The ABC National Radio news program, Future Tense, out of Australia late last week had a segment led by series host, Anthony Fennell, who interviewed a diverse cross-section of panelists including American soap journalists and pundits. The segment included soundbytes from The Red Room’s and US- based soap critic, Lynn Liccardo, and Sam Ford, Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, and co-editor of the book The Survival of Soap Opera.
Many issues were brought to light including: the social impact of soaps worldwide, the state of the storytelling, the demographic of the audience, and where soaps went into a downward spiral. We particularly found some of thought-provoking comments of Liccardo of interest. See below!
Liccardo addressing the demographic of soaps and the stigmas attached to them: A significant portion of viewers of soaps have always been men. Last time I looked at the numbers it was 24%. That notwithstanding, soap opera’s always been seen as something attached to women. And in the US culture anyway, anything that’s tagged as feminine is valued differently than what’s perceived as masculine. As an example, a few years back a woman I didn’t know especially well, but who knew that I watched soaps, turned to me and regarding nothing we were talking about, she just asked, ‘Who’s Dotty Thornton’s mother?’ And I replied, ‘Edna.’ I didn’t have to think about it. A bystander overheard, turns around, and says, ‘What are you two talking about?’ And we said, ‘All My children.’ And he was like, ‘Ugh! I can’t believe you two remember that kind of detail!’ And was dripping sarcasm and contempt. So I decided to try a little experiment. I said, ’56 games.’ And he shot back, ‘Jo DiMaggio’s hitting streak’ (baseball player). It still stands after 75 years, so the value is really in the eye of the beholder, and as I say, if it’s attached to women it tends to be valued as less important than what’s tagged as masculine. But the fact of that marginalisation and the reason behind it is a lot less important than understanding the insidious impact it’s had, both on how soaps have been perceived and what the genre has become.
Liccardo addressing, as the show calls it,The Enemy Within! “The self-loathing — and I actually prefer the term internalized marginalization, my editors like self-loathing — but you have the grandmother: she never misses an episode of Young and restless but when she’s watching with her grandson she reminds him that this show is ‘utter trash’. A newspaper reporter, a television critic, mocks soaps in her articles consistently but in ways that make it clear she has been, and possibly still is, a viewer.
And for those who make soaps: there’s Harding Lemay, before he became Another world head writer in 1970, he was an author and a playwright. Yet, he finds out that his editor’s wife is a fan, and he wonders why she’s wasting her time watching the show that he’s writing. But kind of the granddaddy of all of it was in 1978, Anthony Geary is asked to become part of General Hospital by Gloria Monty, the producer, who revitalized the show, and he says to her, ‘I hate soaps.’ Monty replies, ‘Honey, so do I. I want you to help me change that.’ Which they did, with enormous success. They introduced these adventure stories and comic books — fantasies like The Ice Princess. And what happened was other shows tried to replicate the success. They jumped on what came to be known as the ‘We’re not your mother soap opera anymore’ bandwagon. They pushed veteran performers aside, undermined the multi-generational storytelling that had been the heart of soaps and, in doing so, reinforced the idea that in order to survive, soaps had to abandon their roots.
Liccardo on how the state of soaps is driven by the bottom line…dollars! A big part of it’s driven by money. You know, scripted storytelling is very expensive to create, especially when compared to reality television, which is extraordinarily inexpensive to create. And episodic shows, which is to say shows that have a beginning, middle and end, shows where you don’t need to know what happened before to understand what you’re going to see in the next hour or so — they are very lucrative for producers because they’ve worked in syndication. I mean in the States you can sit down and watch 12 hours of Law and Order in a row, just one after the other. And they make a lot of money for the producers. You can’t do that with serialized television. They just don’t attract the kind of audience because you have to make that commitment to watching the whole thing. Money’s always a big part of this.
You can listen to the complete segment featuring all the guests, or read the transcript by clicking here!