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Sam Ford

This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on April 5, 2007.

Earlier today, I wrote about some of the initial impact of college viewers being calculated into the Nielsen ratings, and in that post, I mentioned that daytime viewership is up 5 percent taking into account the 135 or so college students now included in the Nielsen numbers, if my understanding of the sample is correct.

There has been further analysis of those numbers in a couple of articles, one at the beginning of daytime measurement from Forbes, and another written this past week from MediaWeek.

When the college viewers were first added to the sample back in January, I wrote, "Soap opera fans are discussing these ratings and wondering what it means, if anything, for measuring soaps viewing and also for how much soaps will focus on college audiences. At one time, especially before cable provided so many alternatives, soap opera viewing was significant on campus and still probably adds in viewers not currently counted."

Forbes' Rick Kissell, in the first week of Nielsen numbers, wrote that "NBC's young-skewing combo ofDays of Our Lives and Passions shot up by more than 30% this week to week among adults ages 18 to 24." He further reported that ABC's General Hospital and CBS' Guiding Light received more than 20 percent more viewers in that category, and that As the World Turns saw an increase as well, whileYoung and the Restless did not gain in the week-to-week demographics.

Cut to John Consoli's article in Monday's MediaWeek.

Consoli begins with the continued ratings decline that has been well-documented among the nine soap operas, pointing out that most advertisers do not want to give up on the genre because it is perhaps the best targeted women's programming on the air, and he says that NBC has decided to "stick with Days of Our Lives," and that Young and the Restless is the only soap to add new viewers over the past season (although I'm not sure what a season is considered for a show that is never off season).

By this point, some of the trends Forbes noted in the first week aren't seen two months out, but there's another reason for that as well, which I'll get to below. Y&R, which did not gain in that first week, is reported by Consoli to have a o0.3 ratings rise among women 18-24, a 30 percent increase in that demographic, followed by ABC's General Hospital with a .2 gain and .1 gain for both ATWT and GL, as well as B&B. The other two ABC soaps stayed the same, while the NBC shows actually declined during this time.

Of course, it's still hard to pinpoint two months out how much of this is due to the few new college viewers added into the measurement or how much is due to rises or drops in the qualities of certain programs. For instance, Passions' continued drop could also be due to viewers abandoning a sinking ship, as the show is headed toward a definite cancellation this summer.

Whatever the case, it's interesting that the trends are looking quite different after two months than they did after one week. The only continuous data point was the increase for GH, GL, and ATWT in the target demo.

But there's another explanation as well, and it's simple--Forbes is looking at adults 18-24, whileMediaWeek is looking particularly at the female demographic.

What interests me most is the rhetoric of continued commitment to the soap opera, though, as compared to the Bloomberg article I wrote about back in February 

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I know a lot of people were shocked that General Hospital did not receive a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series at the 34th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, but am I the only one who found the snub founded?  Next year, yes, perhaps, recognition should be awarded because the Metro Court storyline was excellent in exposition as was its aftermath which included the death of  Alan Quartermaine (Stuart Damon).  With this being said, my rooting is one hundred percent reserved for One Life To Live and one GH player in particular:  Julie Marie Berman (LuLu). She has been a standout performer who manages to hold her own again any actor the show decided to pair her with.

In my humble opinion, it is no surprise that Steve Burton (Jason) was overlooked in the Lead Actor Category.  I don't believe the thespian is as deft at his craft as so many others cheer and ultimately exclaimed with his Supporting win in1998;  his expressions remind me of someone who is either constipated or utterly dumbfound at all times. And as previously noted, I did not feel Maurice Benard (Sonny) was slighted as much as I am surprised he agreed to allow Burton fill the slot in a year where this mental health advocate was finally allowed for Sonny to play his long sought after mania plot. 

                     My money,  once again, is on Anthony Geary  (Luke). 
                    While it is true that the actor's unique 
                    contract affords him ample time away from Port Charles,
                    when the five-time Emmy winner is called upon to
                    entertain the audience he molds a perfect piece of
                    work every time  matter how vapid - or weighty - the
                    plot. Luke and Laura's (Genie Francis) reunion during
                    November sweeps only reinforced Geary's range and
                    reminded many of us why the supercouple continues
                    to remain so beloved.
                   
                   I was also somewhat shocked to see As The World
                  Turns' Michael Park (Jack) land in the Lead Category.  I
                  adore Park as a person and consider him an able
                 performer, but Lead?  I don't think so.
I was disheartened to find Greg Vaughan (Lucky, GH) receive zero applause from his peers as 2006 was a busy year for his alter ego and viewers were able to really witness for the first time how capable the actor is when asked to step up to the plate.
I'm rooting for Lesli Kay (Felicia) in the Lead Actress Category; she did a magnificent job on The Bold and The Beautiful and totally immersed herself in the role as a cancer patient, proving her loyalty  to the show.  It is yet another painful reminder for GH to see a talent it once owned lost to a competitor because of its writing team's lack of creativity.

I am attending church nearly every day to pray The View does not receive Best Talk Show Host(s) or Show, mostly because I find the addition of Rosie O'Donnell a real detriment not only for the way in which she monopolizes the chatfest but also the patronizing manner she displays toward fellow co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck

-NYCGAL


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Sam Ford

The following post originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Web site on 11 March 2007.

Following up on the reality show InTurn on CBS innertube, As the World Turns is now partnering with fellow CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless to produce a transmedia Webisode series calledL.A. Diaries. The project, branded "Daytime Digital," takes an interesting and innovative approach in how to use a Webisode in several ways, which I will get into below.

The plot? As Linda Marshall-Smith with Soapdom explains, "It's a five-week series and takes place in a recent flashback sometime after Alison left ATWT in 2005 and before Amber arrived at Y&R last fall. Apparently, the two met while working at a dive bar in Venice, California where both young women resorted to a life of - get this - internet porn in order to make ends meet."

In short, I think the L.A. Diaries approach is instructive because of the way it appeals to the fan bases of multiple existing shows, the tight focus of the story, the way the series reintroduces characters by explaining their backstories, the way the series is used to launch a new storyline on the shows, and the crossovers back onto both ATWT and Y&R.

1.) Cross-show appeal. L.A. Diaries does what has occasionally been attempted with the main shows themselves. It becomes a space to tell a crossover story between two long-running shows. The Young and the Restless has crossed over with As the World Turns before, but it was a one-off deal, whenY&R attorney Michael Baldwin was called into Oakdale to help out in a custody case. Since Genoa City, Wisc., is reasonably close to Oakdale, Ill., in the fictional world of soaps, the two worlds can indeed have some crossover, and this digital offering expands on what has been a long-standing soap tradition of occasional crossover.

2.) Tight focus. These Webisodes can expand on exploring the crossover of characters from two different shows because it puts them in a special situation, outside of Oakdale and Genoa City, that allows fans of either show to watch and not be bogged down with such a learning curve in trying to figure out who all the characters are. By focusing on Y&R's Amber Moore and ATWT's Alison Stewart and their exploits in Los Angeles, this approach can delve further into the storytelling potential in a crossover than having a character pop up for a onetime appearance on another show.

3.) Reintroducing characters. In this case, both Amber and Alison have been off the canvas. Alison left town some time back with her boyfriend Aaron to help care for his mother in Seattle. Only this week did ATWT viewers learn that Alison and Aaron had broken up around Christmas. To further complicate things, Amber was formerly a character on The Bold and the Beautiful, played by the same actress, from 1997 until 2005, which is set in L.A. She showed up on Y&R back in November, making her a crossover character before even appearing in L.A. Diaries, but viewers who knew her from B&Bdid not know where she had been in the interim. L.A. Diaries presents a chance to explore what Amber was up to while she was between these two shows. For more info on Amber's character history, look here.

Meanwhile, Alison Stewart left Oakdale in 2005, last played by Jessica Dunphy, and will return played by Marnie Schulenberg. L.A. Diaries not only gives new viewers the chance to see Alison and older viewers the chance to learn where Alison has been, but it also gives Schulenberg the chance to bond with the audience as the new version of Alison before she ever debuts on the main show. Taking over as a recast can often be hard, and previous actress Dunphy was well-liked in the role, so L.A. Diariesmay act as a way to overcome that barrier. For more about Alison, look here.

4.) Launching a new storyline. ATWT seems to be going quite a different direction with Alison, andL.A. Diaries acts as a chance to fill viewers in on how and why Alison's life has changed to help explain why she is so much different when she pops onto ATWT.

5.) Crossovers with the main show. L.A. Diaries kicked off with Alison showing up on Y&R. Amber went to Las Vegas, and Alison showed up as her old best friend from L.A. for one episode, as the girls pulled a con to make a man think he had married Amber in a drunken stupor (Alison actually dressed up as a man and used his ID to really marry him). During that one appearance, it was never acknowledged she was the same Alison as from ATWT, since the character is now played by a different actress, but that led to the beginning of L.A. Diaries. Soon, Emily, Alison's sister, will set out on a quest to find her sister after finding out what she's been up to in L.A. (reportedly involving pornography), and she'll end up making an appearance on Y&R later this month.

Overall, as Marshall-Smith points out, the storyline stretches across three of four CBS soap operas through this transmedia Webisode series. As the folks over at Soap Central point out, "CBS has embarked on what will be a first for the network - a storyline crossover that will span two daytime drama series, two different production companies and two different entertainment mediums."

Some viewers are questioning how much real depth there is in L.A. Diaries, in that there's probably more potential in the idea than in the actual product, but I like this idea of introducing a returning character through a Webisode series to help prepare viewers in the ways I listed above. Most people's objections is to the porn storyline itself, but I think this could be a strong new tool to introduce characters or give backstory on a more regular basis, as Barbara Bloom points out in her press release quote from many of the reports.


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Sam Ford

This piece originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Web site on 10 March 2007.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Ivan Askwith made an appearance on the blog to announce a recent report that soap opera General Hospital would be spawning a primetime spinoff as part of the first original dramatic programming from cable network SOAPnet.

The partnership makes sense because ABC owns SOAPnet, and the network also owns its own soaps, as opposed to CBS Daytime, which gets programming from Procter & Gamble Productions and Bell.

In Ivan's report, from information he got from Cynthia Turner's Cynopsis, he pointed out that the show would be seralized, with 13 one-hour episodes that will focus on some current characters on the show. He wrote, "Not transmedia in the traditional sense -- no platforms being crossed just yet -- but it's an interesting experiment in creating television spin-offs that remain tightly linked to the narratives of their parent show."

As more news comes out about General Hospital: Night Shift, I wanted to add further information. Connie Phillips, who writes Making the Rounds at General Hospital over at Blogcritics.org, emphasizes that the show will be "centered around the hospital and will go a little deeper into the storylines originally run on the base show as well as dig a little deeper into the characters' lives and relationships."

Phillips writes, "One can only wonder if they will choose to use this platform as a showcase for veteran actors and characters that have not been receiving much screen time as of late. Long time fans of the show were broken-hearted over the recent decision to kill off Dr. Alan Quatermaine, a character who has graced the show for thirty years, and many fan-based boards have clamored for the soap to turn away from the mob-driven stories and bring focus back to the hospital the show was built on."

The show will be written by Robert Guza, Jr., who is the head writer of General Hospital as well. Apparently, the plan is for a storyline to start on the daytime show and be the driving force for beginning the SOAPnet series. The show will be starting on SOAPnet sometime this summer.

Jon Lafayette with TelevisionWeek points out that SOAPnet is one of the fastest-growing cable channels as far as clearing distributions. According to the statistics he listed, the show's availability has grown to about 58 million homes, 11 million of them in the past year alone.

Lafayette writes, "Mr. Frons said SoapNet will be able to use actors and characters that are already loved by million of viewers (sic). The sets are already built. And viewers can be told that a story line started on ABC will be continued on SoapNet."

This ties back into Phillips' question about getting back to the original focus of the show through SoapNet and a series centered on the hospital itself. Could this become a forum for veteran talent through a refocusing on the hospital? Probably primarily just a dream on the fans' part, since I'm sure the same demographic issues that plague cross-generational storytelling on most daytime soaps will suffer the same fate in primetime crossovers as well, but this ties into what I wrote surrounding the reuniting of Luke and Laura here and here.

In Lafayette's story, SOAPnet General Manager Deborah Blackwell indicated that the show would feature primarily grown children of longtime characters, not quite the haven for veterans Phillips was looking for.

What troubled me most, though, is the quote in Lafayette's story from Blackwell, who he paraphrased as saying that the show "would be hipper than most daytime soaps." Sounds like the problems that I highlighted in the links above still are not fully realized by many in the business, primarily that they don't know how to market their soaps as transgenerational storytelling and seem convinced that these shows are not hip because of the age spread.

That being said, I think there's nothing wrong with a youth-driven spinoff of GH and one that will have higher production budgets and more location shooting, as well as storylines that viewers can follow without necessarily watching GH, although I think the ties between the two shows must be substantial. My only trouble is with a network revealing that they still consider most soap operas inherently "un-hip." I know what they mean, for sure, but the phrasing sheds their programming in a negative light that is not only a poor rhetorical choice but also dangerous in subtly shaping the way the executives themselves look at their programming. If you believe soaps are not hip, are you really the best group of people to be marketing said soaps?

In this case, it was a paraphrase, so I'm not directing this at Deborah Blackwell, who may well be very enthusiastic about he soap opera content she oversees. But this gets back to the dangers of rhetoric creating self-fulfilling prophesies.

We know that ABC is willing to experiment and that they have been playing with the ties between daytime serials and primetime serials. As Lafayette points out, ABC is singular in the fact that it owns its own soaps, so its business model is quite different from that of CBS and NBC. That explains one of the reasons ABC Daytime head Brian Frons can be so much more openly optimistic about the future of daytime.

On the other hand, Linda Marshall-Smith with Soapdom points out that GH tried a daytime spinoff in the past as well, which did not last. Will Night Shift as a one-hour primetime series avoid the fate of daytime spinoff Port Charles?

One final note--this is not the first primetime spinoff for a soap opera. In 1965, As the World Turns had a spinoff for one summer that aired in primetime on CBS called Our Private World, starring the character Lisa and actress Eileen Fulton, who remains on As the World Turns to this day. In that show, Lisa moved to nearby Chicago and starred in her own drama before returning back home after the primetime summer series ended. The show aired twice a week from May until September.


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Sam Ford

This article originally appeared on the Convergence Culture Consoritum Weblog on February 06, 2007.

I haven't gotten back to covering this in full yet, but in a Bloomberg article on 26 January, NBC's Jeff Zucker made the assertion that soap operas are facing "the beginning of the end." This, of course, is based on his cancellation of the parody-of-sorts Passions, which is both the youngest and the least popular of the nine soap operas currently on American daytime television.

The article provides some reasons for such gloomy talk about soap operas as well as a response from various people in the industry. And I think the problem is that, for many people, the mentality is not all that much unlike the theme of this article: "soaps aren't dead yet, but they're gonna be." When network executives like Barbara Bloom, who has the two most popular soaps on American television on CBS and another that is in direct competition with all the ABC soaps for ratings over the past few years for that shifting "number three" spot, doesn't sound that positive, either, it emphasizes the problem: the people in decision-making positions, even those who still remain committed to soaps, are showing ambivalence about doing so.

And, if the networks and industry insiders believe that the decline of soaps are inevitable, then it's going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy

A lot of it has to do with culpability. The narrative that they're telling just sounds easier. "Women started going back to the workforce. Our ratings were going to drop inevitably. There aren't as many people watching in daytime now." (as if soaps can't be married to the VCR and now DVR). Basically, the theme that runs throughout all these explanations of what is happening to the genre is that the decline of soaps is inevitable. No admission of any possible mistakes. Instead, from many creative powers, it's been quite the opposite. It's an assertion that there are no regrets or mistakes made.

But the future of a television genre doesn't have to be sacrificed without a fight, with this sense of slow inevitable death that people are greeting the steady decline in numbers with. I'm not debating that there was an inevitable decline when people had more choices. The number of casual viewers starts dropping considerably. Many people do not have the desire or energy to time shift.

What I'm arguing is that the "inevitability" argument is as dangerous as the quick fix problem I've written about before. It's a cop out and a narrative of mitigation rather than an industry fighting to do everything in its power to curb a trend of dwindling viewers.

But, with Zucker proclaiming the end of soaps, Bloom already emphasizing that soaps should consider an eventual move to other platforms, and an analyst saying that soaps are "not going to go away tomorrow, but it will happen," people have written the ending of the book while it's still chapters away.

One shining light, at least for rhetoric's sake, is Brian Frons. While I've covered several times the ways in which ABC fans are disappointed with and dubious about developments on their shows (I've focused on General Hospital), Frons says his company is taking "a more holistic approach" to soaps, particularly with its dedication to SoapNet. He emphasizes the passion of soap fans, giving some qualitative balance to the story of pure decline that Nielsen numbers tell.

And TeleVest's Brian Cahill, who says of the PGP shows he works with that the demise of soaps on the networks "may be true of NBC, but it's certainly not true of where we are."

None of this is to knock Bloom or Zucker. In Bloom's case, she's exactly right that we must find "a viable business model that works," and she is navigating a constantly changing television landscape. But, mentality is important as well. These networks should decide if they are committed to their daytime lineup or not. And, if they are, there needs to be a stronger drive in maintaining and cultivating these shows rather than remaining at the status quo.

The point of this blog and our initiatives at C3 is that the story of this "age of convergence" is not over yet, and none of us know how it's going to end, not even that prescient media analyst from Horizon Media quoted in the Bloomberg story. However, if the industry decides that it's the end of the line for soaps, then it eventually will be.

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.


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QueenRuler

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Sam Ford

This was originally posted on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on 27 January 2007.

While on the subject of soap operas, I thought I would point out a really interesting development on the soap opera General Hospital that shows just the kind of interesting television genre crossings (of sorts, in this case) that we've written about before. Michael Newman, who teaches film and media studies at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, recently directed my attention toward a post on theEntertainment Weekly Popwatch Blog by Abby West, following up on a story they wrote last year with the head writer of GH and the producer of the primetime series 24 giving their version of the other's show. Now, apparently, General Hospital is going to turn that fun exercise into action.

The plan is for General Hospital, during sweeps month, to enter into a 24-like plot, showing an explosion at a well-known hotel in town and then making the next 16 episodes the 16 hours before the explosion, so viewers can slowly learned what happened leading up to this event. In other words, more than two weeks of the show's programming is going to focus on telling the story of the events leading up to this explosion in real time, a la 24.

There is certainly a connection between these two shows. Although the connections aren't made often enough, the seriality of primetime shows bear a strong ancestry with the construction of daytime television narratives, as I've written about several times before. Yet, with all the hype about seriality in primetime, very few articles in tthe popular press or even in academic circles link this type of plot back to the long lineage of seriality on daytime.

Back in December, I wrote:

The problem is that, despite still having many million viewers, daytime television is considered on the periphery and almost seems like it doesn't even warrant discussion. How has daytime managed to thrive for more than 50 years with complexity as central to its development? Does the low production values and the stereotypes, the sheer volume of content and the fact that these shows often jump the shark and back several times, cause people to dismiss them?

Several of you interested in daytime have followed my previous two pieces about General Hospital's short-term storyline to bring back Laura and do a reuniting of Luke and Laura. My argument then was that the importance of legacy characters and remembering a show's history is that soaps should bring back their former viewers because they are the greatest chance in recruiting new viewers. I wroteback in November that "the only way soaps are going to build their audience back up is first to get a great number of those people who have watched at some point in their lives back into the fold. And, gasp, the majority of those people need not be in the target demographic. I'm talking about getting grandmas and middle-aged mothers and fathers back into the show, so they can get back to work as your grassroots marketers to the younger generations." And my followup post in December urged the creative forces marketing and writing these shows to think of soaps more as long-term plans than worrying about increasing the ratings from week to week or stealing viewers from another show.

I don't find this genre mixing idea, borrowing from a show like 24, to be a problem at all, but I don't think it's a cure-all, either. No short-term plan is. I think this story could be told really well, as long asGeneral Hospital does this real-time storyline while still emphasizing what soaps do best. The important thing to remember when crossing over these two forms of content is, as I wrote about earlier this month, that seriality is a format more than it is a genre. I wrote:

I think the same issue is happening with daytime television, which I continue to have problems with the way in which all these discussions of seriality overlook the nine shows on daytime that have used this format for years or even many decades in some cases. For soap operas, the problem is again a confusion with form and content, so that people start believing that these shows, because they use a serial form, are all a part of the same genre of content, which is not necessarily true. The problem is that even the people in the industry believe it at this point, so that dramas that would supposedly be set in the workplace--General Hospital; dramas about the rich and famous--The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful; dramas about the spectacular and the supernatural, such as Passions and Days of Our Lives; and shows about the real lives of regular people, like As the World Turns and One Life to Live seem to suddenly become not that dissimilar from each other, as the writers of shows themselves confuse the shows they are writing with each other, falling into this genre trap.

Should we compare Heroes and Grey's Anatomy? Of course, it doesn't hurt to, but are they fundamentally the same type of show? What connects The OC and 24? Seriality, of course, but are they of the same genre, really? What are the traditional markers of genre?

Oh, and by the way, in the EW piece, Abby concludes:

And for all of you out there looking down on us soap heads, take a cue from ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, who will be on the Feb. 2 episode of GH as a reporter covering the hostage situation. He's been a fan since he was five years old. "Let this be a lesson to all the ladies out there," he said. "There are men who love the soaps."

Smith and my husband are man enough to admit their serial love. How about you guys? Who'll admit they're stoked to see if GH can pull this off and keep the proper pacing?

I know I have no problem admitting my love for soaps, but I think fan reservations at this point are not directed toward the format but rather whether they think this storyline addresses the problems they see with the current GH storytelling. Fans comments include a lot of statements like the very first comment about whether the show can pull off the 24-inspired storyline, "This fan has serious reservations given what the last 5-6 months have been like!" Other fans guess that this will provide the show a chance to continue showcasing characters and storylines that they do not approve of, particularly in playing into the celebration of mob characters on the show, which has been a point of contention between various parts of the GH fan community for sometime.

Either way, I think the 24-like plot is just the type of things soaps could do well, real-time drama, but it all depends on the way it's told. Soaps should be able to do this with a character-driven emphasis that24 lacks, if soaps play into the power of their own histories and their connection to the audience. If soaps could tell a much less plot-driven real-time buildup for an event like this, I think it would play both to the strengths of borrowing from primetime while also playing up the strengths of daytime serial drama. Guess we'll see.

For more interesting soap opera genre crossovers in the past year, look here, here, and here.


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Sam Ford

I originally posted this to the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on 27 January 2007.

This past week, the American daytime drama Guiding Light celebrated its 70th anniversary with an episode that provides a fascinating historical perspective on another era of media in transition in American history, the cultural move from radio to television.

In the 1930s, the soap opera became a vibrant part of American culture, as radio serials sponsored by soap companies developed the name, and many of the aspects of soaps that remain a characteristic of the drama to this day. Thursday's Guiding Light featured the cast of the show in a tribute to the early history of their own program, as a majority of the cast played the roles of many of the actors and behind-the-scenes players in the early days of the soap, which launched in 1937.

The episode began with the death of a current character on the show, Tammy, focusing on the grief of her loved ones. It launched back to a sermon from the radio show Guiding Light, showing the creative team putting on the show and the way a radio soap opera was done, complete with radio jingles for "Save-All" (would have been great to see a major current P&G product used here, but that's another story). At the helm of the program was Irna Phillips, the creator or co-creator of Guiding Light and several other soaps that are currently on the air.

The focus was on Irna's persona and her auteurship of Guiding Light, how she felt this was a true art form and the way she connected with her fans as a masterful storyteller, while also playing up the blatantly commercial aspects of the genre. I found this to be the most fascinating aspect of the show, the way GL did not hide from the commercial nature of television and emphasizes its artfulness not just in spite of but alongside the blatant "soaps" part of the soap opera. Particularly interesting coming from the only soaps company still in the game, Procter & Gamble.

The episode covered the rise in popularity of Guiding Light and the way the radio show was put together, Irna's idea for write-in campaigns and other ways to connect with her fans, and the launch to television. For a few years, GL aired as both a radio show and television show but eventually became solely a television property, being the only one of the current soaps to have survived from the radio era.

Kudos to the writers for celebrating soap opera history with this program. For anyone who is interested in the current state of soap operas in today's "convergence culture," the episode is worth checking out. I hate it that there wasn't enough promotion for this soap, as the show was fascinating whether or not you are a current viewer or even have ever been a fan of Guiding Light, as it emphasizes the origins of the genre as a whole by showing the trajectory of the history of the genre's oldest show. It could have been a great way to get people watching, but I haven't noticed major significant press about the show's celebration of its 70th anniversary, which is a shame.

Guiding Light, after Passions disappears year, will become the lowest-rated of the current American soap operas. It would definitely be a shame to ever see this longtime part of soap opera history disappear, but one of the things this episode emphasizes is that, unlike As the World Turns, the current Guiding Light bears little resemblance to the show of its origins. The radio show launched focusing on a church, with the "guiding light" being the biblical allusion. Over time--as Thursday's program emphasized--the show switched to a focus on the Bauer family. Unfortunately, there have been a variety of other shifts in the show's history, so that the Bauer family is no longer the major focus and the show's only major link to its great arc of history is through the character of Dr. Rick Bauer (who even dropped to recurring status for a short while a couple of years ago). In fact, they had to consult some of the actors from ATWT because they had actually worked with Phillips. ATWT retains one original cast member now and several others who have been on the show for decades.

70 years is certainly a milestone, and PGP and GL deserve credit for finding an innovative way to pay tribute to their history. With GL at the bottom of the ratings, the episode emphasized to me the long-term power of these shows and the great loss that American television would have if these shows are eventually removed from the lineup. In Allison J. Waldman's article on the show's history inTelevisionWeek, she writes about the ways the show is trying to innovate its storytelling process. "Guiding Light, perhaps more than any other soap, has embraced innovation," she said. "The show has reworked the storytelling by creating special Wednesday episodes called 'Inside the Light.' Each show breaks with the traditional soap storytelling to concentrate on a particular character, relationship or event."

I've written before about the GL podcast, Springfield Burns, and the Marvel/Guiding Light crossover, three innovative and intriguing projects launched by PGP.

Perhaps the most intriguing quote from the TelevisionWeek article, however, was the following: "One thing Guiding Light can't offer, though, is daily rebroadcasts like the soaps that make up the SoapNet schedule," featuring a quote from GL's head writer, saying, "I think a second SoapNet channel would be great for us, or I wish P&G had its own channel." Considering its soap backlog and the possibility of rebroadcasting daily episodes of GL and As the World Turns, there is certainly plenty of material for P&G to have a "SoapNet" style channel all its own. They already have a mini broadband channel through AOL, as I wrote about in August, and it would give some viable alternatives for continuing distribution for the two current shows if CBS ever drops them from the lineup, if they could establish a channel as a viable alternative. I'm sure the economic model would change considerably if that ever happened, but there might be some possibilities.


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Sam Ford

I originally posted this on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on 09 January 2007.

The New York Times is the latest authority to chime in on the controversy of the Fall 2006 television lineup, as people still debate about complex television and the failure of some of the new shows this fall.

By this point, I find that so much of the negativity surrounding seriality has become the way the failure of these various shows have been covered in the popular press, particularly in considering serial programming a genre. That's the language used by reporter Edward Wyatt in this story. After first calling serial programming a "format," he later writes, "All of which has left some fans of the genre wondering whether it is worth committing to untested new serials, or better to wait and see if a new series will be around for more than a few weeks."

That raises an interesting question. Serial programming is not new. Maybe there is a particular bent of serial programming to this new format, but the idea of storylines that connect from week-to-week has helped drive narrative interest in some shows for a long time now. But, to me, the serial format is a mode of storytelling, not a genre of story, at least not in the sense television genres are usually discussed in.

What we have here is a question about genre and how it fits in with form versus content. The problem here in general is this discussion of a genre that seems to be failing to gain attention, but one source points out in the story that more shows in general are serialized this year and that the fact that some of them failed obscures the fact that most TV shows fail every year and that this is no more of a trend than usual. That source, Jeffrey D. Bader from ABC Entertainment pointed to the success of new series like Heroes on NBC, Jericho on CBS, and Brothers & Sisters on ABC as all shows who have a serial format and who are not just surviving but could be considered "working," in his language.

Jason Mittell recently discussed the phenomenon ofunmotivated complexity, in which shows use the serial format in a way that attempts to make the subject matter more complex than it really is, referring to The Nine and the way it reveals what happened in the bank but shows it in flashbacks for no reasons, since all of the characters should have known what happens. In other words, there's no logical reason to obstruct those facts other than to make the show complex.

Meanwhile, this article points out that these shows often assume readers should care about characters before they actually do, such as having a character kidnapped in the first episode without really having an emotional connection with that character. In other words, seriality is not enough to make a show good. In each of these retelling of the stories, it seems that the "truth" hits in the middle of the story, while the popular thrust still seems to be, "We thought these shows would work, but obviously people just don't have the time for these complex shows." Of course that's true, but to borrow a phrase from Lynn Liccardo in a recent comment here on the site, it's treating "seriality" as a genre (which I don't think it is in the first place) that has a "zero sum game," in which there is only a set number of serial television viewers and they are all competing for those same viewers. Why can't it just be that these shows didn't have the complexity to connect with viewers. By this, I mean not narrative complexity, which they obviously had, but perhaps they lack psychological or moral or emotional complexity, to borrow a phrase from Dr. David Thorburn here at MIT. In other words, there are many ways to look at "complexity," and the way the demise of some of these shows has happened indicates a narrowing of the meaning of that word.

I think the same issue is happening with daytime television, which I continue to have problems with the way in which all these discussions of seriality overlook the nine shows on daytime that have used this format for years or even many decades in some cases. For soap operas, the problem is again a confusion with form and content, so that people start believing that these shows, because they use a serial form, are all a part of the same genre of content, which is not necessarily true. The problem is that even the people in the industry believe it at this point, so that dramas that would supposedly be set in the workplace--General Hospital; dramas about the rich and famous--The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful; dramas about the spectacular and the supernatural, such asPassions and Days of Our Lives; and shows about the real lives of regular people, like As the World Turns and One Life to Live seem to suddenly become not that dissimilar from each other, as the writers of shows themselves confuse the shows they are writing with each other, falling into this genre trap.

Should we compare Heroes and Grey's Anatomy? Of course, it doesn't hurt to, but are they fundamentally the same type of show? What connects The OC and 24? Seriality, of course, but are they of the same genre, really? What are the traditional markers of genre?

Language may not make all that big of a difference--see the recent word debate about "fan community" and "fandom," for instance, in a previous post--but I think the terms we use to discuss a subject are an indicator for how we frame an understand that subject.

The article points out one other interesting point that has been made before but deserves to be repeated. As networks continue to cancel so quickly, it likely makes viewers even more reluctant to invest in these shows. And, if viewers don't want to invest in these shows unless they have a guarantee they will last, it seems like it might get even harder to make serial shows last.

For previous posts on this subject, look here.


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Sam Ford

This was originally posted on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on 29 December 2006.

Another interesting piece from Flow that I wanted to bring to everyone's attention is an essay by Craig Jacobsen from Mesa Community College. Jacobsen, in an essay entitled "The Simultaneous Dawning and Twilight of Broadcast Network Narrative", builds on his previous piece on "How TV Met Narrative Sophistication."

Throughout the fall, we have been documenting the debate about the future of complex television. I have written in response to Jeremy Dauber's column in the Christian Science Monitor depicting the ways in which culture has shifted with the rise of DVD viewings and how the broadcast system is not as good at supporting many complex narratives in primetime simultaneously. I wrote about the cancellation of Smith and how "the middle ground gets you cancelled," as well, concluding that:

In this case, what is said about Hollywood makes sense for television as well, and one has to wonder, as show after show falls off network lineups this fall, which of them could have gone on to be major successes in the long-term. But, until there is a monetized way to value the shows that take the middle ground, and until there is more economic incentive on the network's part to care about the success of shows long-term, then would-be fans of Smith and many other shows will have to just keep guessing what might have been.

I also wrote in response to Bill Carter's New York Times piece, in which he made the point that viewers are becoming commitment-phobic in fear that they would devote significant time to a complex narrative, only to see it cancelled. I wrote:

If people aren't willing to devote themselves to a series while it's on the air because they are afraid the cancel-happy networks are just going to pull the rug out from under them, does this mean that the need for a new model is developing for these types of shows? It seems that this current system, where networks want to push shows that are more involved and have a longer shelf-life, is contradicting with the older form of throwing on self-contained shows at the beginning of a season and quickly canceling many of the series.

C3 affiliated faculty member Jason Mittell has joined in this conversation as well, criticizing some shows for what he calls unmotivated complexity.

In response, I pointed out an observation from Dr. David Thorburn here at MIT, who has said many times one of the problems with recent scholarship is that the term "complexity" has been defined too narrowly. I wrote, "It considers complexity only in terms of narrative structure, and he contends that such narrative twists and turns is only complexity in a very shallow sense. That may be the case with the viewer apathy toward some of these shows, in that there is no sense of real commitment but rather only complex storytelling for the sake of being purposefully difficult, with no real or organic reason to withhold information other than to toy with the audience and to be able to claim complexity."

This more recent piece by Jacobsen points out that, while television seems to finally get the power of seriality in its most recent drive for complex television, the problems of broadcast are becoming apparent, in that it is hard to remember details over the course of a season, making primetime television not as agreeable to complex television as some originally thought, as opposed to DVD collections of TV shows.

Jacobsen writes, "Watching a season of a sophisticated high seriality program on DVD makes broadcast's deficiencies even more apparent. When one can exercise an almost novelistic control over narrative delivery (watching multiple episodes in a row, watching when one wants, freeze frame, slow motion, etc.), the experience is notably richer. One is able to appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of genuinely sophisticated narrative, and to engage more deeply with characters' emotional lives."

He concludes, "Such programming requires investments of audience time and energy that seem increasingly unlikely to occur on any schedule other than the audience's own. If that is indeed the case, then networks may be constrained to offering low sophistication/low seriality programming. It isn't hard to imagine a future in which broadcasting serves the role of advertising and secondary revenue stream for the primary medium: complete seasons of episodes packed for sale on DVD or for download."

I think his argument is an important one and one that we've been making for some time. It's the point I've been making about the cancellation of so many shows so early in the season and the point that several of the authors I have reacted to have made. If a show may go on in the long tail to make continued money in DVD boxed sets, how should that factor into decisions made about the initial broadcast of these shows? When you cancel a show for tepid ratings after two episodes, you might kill off a franchise that could have made substantial money in the long-term, perhaps because that show was better served for a DVD release.

Of course, my biggest gripe is that--with the exception of Jason Mittell--no one has brought daytime television into this argument that I have read in recent months. Shows that regularly maintain casts of 30 to 40 characters and might have 10 intertwining storylines happening simultaneously, and Jacobsen is writing about how television can't handle narrative complexity?

The problem is that, despite still having many million viewers, daytime television is considered on the periphery and almost seems like it doesn't even warrant discussion. How has daytime managed to thrive for more than 50 years with complexity as central to its development? Does the low production values and the stereotypes, the sheer volume of content and the fact that these shows often jump the shark and back several times, cause people to dismiss them? How important should these shows weigh in on arguments like Jacobsen's?

Soaps sidestep the problem of only airing once a week for 22 episodes a year and have continuous complexity by constructing a vast cast of characters over time and a narrative universe that fans visit five days a week, without an off-season.

I agree that DVD sets will revolutionize the way television series are maintained, but proclaiming that broadcast, by its very nature, may not be able to allow complexity, needs some caveats. It is the 22-episode structure of primetime runs that causes this problem. There is a whole other history of complex television that has been ignored by many of the critics who are fascinated with the rise of complex television, even though it has existed for decades in daytime.

However, his points in particular about the ability to have a recorded copy of the text to analyze and rewatch is key, as soaps have not traditionally provided this type of activity and are texts that are much too large to archive as a whole or to manage even if you did archive the whole. DVD watching does transform the way these shows are understood.

So, how much should the daytime history of complexity and the long tail success of DVD sales be taken into account when green lighting series and trying to decide what to keep on the air?


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