On Saturday, I'll be speaking on "The Futures of Serialized Storytelling" at "The Futures of Entertainment" conference at MIT. The panel is more focused on discussion than formal presentation. But I was asked to prepared a brief introduction, posted belong.
I'll be addressing the impact the move of the ABC soaps from broadcast to the Web may have on existing Web series and primetime serials. After the conference, I'll write up my talking points and post them next week
Soap opera and I go back to the playpen. I was in diapers – cloth diapers – and Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light were 15-minutes long – and in black-and-white. So, I’ve got a lot of territory to cover quickly.
After college, I was a freelance writer, and in the early 1990s I became an occasional contributor for Soap Opera Weekly. After pitching Smithsonian Magazine for over a year, I got an assignment to do a long piece on the 40th anniversary of As the World Turns.
By the time I made it to the set in March of 1996, a new creative team was in place, and the show was running away from its history; “we’re not 40 years old, we’re 40 years young” was the sole talking point. It was clear the show was in trouble, and I could see some of the reasons why; what I couldn’t see at the time was how those pieces fit together. So, I abandoned the piece and took what wound up being a 10-year break from writing about soaps.
But, I never stopped watching. The online fan community was growing; I lurked on a few boards, one of them was MediaDomain, where Sam Ford and I tripped over each other and I wound up on his thesis committee. While working with Sam, I was able to identify some of the underlying elements that eluded me earlier; but at the same time, I realized that there was no immediately obvious hierarchical relationship among them. So three years ago, I created a blog at Red Room (for me, blog is more of a noun than a verb) where I’ve been connecting those elements and starting to form a larger framework within which to more fully examine the soap genre.
In all serialized storytelling, there’s an inherent and necessary tension between fans and TPTB – writers, producers and network executives. But as the increasing volume (both quantity and decibel level) of fans’ discontent has made clear in recent years, the relationship between the two has escalated (or deteriorated) to one of mutual hostility, with many fans believing that TPTB are deliberately trying to destroy the daytime soaps.
Which, of course, makes no sense; why would an entire industry want to destroy itself? But, over the past 30 years, TPTB have made a series of decisions that has fragmented both soaps’ narrative structure and viewership. And while it’s true that the reasons TPTB usually cite for soaps’ declining numbers – cable, more women in the workplace and OJ – have all played a significant role, so has this fragmentation, though exactly how much is impossible to quantify. Which leaves the larger question: where are the disconnects between TPTB’s intentions, and the results?
Irna Phillips, who created the first soap opera in 1930, crafted her shows around her belief that "there is no more poignant drama enacted anywhere than behind the closed doors of a home." And while quiet and intimate family dynamics have never disappeared entirely from soaps’ narrative, in recent years they’ve played a smaller and smaller role, as the genre’s storytelling has become a superficial and dissonant pastiche of conflicting elements: omnipotent villains; backstabbing machinations of the filthy rich; vapid teenagers; cat fights and bitch slaps; insta-couples; super couples; glorified criminals; plots that defy reason and logic, and too often, the laws of physics; misogyny, violence, rape; and for comic relief, high camp, with some supernatural thrown in. Fan bases have grown up around many of these elements. But, by trying to satisfy, or at least address, all of these segments, TPTB have only pushed daytime soaps closer to the edge – or, maybe, to a new life online.
In early July, three months after ABC announced the cancelation of All My Children and One Life to Live, Prospect Park, a production company that has two shows on cable, Royal Pains (USA) and Wilfred (FX), announced that they had acquired the online rights to the canceled soaps. Prospect Park’s plan is to shift the current model – 60-minute episodes, 5-days a week, 250 episodes a year – from broadcast to the Web. There are considerable challenges I’ll get into during the discussion. But this is an enormous opportunity, and not just for the future of the daytime soaps.
Those quiet, intimate inter-personal dynamics pushed to the sidelines on the daytime soaps have found a home in some of the most critically acclaimed, though often ratings-challenged primetime dramas – seemingly disparate shows like Friday Night Lights, Men of a Certain Age, Mad Men, In Treatment and Life UneXpected. Just looking at the numbers, it would be easy to conclude that there are simply not enough viewers to sustain this particular kind of serialized storytelling. But, these shows face obstacles I believe artificially depress the ratings. My focus now is to identify and dissect those obstacles, then figure out how that information can be applied to carve out a niche that will allow this kind of storytelling to continue. There’s a lot to be learned from Prospect Park’s efforts.
The same for the ever increasing number of Web-series, many created by former, and some current, soap actors and writers. These shows are put together on shoe-string budgets, and while many capture much of what’s been lost in the daytime soaps, they are too small to fully satisfy viewers used to the longer format: a typical episode of a Web-series runs 10 minutes; a season, 10 episodes. The entire 26-episode, 3-season run of Anyone but Me will equal roughly 7 episodes of daytime. Over three years, the show garnered great reviews, a WGA award, 11 million page views across several online outlets and sold out its first season DVD on Amazon, but still could not generate enough revenue to continue, much less expand. If Prospect Park’s business model works, that success could help clear the path for these smaller shows to meet their full potential.
© 2011 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, Lynn Liccardo, 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.
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