Hello, dear readers! Today’s original Monday blog is an excerpt from a document I wrote at Colorado State University earlier this year in pursuit of my Master’s degree. For the project that culminated in receipt of my Master’s, I researched soaps and online campaigns, then created my own Save Our Soaps (SOS) group called thistimeitsforever.org (TTIF)–please visit! In section excerpted below, I talk about what essential elements define a “soap opera.” For in order to save something, I figured, I ought to have a good idea about exactly what it is first! I added my own ideas to those of other soap scholars like Sam Ford, Abigail DeKosnik, and C. Lee Harrington came up with the following. The thing that was most interesting to me as I came closer and closer to a complete definition of soap opera is how many shows on TV either pretty much are soaps or borrow heavily from their format. See if you agree! And is there anything you would add to my definition? Please post it in the comments!
WHAT IS A SOAP OPERA?
In order to save something, I felt I and visitors to TTIF should have a handle on what a soap opera is. We should be aware of its genesis, its components, what threatens it. This knowledge primes me to design exercises and activist tasks for TTIF that truly speak to what draws people to soaps and makes visitors to TTIF likely to be moved to carry them out. I will also include in posts to the blog connected to TTIF some of the very discussion that follows, in fact.
Characters living struggles common to many Americans and others bestowed with privileges accessible only to a few of the are parts of the narrative foundation of what Ford calls the “immersive story worlds” (12) that are contemporary soap operas. Ford, DeKosnik, and Harrington identify six essential elements of these fictional landscapes: backstory sprawling in both length and breadth; ensemble casts of foregrounded and supporting characters; the linking of narrative to backstory and show history; stories envisioned and realized by teams of writers working together; serial stories that interlock and morph over time with and even because of each other; and the feeling elicited in consumers of them that the worlds they portray are eternal.
Ford, DeKosnik, and Harrington’s six elements of “immersive story worlds” serve as a beginning in understanding what a soap opera is and how I will use this understanding to save soaps via “thistimeitsforever.org.” Such a definition can also lead us to understanding some of the changes in, broadly, American culture and, more specifically, the television industry that have led to the current state of the disappearance of soaps, one by one—a disappearance that the campaign this document will inform is set to halt, even reverse. So below I will expand on and add to Ford’s six essential soap characteristics.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of soaps is their longevity. When the situation comedy, “Friends,” was renewed for a tenth season, I remember being happily shocked. Normally, if a sitcom airs for eight seasons, as did The Golden Girls, say, its stories are wrapped up on the series finale and it is thought of as having had a good, respectable run. Last year, General Hospital celebrated its 50th year on the air. When it was canceled by CBS, and until I and others bring it back, Guiding Light had been on radio and television airwaves for a combined total of 64 years. And when All My Children went on what I call indefinite hiatus, Susan Lucci had played its iconic character of Erica Kane for its 41-year lifespan. A person could easily be born, live his/her entire life, and die during the lifespan of one soap!
When I have discussed this project with people of various backgrounds—male, female, gay, straight, highly formally educated, less formally educated, from large families, from smaller ones—one response nearly and quite literally inevitably comes up: “I used to watch [fill in soap name] with [fill in family member’s or friend’s name].” There is a multigenerational aspect to soap viewing. Both the more casual viewer and the more dedicated fan very often are turned on to soaps by family members and friends. Frequently this person is a mother or grandmother, adding a maternal aspect to the comfort soaps often provide people, an aspect of soap viewership Spence writes of extensively (152). She writes of the psychological boon soaps often provide people with, particularly the soap fans she interviewed for the study she conducted and recounts in detail in her book, and comfort was a recurring theme in her interviews.
The consecutive (serial) airing and thus viewing of soaps also serves to create deep, if one-sided, bonds between fans and both characters and shows as a whole. Until recently, almost no other medium could boast being on the air five hours a week. Now various digital and online platforms—personal DVR’s, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, and many other websites and viewing platforms, allow for the much more brief but still soap-style watching of any show they have to offer. Also, as soap scholar C. Lee Harrington points out (Ford et. al. 24) cable television channels, such as Lifetime, now devote regular segments of their viewing schedules to daily airings of shows, often ones not considered soaps. As one of many examples, the now-defunct channel SOAPnet, which had been devoted primarily to re-airing episodes of daytime serials both from years past and contemporary ones the same day they aired, included in its daily lineup the hybrid show (a term many in Ford, DeKosnik, and Harrington’s anthology use to identify non-soap shows that borrow heavily from soap storytelling and format.) Take, for example,“Vernoica Mars.” This series originally aired once-a-week, detailing the crime-solving escapades of the title character and was never seen as a soap opera. But when SOAPnet aired it at the same time every day, five-days-a-week, it provided viewers a soap-y phenomena many are drawn to—the ritual and the habit of viewership.
Online platforms and the cable consecutive airings have damaged the appetite for soaps because of the way they allow for serial viewing. As stated above, the serial meting out of non-soap shows by cable channels has taken viewers from soaps, as soaps were once the only place for regularized viewing over time of the same show—though, again, no other genre of television show has or probably ever will match the decades over which soaps carry out this seriality (Simon 7).
The digital and online platforms, such as Netflix or Hulu.com, on which viewers can now serialize for themselves any show available on those platforms encourage “binge-watching,” as it has come to be called. This is when viewers watch an entire series in just a few—even one!—sitting. This type of gluttonous viewing is very much about the moment. The viewer wants to watch the next episode now, he/she can, so he/she will. Who could resist watching every episode of sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine, in three days, as I once did? While this sort of viewing is soap-like in its back-to-back episode aspect, it is not soap-like in two important aspects—its short-lived nature and the way that ritual and the habit is taken out of the equation. One day a viewer begins watching a show on, say, Netflix, and a few days later, the bonds with characters and investment in stories sever when he/she has watched all the episodes and the binge-viewing ends.
The consecutive airing and viewing of traditional soaps is, by contrast, ritualistic and habitual, another aspect of soap viewing key to its past success and the future glory days that my campaign looks to reintroduce, and one that no other television genre has been creatively equipped to match as yet. Soaps have since their radio days continued to air at the same time of day, five days out of the week. In these carefully meted out doses, so to speak, a steady, long-term engagement with soap characters occurs—or with several soaps’ characters, as networks have generally aired soaps in extended blocks of air time, often offering to one soap the audience of the one that came before it (Spence 166). Other rituals—a cup of coffee, a viewer’s alone time, watching with another particular person, folding one’s laundry—naturally develop around the ritual of viewing long chunks of shows, further cementing their importance in viewers’ lives. Soaps, then serve as a way to manage, even enjoy, the small pleasures or domesticity of everyday life.
Significantly, this viewing is not a paroxysm of desire-fulfillment like the modern “binge-watch.” Instead it is a steady, consistent, long-term engagement that helps turn mere viewers into fans, with the way its deliberate pacing nurtures interest in and attachment to soaps and their characters.
And characters are what soaps are truly all about. Agnes Nixon, mother of the modern soap opera (and, as mentioned earlier, creative daughter to soaps’ grandmother, Irna Phillips) has often cited the centrality of character in soaps. In fact, Williams. quotes Nixon as having said that soaps tell the tales humans have been telling each other for centuries, and it is simply the characters that change from story to story, soap to soap (47). Spence also interviewed several soap fans who said the allure and thrill of soaps comes not from wondering what will happen, especially as soap genre conventions include recurring story motifs, but how particular characters will live out that happening (49).
Part of the humanity of the content of soaps and intense fan identification with them is the opportunity they provide for building bonds through sharing characters’ lives in what Ford, DeKosnik, and Harrington call “real time” (Ford , et. al. 17). Spence points out, though, that, “In the daytime serials time moves much more slowly” (94) than in real life and in other genres of fiction, so that the realizing of stories through character, stories meticulously planned, written, and shot for television weeks or months before appearing there, takes longer than it need take.
Take, for example, what has gone down in “General Hospital” history as The BJ’s Heart Story. BJ was a child left comatose and on life support after being stricken by a drunk driver. When her parents, Tony Jones and Bobbi Spencer, realize she will never leave this state and live without the aid of machines, they make the agonizing decisions not only to take her off life support, but to donate her heart to her cousin, Maxie. Maxie herself has been teetering on the brink of death for days at General Hospital, the result of a congenital heart condition. There is a moment, one that still gets this soap fan every time she see it, when Felicia, Bobbi’s good friend and Maxie’s mother, happens upon Bobbi in the hospital and we see the realization dawn on Felicia that BJ’s death has allowed Maxie to live. Felicia collapses to the floor in gut-wrenching sobs, Bobbi runs to embrace her, and the two of them weep together, coming to terms with the tragedy and triumph of these events. This story took days to play out on air, intensifying Bobbi’s and Tony’s loss, Felicia’s joy and later heartbreak, etc. In this slow realizing of story arcs, then, viewer bonds with characters deepen to a level unmatched by any other form of storytelling.
The BJ’s Heart Story also coincided with seminal moments in other deeply moving and brilliantly written stories by mother and son soap scribes, Claire and Matt Labine. Spence and Williams agree that this is another hallmark of soap storytelling: how storylines intertwine and interconnect (see “blocking and weaving” below).
In a film, by contrast, “time is foreshortened to achieve a meaningful intensity” (Spence 94). One example of many comes from the film, Beaches, the story of two women, best friends since childhood. The film begins when the pair is adults and is told mostly in flashbacks. We move from their original meeting on Coney Island in what appears to be the 1950s or 1960s to several later milestones in their friendship, the last occurring in the 1980s. The movie ends in two hours.
On a soap, one event in a character’s life, leading up to it, living it, the repercussions, the benefits or fallout from it, its effects on the lives of characters ancillary to but affected by it, happens over days, weeks, months, even years. “Years” may seem an exaggeration, but when All My Children’s Erica and Jackson realized what is, for now, the last time, that they are meant for each other just as ABC cancelled the soap, it was after, literally, years of dramatic upheaval in both their lives, pairings of both with other parties, and general sudsy, dramatic delays. So that when they do see how perfect they are for each other, a long-awaited and thus truly moving thing has been realized—and viewed.
Part of why soaps can and do exhibit this extended storytelling is because, as Spence points out, what is really being “told” during a soap is character more than story. On long-defunct soap, Ryan’s Hope in Spence’s example, many members of the central family on that show were in law enforcement. But Ryan’s Hope was emphatically not simply CSI: Miami or Law and Order: SVU aired during the day. On those shows, story takes center stage, and the regular characters, though we do bond with them, surely, can be said to be required of the show only to live out its action. The same goes for the “itinerant” characters that come on and off the show canvas in one episode. We inevitably meet one of these characters, as required by the story, in the “teaser” that begins the show, before the credits air, and that same character leaves the show by the end of the episode. On Ryan’s Hope’s, though, even as the particulars of criminal activity, police procedure, judicial goings-on did matter, in that the plots required them to be viable as plots, their actual content was secondary in importance to how it was realized by and what it showed about the characters who lived them.
Also important in understanding (and by extension, saving, through TTIF) soaps are the concepts of story blocking and weaving. Williams defines blocking as the parallel running through one or more episodes of several storylines, so that each one can be thought of as appearing and being viewed in adjacent “blocks.” Weaving is the interrelatedness and intertwining of stories and characters on soaps. Much like the threads of fabric that make up a rug, stories and characters on soaps depend on each other for structure and support.
Even the cinematography of soaps highlights character. If we think of the face as the primary repository and conveyer of emotions on the human body (Pinker 298), then it is no coincidence that most scenes on a soap consist of shots of characters from the waist up (Spence 151).
The end of a scene often coincides with the end of a sentence, highlighting the thought someone has expressed, another example of the paramount nature of character in soap operas. Modern rhetoricians such as Jeanne Fahnestock, have argued that in most cases the information a rhetor places at the end of a sentence sticks in the mind of she who hears or reads it. Transferring this to visual rhetoric, soap scenes often end with a zoom in on a character’s face, that which the human eye “zooms in on” when its owner is invested in what his interlocutor is saying. So the zoom -in highlights both conversation and character, the two mainstays of soap storytelling.
This hyper-concentration on character can make the last aspect of storytelling particular to soaps that I will mention as germane to my attempt to save them through TTIF seem paradoxical: the cliffhanger scene and episode, which are on the surface story- not character-based. The etymology of the term “cliffhanger” can again be traced back to Irna Phillips, who said she wanted her audiences to “cliff-hang” (Simon 58) at the end of an episode to ensure they first listen to and later view the next episode. Spence quotes Agnes Nixon as having said many times, “Make them laugh, make them cry, and make them wait” (146) Aren’t these two doyennes of the soap world, one might ask, talking about story? Certainly, but again, the story is not the ultimate concern of its writers or its viewers, who write and who feel compelled to watch (respectively) primarily about and to see a story’s denouement as lived by its characters. This is especially true in light of soaps’ repeated story motifs (Spence 126).
The classic soap “cliffhanger” has traditionally, in discussions of soaps, been thought of as the episode that airs Friday and leaves the audience standing at the precipice of the proverbial cliff, waiting to see what happens on Monday’s episode. But even within each day’s episode, scenes are often written so that viewers are left to wonder what will happen when the story conveyed in that scene is picked up again (either after other stories are addressed or a commercial break). Taking cliff-hanging to the extreme, within a scene, frequently, viewers must hang on a character’s every line, every facial expression, as she enacts a story.
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan