where the writers are
cracking the code…

Recently, We Love Soaps, began posting "Soap Opera TV ratings" for twenty-five shows. Since there are but seven remaining daytime soaps on the air, it occurred to me that it might be time, albeit a little late in the game, to discuss exactly what the term "soap opera" means, and to whom.

With the exception of Peyton Place and Our Private World, and, of course, Dallas, the first time I heard soap opera used to describe anything other than a daytime drama was in January of 1981. I had just started a new job with research group headed by an epidemiologist. Jim struck me as a man of broad interests and open mind, and I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say about the show everyone was talking about - Hill Street Blues. I was more than a little taken aback when he responded, "It's a soap opera. I don't watch soap operas."

Now, by 1981, I had been watching soap operas for twenty-five years, give or take, and I was pretty sure I knew one when I saw one. But, Hill Street didn't remotely resemble any soap I had ever seen. I asked what he meant. "It's a serial," he replied. "The story continues week to week; that's a soap opera." Then he reiterated, "And I don't watch soap operas," which certainly gave me some insight in to my new boss.

But Jim had raised an interesting question, one as applicable now as it was almost thirty years ago: are all serials soap opera? If not, then what exactly is a soap opera? Who decides? How? And does it really matter this late in the game?

The short answer to the last question is yes, and I explain why in a bit. As for the first, my gut tells me that all serials are not soap opera, which leads to the far more salient question: "who decides and how?" It's an issue almost every serious soap fan has confronted at one time, so, an article in last week's New York Times Magazine, The Song Decoders, dissecting the on-line music service, Pandora, resonated. Here's how the Pandora was described in the magazine's table of contents: "By breaking music down into its component parts, Pandora Internet radio tries to figure out what kind of music you - not your social group, heroes or aspirational self - really like."

Even before I read the article, I got to thinking: With the term "soap opera" being applied so broadly - the We Love Soaps list includes every serialized show from The Vampire Diaries to Gossip Girl and everything in between - and with ratings for serialized dramas, daytime and primetime, in freefall, this is the perfect time to consider how the Pandora model - using information about songs you like to figure out what other songs you will like - could be applied to soap opera. In fact, as I type these words, Charlie Rose is saying to Rolling Stone editor, Jann Wenner, "I don't know what we now call Rock and Roll. Is Rap part of Rock and Roll? Is Hip Hop part of Rock and Roll? Are the Blues part of Rock and Roll?" Wenner replies, "I think you have to say it is. Rock and Roll is this big, great river that just keeps rolling with all of these tributaries of Rap or Hip Hop come into it... And it just absorbs all these influences and keeps on rolling, richer for it."

Rose and Wenner were discussing the sub-genres of Rock and Roll, something we can't yet do for soaps, but need to. Of course, songs and soap opera are not completely analogous; I don't see any revenue generating potential for decoding soap operas. But as storytelling moves into the digital age, programming will transcend the "attracting the right demographic," concept to which daytime programmers at the networks have been so slavishly, and many would argue, damagingly, devoted. So down the road, understanding, at the elemental level, what it is that I currently like about One Life to Live, and loathe about a show I used to love, As the World Turns - and why I get a soap opera vibe from Friday Night Lights, but not, say, Glee, FlashForward or The Good Wife, even though I like all of these shows a lot - will be more useful than my demographic particulars. And when my soap opera preferences are aggregated with those of others - a lot of others - there's serious information to be mined.

Pandora uses technology created by the Music Genome Project, which identified almost 400 attributes to describe and connect songs. To get the ball rolling, I've deconstructed Merriam-Webster's definition of soap opera. Eventually, I hope set up a website. But for now, if you want to share your thoughts, you can post a comment, or drop me a note at soap.decoder@comcast.net. Sorry, I don't Twitter. And besides, aren't 140 characters wholly inadequate for this task?

Merriam-Webster's definition of soap opera:

A serial drama performed originally on radio or television and chiefly characterized by tangled interpersonal situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment.

Yup, all soap operas are serialized dramas.

And it was Irna Phillips herself who described those tangled interpersonal situations as tying the largest number on knots in the smallest piece of string.

Melodramatic? Not so fast. Back to Merriam-Webster:

A work (as in a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.

Since my kind of soap opera emphasizes character over plot, melodramatic is the antithesis of - what? I found a lot of synonyms for melodramatic - histrionic, showy, stagey and overemotional to name a few - there was only one antonym: low-key, which doesn't seem quite right. So, what's the word I'm looking for here?

Sentimental? Back to Merriam-Webster:

a: Marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism. b: resulting from feeling rather than reason or thought.

While I don't think of myself as an overly-sentimental person, I suppose can live with definition a. But I'm not sure that's how "sentimental" is perceived in general usage. Here are a few common synonyms: mawkish, soppy, maudlin. Antonyms: cynical, unemotional, tough, none of which comes close to describing what I find appealing about soaps. Another word to identify.

Well, this is going to be interesting, isn't it...

© 2009 Lynn Liccardo

Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only. Lynn Liccardo