characters highlight what many fans consider the art of creation within immersive story worlds. Particularly in the soap opera world, fans both simultaneously praise good use of history on the writers' part and, perhaps more often, use their communal knowledge of history to drive their collective creativity. The fans watch the story unfold each day and then go online to create an historical perspective on a character's action that day, both to rate the writers' use of continuity and also to help flesh out and unpack meanings they see hidden in the text based on knowledge of the characters' past, or else point out the contradictions in characters' current actions or statements based on their histories.

For instance, when the characters of Mike and Katie Kasnoff broke up on As the World Turns in November 2006, Mike was indignant that Katie had slept with her ex-husband. Many fans sided with Mike in the fight, pointing out the many times Katie had acted this way in past relationships. Conversely, other fans pointed out Mike's hypocrisy, based on the fact that he reunited with Katie while still married to Jennifer, thus making his moralistic tirade about fidelity somewhat ironic, since the most recent version of his and Katie's relationship began with an infidelity. In December 2006, when ATWT's Craig Montgomery had been shot in the chest and was lying in a hospital bed, telling everyone around him how Dusty Donovan was a terrible human being because he had shot Craig in cold blood and how Craig would never do something so vicious, veteran fans could alert more recent viewers to the fact that Craig had actually shot a man a few years ago in a crime that he was never punished for nor even suspected by the majority of people in town. While the show never gave any blatant evidence of the hypocrisy of either man's claim, the viewers were able to fill in the pieces for each other based on the seemingly endless wealth of material.

What sets immersive story worlds apart, what makes them immersive indeed, is that the well of backstory is so deep that no one person can masterfully plumb its depths. Veteran fans may serve as memories, but no one of them can fill in all the pieces of the puzzle. Web sites that provide back stories, or books that attempt to summarize major plot developments over the years, would be impossible for one person to internalize and--even if one could-- still only provides a summary and not the rich details of each character and plot. These three worlds are set apart because there can be no expert who can quote almost every comic book or episode or pay-per-view. Not even a Rainman-style memory could recite every villain Spider-Man has faced in order, much less all of the developments of the Marvel universe, nor could they rattle off the results of every episode of Monday Night RAW for the past decade.

In the wrestling world, fans are equally as obsessed with filling in backstory, not necessarily always to be directly relevant to the current feuds but to draw comparisons between a feud or match of contemporary competitors with their predecessors. Wrestling fans have major web projects such as Kayfabe Memories, newsletters like" Wrestling as We Liked It, and a wealth of books from wrestling historians, wrestling journalists, and a growing number of memoirs from wrestling legends, all of whom provide a small piece of the puzzle of the history of the meta pro wrestling text, even if many are unreliable narrators. This act of preservation and navigating wrestling's deep history has been important to fans both because promoters for so long did very little of it and also because many of the major matches in wrestling history are no longer available for viewing, since arena shows were not often taped and the weekly television shows in most territories were not considered valuable at the time and often taped over with the next week's show.

In comic books, the huge archives drive much more than professional collectors and sales of graphic novels. The backstory fleshes out the histories of characters and their nuances, as well as relationships with supporting characters. There is a feeling that the subtle secrets to a character's history may be hidden in the pages of the archives and that understanding the present requires a reader's own willingness to dig into the past. In newer projects like the Ultimates universe or other Marvel or DC Universes that provide alternatives to the main universe, there is also a need to read the narratives from the main universe in order to compare the parallel stories. For instance, Bendis' recreation of many of the important Spider-Man plots over the years is a much richer experience for those who have already read and are intimately familiar with the original, thus meaning that Marvel and DC have an even deeper wealth of content if fans want to be able to understand alternative universes within the Marvel and DC worlds to their fullest extent. Of course, even if a fan were to collect every extant issue available in digital or tangible form, there would be no way to internalize that amount of material, even for the most ardent fan.

Permanence

Some of the categories listed above may also apply to some novel series, primetime television shows, online worlds, or other narrative universes. However, what these three share that perhaps no other particular media product does is a feeling of permanence. With the amount of time these narrative universes have lasted so far, there is a feeling of fans that these media properties will long outlive the current creative forces in charge of their gatekeeping, that the product will continue to have an audience long after the current fan base is gone, even. This sets these three worlds apart from any other narrative universe I can think of, where a decade is often considered an amazingly long run for a television show and four or five movies is considered a feat for a movie franchise. Since these worlds have been around for decades, it is important to emphasize--as P. David Marshall does in The New Media Book when writing about a related phenomenon of "the intertextual commodity"--that this concept has been around for some time and is perhaps just more overt in today's convergence culture.

Some worlds--like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter--will likely live on in varying degrees either through descendant series that bear little resemblance to their past with hiatuses in between or else through fan fiction and fan videos, but soap operas, pro wrestling, and the Marvel and DC universes are the only immersive story worlds which have been running for decades now, without any hiatus, and with the continuous output being solely at the hands of the official rights holders to the narrative world.

Many comic book characters have produced thousands of issues by now, with some characters having three or four dedicated titles to their individual story within the Marvel and DC universe, not counting the alternate universes like the ultimate title runs a character may be involved in as well. While fans know that there may be switches in creative forces or major changes in the stories of characters or even certain characters who wax and wane in prominence, there is a semblance that the current narrative world will continue and that the fans' lifetime investment in reading the comics will continue to be rewarded with no risk of sunk cost in a story world that eventually comes to an end. While some have speculated that the Ultimate story world may eventually replace the old Marvel narrative universe, the two worlds are running side-by-side at this point, and fans will only become fully invested in the Ultimates universe if and when they feel that the wealth of material in that world so far surpasses the confusing original Marvel world that they are willing to make a switch. At this point, though, both worlds are continuing to gain a deeper reserve every month, as fans immerse themselves in both.

The entire conception of pro wrestling seems odd, a con game that fans know is a ruse yet watch both for its narrative potential and its athletic exhibition. The fact that this version of professional wrestling is at least a century old now, though, gives fans the feeling that, even if a current promoter goes under, pro wrestling will live on. Since pro wrestling's history is tied to actual athletes and careers, there is no one company that can control wrestling history, and fans feel that pro wrestling as a performance art will remain a staple of American and international culture for centuries to come. That feeling of permanence drives much of the obsession with archiving and preserving "wrestling history."

Soap operas are often called "worlds without end." Now that some shows have been on television every day for more than 50 years, fans often feel that there is or at least should be a permanent niche for these shows. In recent years, with slowly declining ratings, some fans realize that may not be the case. They blame what they see as incompetent marketers and lazy creative regimes as ruining many shows, and they worry about rumors for cancellation for various shows. Still, even amidst a looming concern that the network could pull the plug, fans consume the daily text as if there is no chance for this to happening, talking often about the future as well as the past and seeing these narrative worlds of One Life to Live or The Young and the Restless as a permanent part of their lives.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Marvel or DC universe would still be alive and well a century from now. There is an increasing fear that Procter and Gamble Productions or Corday or Bell or a variety of others will decide to pull the plugs within a few years, much less decades. And what's to keep wrestling from going the way of roller derby or various public carnival events that--once a staple of popular culture--is either no longer a part of our culture at all or else an historicized form of popular art? Nevertheless, the fans, performers, and producers of these shows have participated in these worlds for so long that a looming end does not haunt them in the same way that the producers of a primetime television series must be thinking about a semi-distant ending shortly after they have begun.


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on May 07, 2007.

As regular readers of the C3 blog might know, I have been in the process of completing my thesis here at MIT. Henry Jenkins recently included some excerpts from my work on his blog, so I wanted to include that same work here as well, since the concept of immersive story worlds has cropped up in my work here on the C3 blog from time-to-time. The concept is an important one, I believe, to understanding the power of mining archives, of transmedia storytelling, and a variety of other factors we discuss here at C3 on a regular basis.

This will the the first of two posts that fleshes this idea out further here on the blog--

My History with Immersive Story Worlds

Growing up an only child with a stay-at-home mom, I spent my childhood days engrossed in what I have come to call immersive story worlds. In truth, I began my relationship with popular culture with no more than an antenna connection and a collection of toys. For me, it was G.I. Joe. I have never fancied being a military man and really do not remember too many playground days spent pretending to be a soldier, but the world of G.I. Joe fascinated me nonetheless. The dozens of characters I found for $2.97 apiece at Wal-Mart drove my interest in the alternate military reality these characters inhabited. Every toy included a biography of that character on the back, which I clipped and kept--in alphabetical order no less. I ended up with a group of friends who also collected and kept up with the world of G.I. Joe.

My love for G.I. Joe soon spilled over into the Marvel G.I. Joe comic books, where these characters came to life. I read those comics until the covers fell off, hoping to learn everything I could about each character and apply that knowledge to the games I played as well. I soon became engaged with the whole Marvel comic book universe, and I spent most of my $10 weekly allowance following the weekly or monthly adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk, and a slew of other colorful characters. Yet again, I found contemporaries at school who shared my interest in comic books. They wanted to be comic book artists, and I wanted to be a comics writer, so we set about to create a comic book universe of our own.

At the same time, I was becoming familiar with another immersive story world, that of the superstars of the World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE. My cousins had long told me the legends of Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior, but I didn't know where to tune in to glimpse into this universe from a syndication window. However, my parents' decision to get a VCR opened me up to a slew of videotapes my cousins mailed to me and the growing collection of wrestling shows available at the local rental shops and convenience stores. Finally, I even convinced my neighbors to let me come over and start watching the Monday night wrestling shows since they had cable television. The Marvel superhero universe and the World Wrestling Federation were my media fascinations, and they both fit into this category I now write about as immersive story worlds, a concept I will flesh out in the next couple of posts.

Enter As the World Turns

There was another immersive story world that I had been involved with as well, one that I was not completely cognizant of being a fan of at first. It was what my grandmother always referred to as "the story" and probably the narrative in which I first came to know a slew of familiar faces, an immersive story world that predated my interest in G.I. Joes, super heroes, or professional wrestling. That narrative was Procter & Gamble Productions' As the World Turns (ATWT), a daily daytime serial drama that has been on the air since 1956. For as long as I can remember, ATWT was a part of my weekday afternoon, and the familiar faces of the Hughes family, joined by the evil James Stenbeck, the scheming Dr. John Dixon, the incomparable Lucinda Walsh, the down-to-earth Snyders, the lively Lisa Grimaldi, and a host of other characters were regular parts of my childhood.

I may not have realized that I was immersed in the fictional world of Oakdale, Illinois, until I started wondering what was happening to those characters when the school year began and I was no longer home in the afternoons. By the mid-1990s, I convinced my mom to record the show so I could watch it when I came home from elementary school every day. In fact, I was a somewhat closeted soap opera viewer all the way through most of high school. By my junior year, though, I had started a night job after school and lost contact with the residents of Oakdale.

By the end of my senior year of high school, I was married. My distance from ATWT didn't last, though, and my wife and I were dedicated viewers of the soap opera again a couple of years into college. With so many familiar faces and back stories to remember, it was hard not to get pulled back into the narrative and eventually join fan communities to find out what had happened in the world of ATWTwhile I had been away. My continued interest in this show is closely connected to the social relationships I built around it. The conversations I would join with my mother and grandmother about "the story" have continued over dinner every night with my wife. In the process, I have come to understand soap viewing as a social activity, which helped tremendously in understanding and becoming a part of the fan community built around ATWT.

Perhaps just as importantly, I have come to understand soap operas as primarily powered by character-driven storytelling. The strength of this genre lies in relationships, including the relationships characters have with one another, the relationships between these characters and the fans, and the relationships fans build around these texts. Soap operas are hindered by plot-driven storytelling because the permanent nature of the soap opera, with no off-season and 250 original hours of programming each year, emphasizes slow storytelling that examines the emotion and nuances of events rather than just "what happens." Comic books and pro wrestling are personality and character-driven genres as well, and good storytelling is consistently determined by the fan base of each genre as those in which the relationships among characters (and the performances of the actors or artists depicting those characters) are logical, well-written, and fleshed out.

These three narrative types--the daytime serial drama, the pro wrestling world, and the DC and Marvel universes--share a set of similarities I have grouped under this category of immersive story worlds. By this term, I mean that these properties have a serial storytelling structure, multiple creative forces which author various parts of the story, a sense of long-term continuity, a deep character backlog, contemporary ties to the media property's complex history, and a sense of permanence. I will examine each of these aspects over the next few pages.

This thesis concentrates particularly on the immersive story world of As the World Turns and its current status in a shifting media landscape. My interest in this soap opera text is heavily tied to my fascination with this type of immersive story world in general, in which one can never truly "master" the material. Immersive story worlds provide a space particularly rich for interaction between a text and a vibrant fan community that critiques, energizes, maintains, and fills in the gaps of that official canon. Further, as Henry Jenkins writes in Convergence Culture, the "extension, synergy, and franchising (that) are pushing media industries to embrace convergence" have long been a part of these narrative worlds in one fashion or another, so that these marginalized texts have a lot to offer for informing other media producers. These worlds are unusually ripe for transmedia content, user-generated content, and a wealth of online fan forums. However, they also generate a distinct niche fan environment that is both energized by and suffers from being considered somewhat fringe, even as each has long been a massive cultural phenomenon. In order to understand exactly what is meant by immersive story worlds, however, it is important to examine each characteristic of this categorization.

Seriality

All three types of worlds within this category share a strong sense of seriality. While soap operas have best taken advantage of seriality and have made that never-ending unfolding of drama part of their very definition, they are often tied together with telenovelas and other forms of melodrama which do not have the same type of long- term seriality that soaps have. Soap operas can master storylines that unfold over weeks, months, or even years in a way few other texts can. For instance, there is a
long-running feud on
As the World Turns between characters Kim Hughes and Susan Stewart that began after Dr. Stewart slept with Kim's husband Bob--back in 1990. That plot point often creeps up in current storylines and will not be forgotten in the show's history. Similarly, in 2006, the explosively popular Luke and Laura supercouple from General Hospital in the 1970s were reunited for a short time in storylines, drawing on 25 years of history for the couple, still portrayed by the same actors.

Over time, seriality has become a conscious part of creating immersive story worlds, and strong utilization of quality serial storytelling was not a requirement of any of these media forms in their infancy but rather the way in which creators constructed these worlds over time. For instance, according to Bradford W. Wright in Comic Book Nation, Marvel deserves much credit for creating a loosely cohesive narrative universe. Many comic book stories before that time were each standalone tales, with the characters returned to a static point at the end of each issue, from which the next story would drive from as well. Even after the creation of the Marvel Universe, creators often failed to capitalized on the potential for seriality, and most monthly installments were isolated stories. However, t Marvel titles featured an increasing number of crossovers and ongoing storylines, not just in the battle between good and evil but in the personal lives of the characters as well--work relationships, romantic entanglements, and supporting family members whose personal dramas were as compelling at times as the main narrative.

One can see how important seriality is particularly in the Ultimates Marvel universe that has become popular in recent years. At the beginning of the decade, Marvel decided to relaunch the stories of several of its characters in contemporary times, telling familiar stories of the origins of Marvel staples like Spider-Man while being able to map out a more coherent continuity. Now that the Ultimate Spider-Man title has passed its centennial issue, the new universe is building its own continuity and makes particularly good use of seriality, with the personal lives of the characters of each title run often much more important in the long-term than the hero's battle with super-villains or else interwoven so completely between the various parallel plots that the continuity from issue to issue is much more developed than the comic book series in previous decades.

The rise of the graphic novel relates closely to these changes. The strength of the Marvel universe is that it has created a more viable archiving system than that of pro wrestling or soap operas, which are still struggling with ways to make previous content readily available for viewers. The popularity of the graphic novel has given fans an easy way to collect and archive their favorite comic book runs, and the format of the graphic novel--grouping together multiple issues from a comic book run--encourages writers to work even harder at developing serial storytelling from issue-to-issue.

Pro wrestling has long used seriality in booking various wrestling feuds. Television shows were used to create storylines to make people want to go to the arenas and pay for a ticket to see the matches that were set up from television interviews and angles. Often, a contested ending between two wrestlers at one show made fans want to return to the arena next month to see the rematch and the drama continue between two competitors. For instance, at Madison Square Garden in 1981, then WWE Champion Bob Backlund was defending his title against a grappler named Greg "The Hammer" Valentine. During the melee, the referee was accidentally hit and knocked to the mat, groggy. The referee saw that Backlund had his challenger pinned and counted the three. Because he still had not recovered from his own fall, the referee did not distinguish which wrestler had the other pinned (both men were wearing the same color tights), so when Valentine started celebrating as if he had been the one who had scored the pin instead of being the one who was down for the count, the referee handed him the championship belt. Backlund, of course, contested the finish, and the decision was made to have a rematch for the held up title when the WWE returned to Madison Square Garden the next month. In this case, there was both a standalone storyline on that particular card and also an ongoing story that fans would return to see from one month to the next.

However, the WWE and other wrestling organizations have developed the serial format of wrestling over the years much further, especially as the television product became more important in itself rather than just driving fans to watch the wrestlers perform in person. The writers discovered that they way to get fans to tune in from one week to the next and purchase the culminating pay-per-view events was to build ongoing feuds in serial fashion, with the each episode always pointing toward the next and each pay-per-view not only producing the climax for some feuds but creating ongoing chapters in others or creating new storylines that would play out in the coming months.


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on April 28, 2007.

One of the biggest news items in terms of media distribution over the past week, especially as my thesis defense on soap operas in a convergence culture looms on the horizon, is that the NBC Daytime series Passions, the soap opera set to be cancelled in the fall, will not be disappearing after all but rather picked up by DirecTV as content exclusive to the satellite provider.

According to the press release from DirecTV and NBC Universal, "under the new agreement, NBC Universal Television Studio will produce brand-new episodes to air Monday-Thursday on DIRECTV's original programming channel, The 101."

DirecTV's EVP of Entertainment Eric Shanks said that "Passions fans no longer need to mourn the demise of their beloved program as it has found new life on DirecTV."

Josef Adalian with Variety calls this DirecTV's "largest original programming initiative ever." The budget will be lower, at $700,000 per week (1/3 lower than it is now), and there will only be four episodes a week instead of five, which will help producers deal with that lower budget.

Adalian writes, "Snagging Passions makes sense for DirecTV, which has found success offering subscribers programming they can't get elsewhere [ . . . ] Now, DirecTV has a product with strong female appeal, albeit to a relatively small audience base of about 2 million. However, if only 25% of the show's aud ends up subscribing to DirecTV, the deal could pay for itself."

NBC will be able to make money with Internet advertising and transmedia components of the show, as well as product placement deals.

However, the deal with DirecTV means, at least for now, complete exclusivity to the service provider, meaning that the show can no longer be available in multiple media forms, like iTunes.

Back in January, I wote about the cancellation of Passions and now television shows today are going to be "less hitty." I wrote, "Soap operas are supposed to be 'worlds without end,' but when the creative teams of the shows, the marketers behind the shows, the networks that airs the shows, and the fans that watch the shows have to constantly think about the fact that this soap might not be around in five years, how is anyone supposed to have the confidence in doing what soaps do best??"

A 26 January 2007 Bloomberg article from Michael Janofsky caught my attention, based on the cancellation of Passions, because it drew out so many people who started talking about soaps with the rhetoric of "a genre in decline," that made me afraid of a "self-fulfilling prophecy." I wrote:

Soap operas are all about the narratives of everyday life. The soaps industry seems to be crafting a "no" mea culpa approach to the soaps industry, a decline driven solely by external factors that no one in the industry could have stopped. Again, not everyone, but as an overall explanation of soaps' history since the 1980s, this has been the narrative the industry chooses to tell itself. And it is based on reality, but it's an oversimplification that also must face the fact that these narratives were not compelling enough to hold many viewers to them. Women in the workforce and increased competition is something the industry can't help. Doing everything possible to get behind these shows and improve them to retain the viewers that are left--that's what's missing from the rhetoric.

I'd like to see someone start telling an alternate story...before the industry writes itself into a corner.

Now that DirecTV is picking up Passions, it is great news not just for Passions and its fans but for soap operas in general. Perhaps this alternate form of distribution will provide an alternate type of discourse not about the inevitable cancellation of soaps but a continued Long Tail model of soaps that lives on, in traditional TV distribution, even if not on one of the main networks.

Of course, I have some problems with the exclusivity of the DirecTV deal, in which those fans who will not or cannot get DirecTV will not have access to Passions. I can see the value in creating a deal over time where the show will be released on DVD or through online digital initiatives, on a time delay, that will allow the product to disseminate further, and perhaps DirecTV and NBC Universal can come up with a deal long-term that will allow for those continued form of distribution after the initial DirecTV viewing.


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on April 22, 2007.

On Friday evening, the first presentation as part of C3's Collaboration 2.0 was actually one that some readers of this blog might be quite familiar with, since my research has been built through a variety of posts here and some of the insights of various readers who have posted comments in response to those ideas. My thesis research here at MIT has focused on taking the perspective of the Convergence Culture Consortium and apply the types of issues we look at here to the soap opera industry in particular.

I'm a longtime soaps fan, and my interest in watching CBS' As the World Turns was driven by my grandmother and my mother's relationship with their "story." Today, my mom still watches, and my wife and I watch soap operas regularly. My contention has long been that soap operas can only truly be understood as a social text that reaches its fullest potential when one takes into account these relationships that are built around the daily text.

As I've worked on this research on the soap opera industry for the past two years, I have presented my work on a regular basis here on the blog as it has developed, and I have been appreciative by the many readers here, on soap opera fan boards, and in the industry for their insights that helped shape my study. Most recently, I was part of the soap opera panel at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association's national conference here in Boston, sharing my work with academics who have long worked on the soap opera genre such as Barbara Irwin and Mary Cassata. We had a soap opera roundtable afterward, joined by great thinkers like David Feldman and others, who even further helped develop some of these ideas.

See my C3 bio here.

My thesis project will be defended here at MIT at the beginning of May, and any of the readers who have posted about my soap opera research in the past who might be interested in knowing more about my research can reach me at samford@mit.edu.

For readers curious about my work and this presentation at Collaboration 2.0, however, I will point you toward some of my previous posts on the subject here on the blog:

Legacy Characters and Rich History: How Soap Operas Must Capitalize on Their History (and Pay Attention to the Lessons of the WWE)

Oakdale Confidential: Secrets Revealed: How the Book's Reprint Is an Even More Striking Example of Transmedia Storytelling (with a Tangent about Bad Twin at Intermission)

Building Soaps as Long-Term Brands: A Diatribe on Laura's Return on General Hospital

Soap Operas in Convergence Culture and the Self-Fulfilling Propehcy of "a Genre in Decline"

Y&R/ATWT's L.A. Diaries on CBS innertube: An Intriguing Approach to Transmedia Storytelling


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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on April 9, 2007.

There are still several angry viewers out there, and the new approach by TV network SOAPnet leaves many questioning whether the company was in it to be the Long Tail platform it had originally claimed.

The cable channel, which has been built around airing several daytime soap operas in the evening after they air on their main networks during the day, has supplemented that material with content from the archives of popular cancelled soaps like Another World and Ryan's Hope...that is until a new daytime lineup came along and bumped off a lot of the soaps.

Now, instead of Another World, the channel will feature One Tree Hill, The O.C., reruns of ABC Family's Falcon Beach, and is featuring regular airings of Dallas as well--four hours a day, in fact. The network will also be launching General Hospital: Night Shift later this year, as I wrote about last month.

Ryan's Hope has been moved from its daily airing to Sunday morning and will now air from 6 a.m. until 7 a.m. Further, the short-lived Port Charles has been moved to 6 a.m. on Saturday only. Considering that, as Daniel R. Coleridge with TV Guide notes, the Another World reruns were averaging a 0.0 in the Nielsen's among the target 18-49 female demographic, that's not a good sign. Of course, it's also probably a sign that the Nielsen's don't help much when trying to measure Long Tail targeted material of the type that SOAPnet is pushing, but that's another story.

The question raised by the fans of these classic soaps is what the point of SOAPnet was, if it's going to now feature significant content from primetime shows that these fans argue aren't really even soap operas and that primetime dramas like The O.C. and 90210 and Dallas don't fit into the brand identity of a soap opera cable network.

Of course, considering the traditional system of cable advertising sales and the centrality of the Nielsen ratings, one can hardly argue with the changes SOAPnet is making, but it nevertheless angers a lot of real and dedicated soap opera fans, for instance the 1,327 signatures on an Another World petition that has been circulating. There are currently 577 signatures on a Ryan's Hope petition circling as well.

Fan boards have been alive with plans for write-ins, further petitions, and voice mails to the powers that be at SOAPnet to voice their displeasure.

For instance, fan Luray on the Soap Central board writes:

Frons is all about attracting young, hip viewers. What he doesn't realize is:

a) People in his adored demographic of 18-34 are watching this show, too.

b) I have more money to spend on advertisers' products than a 25-year-old

c) I'm 48 years old and I'm pretty damn hip!

An often-viewed post over on Snark Weighs In says:

The Soapnet audience is small. And as long as it revolves around current daytime soaps, third-rate original programming, and endless reruns of 90's/early 2000's fare, I don't see it growing much further. Now, it appears Soapnet is willing to fritter away the most loyal viewers they have, in what is, at best, a weak bid at picking up a few thousand younger viewers. That's at best. Because even going by that reasoning, I want to know how a schedule aimed at grabbing younger demos includes four hours a day of Dallas.

Many fans said they specifically purchased digital cable and asked their local carrier to pick up SOAPnet so they could see this content and that they felt cheated after the amount of work they put into getting SOAPnet launched in so many markets, that they were used as the proselytizers on the ground level only to be dumped when the channel go the national penetration it was looking for.

The question here is still a balance between impressions, in which these shows were not doing well, and the dedication the viewers have to the show. The cancellation is not just about losing programming but a feeling from loyal SOAPnet fans, the most dedicated core of the fan base, that they are not being respected.

See my previous posts about these issues in relation to soaps here and here.

In the meantime, Another World will continue to be featured on PGP Classic Soaps through AOL Video.

Thanks to Therese Moss' e-mail to CMS which helped prod me to finally writing about this, since I had been meaning to for some time.


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