where the writers are
three septembers in a row, and counting...

 

Last year it was As the World Turns, the year before, Guiding Light, and yesterday, All My Children. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I watched AMC on a regular basis. But since a modicum of masochism is damn near a prerequisite for soap fans, I watched the last few episodes and was treated to characters I recognized and stories I remembered: Tad and Dixie’s reunion; Joe and Ruth’s return; Opal, Brooke, Adam, and Marian, reunited end with the resurrected Stuart – familiar faces all.

Of course, there were a lot of unfamiliar faces. But I did recognize one face, although I had to check IMdB to figure out which character Daniel Cosgrove was playing. For Cosgrove, this September, after the previous two, must feel like some kind of perverse hat trick: shortly after GL went off the air in 2009, ATWT announced that he was joining the cast as the latest, and as it turned out, last in the long line of Chris Hughes. Three weeks later, the show was canceled. Last December, Cosgrove reprised his role of Scott Chandler on AMC, where he began his soap career in 1996. In April, AMC was canceled. Such is the actor’s life.

Of course, the question yet to be asked out loud is whether a year from how we’re going to be doing this again for General Hospital. I’ll be honest, notwithstanding the much improved writing under Garin Wolf, the odds are long that GH can survive on ABC much beyond next September, when at least eight major markets totaling twenty-three percent of the nation’s households will begin airing Katie Couric’s new talk show in GH’s 3PM timeslot. By then, SOAPNet will be gone. While nothing’s been announced, and I have no inside information, how could ABC not be thinking about moving GH to the web?

But, what happens to GH down the road is going to depend on how AMC and OLTL fare when they move to the web in January. A lot of variables will determine success or failure, not least of which is which actors will sign on. So far, it’s been slow going, especially for AMC. But it was Sara Bibel’s comment when the deal was announced, “it’s impossible to fast forward through commercials on the web,” that got me to thinking about what the shifting technology will mean both for viewers and soap opera storytelling, because not being able to fast forward through the commercials also means not being able to fast forward through the show. A discussion about music downloads on The New York Times website threw the question into sharp, diametrically opposed relief:

There was also the clear perception that artistry of the album had declined. A few hits and a bunch of filler is not a stellar product. We wanted a slice; the industry required us to buy the cake.

Here’s soap fans' translation:

Clearly, the artistry of the soap opera has declined. The occasional – make that rare – character-driven umbrella storyline and a bunch of filler is not a stellar product. For more than 25 years, we've been able to use the fast forward button to cut the slices we wanted. Without the ability to fast forward, we're going to have to eat (and perhaps in the future, pay for) the whole cake. Unless, of course, on-line soaps become such a stellar product that fans will want to eat/watch/pay for the whole thing.

Creating that stellar product means overcoming some serious challenges. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the double-edged impact of technology on soap opera storytelling. At the time, I said:

Historically, soap operas have been tightly-woven tapestries of interlocking and overlapping characters and stories. But the threads have slackened over the years; these days both Guiding Light and As the World Turns more resemble a loose macramé wall hanging than the intricate tapestries of old. And tempting though it may be to point the finger at slashed budgets, lack of money is not where this problem began. This shift actually began with the finger we use to operate the remote control

The shift really began in 1975, when Another World expanded to an hour (#23 on We Love Soaps list of the biggest daytime blunders). Over the next five years, with a handful of exceptions, the rest of the soaps followed suit. As I said last week, “I don’t know that I’d call the decision to expand soaps to an hour a blunder, but it has certainly had some unintended consequences, which, in concert with other factors, are going to have a huge impact as soaps move to the web.” But, at the time, expanding soaps to an hour made sense. Shows were able to lock in their strongest viewers for a full hour; economies of scale increased revenue despite larger casts and writing staffs. And, as former ATWT executive producer and CBS Daytime VP, Laurence Caso, points out, “the expansion of soaps to an hour was a good creative move.  It enabled writers to weave more intricate tapestries in their storytelling.”

As soaps were expanding, a group of movie studios, including Universal and Walt Disney, sued the Sony Corporation, which had developed a video tape recording format called Betamax, for copyright infringement. While the case made its way through federal court, the less expensive VHS replaced Beta. After the Supreme Court decided the case in Sony’s favor in 1984, VCR prices dropped and ownership exploded, including many soap viewers who could now record their shows and watch with remote control in hand.

Something else happened before VCRs became commonplace; daytime soaps began chasing the success of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura, which peaked with the couple's 1981 wedding. That brings us to #22 on the WLS list: “the introduction of focus groups and the obsession with a younger demo,” in particular, the latter. Broadening soaps’ appeal to include younger viewers was never a bad idea; more women were working outside the home. But Luke and Laura had changed soaps’ landscape, leading to deeply flawed assumptions about what would appeal to young viewers – they wouldn’t care about older characters, and if the story didn’t move quickly they would become bored and stop watching – that ravaged the intergenerational storytelling that had for so long been the heart of soap opera.

As for what WLS called “the obsession with a younger demo,” it was largely advertisers driving that train. So much so, that to reach the coveted demo, soaps were willing to alienate the viewers they already had in an effort to appeal to the viewers advertisers wanted. But with a VCR and remote control in hand, disaffected viewers could now watch the parts of the show they liked and skip over the rest. After a while, head writers were complaining that because viewers were skipping over the parts they didn’t like, they often didn’t know what was going on in the storylines they did watch. Later on, when budgets began dropping after OJ, casts remained fairly large, but with more actors recurring and reduced guarantees for those on contract, there were fewer characters per episode. As a result, soaps’ storytelling became even more disconnected and fragmented, with small groups of characters isolated in storylines that rarely, if ever overlapped.

It’s not just characters and storylines that have become isolated. Viewers have grown ever more aggressive in fast forwarding though what they consider “filler.” The problem is that one viewer’s “filler” –  quiet meaningful conversations steeped in characters' history – is another viewer's – me, for example – “must see.” Therein lies the challenge – one of many – facing the man overseeing AMC and OLTL’s transition to the web, Prospect Park’s newly-name vice-president for serialized drama, OLTL executive producer, Frank Valentini. The web soaps will operate with smaller budgets and smaller casts. Whether fans of the actors/characters who don’t make the transition continue as viewers remains to be seen. But, a smaller cast is not necessarily a bad thing, and I’m hoping that this economic necessity might just turn out be the mother of soap opera’s reinvention.

Down the road, I’ll share my thoughts about how soaps’ move to the web will alter how fans engage and interact with the shows and the possibilities this transition holds for other forms of serialized storytelling.

© 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.