where the writers are
what we have here is a failure to communicate…

When General Hospital's Executive Producer, Gloria Monty, asked Anthony Geary to join the cast as Luke Spenser in 1978, he famously said, "I hate soap opera." To which Monty replied, "Honey, so do I. I want you to help me change all that." The exchange raises two obvious questions: What did they both hate about soap opera, and exactly what did Monty want to change?

Since neither Geary nor Money ever elaborated on their famous exchange, what they really meant when they said they hated soap opera and wanted to change it is open to speculation: Were they being funny? Ironic? Maybe a little hyperbolic? Did they literally mean what they said? I expect some combination of the above. But words matter, and whatever Geary and Monty may or may not have meant by "I hate soap opera," over the past 30 years, the idea that soap opera somehow needed to become something else in order not to be hated has become deeply imbedded in daytime's collective psyche, and is, what I believe, lies at the heart of why soaps are in their current sorry state.

For critic Patrick Erwin, "it all boils down to this: There came a time when the industry decided it was going to be ashamed of what it did." Erwin's sentiment is echoed by former Young and Restless writer, Sara Bibel:

"...a lot of what's wrong with soaps today stems from the inferiority complexes of many of TPTB. So many people behind the scenes seem to be ashamed of the fact that they're working on soap operas instead of primetime/ cable/movies/theater/etc. Why else would they be constantly trying to make soaps more like other mediums? During my career as a soap writer, I encountered people in positions of authority (no I won't name names) who used the word "soapy" as a pejorative. In interviews, producers and headwriters often tout changes they are making in the show as being "more like primetime," as if that's automatically superior."

It's not hard to see the Geary-Monty exchange resonating in the "inferiority complex of many of TPTB," and why they are, "constantly trying to make soaps more like other mediums" The great irony is that this ultimately ill-advised effort to remake soaps in the image of other entertainment media began with a smashing success: Even people who profess not to watch soaps immediately recognize the names, "Luke and Laura." I mentioned Tony Geary's name to a friend, who replied, "Yeah, that guy with the curly hair." The 1981 wedding of Luke and Laura transcended anything daytime had ever seen, before or since: legendary movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, made an appearance; an audience estimated at 30 million viewers tuned in for the two-day event; even Newsweek took notice, putting the couple on the cover; to the delight of ABC, six million of GH's newly-expanded audience were teenagers, whom soap execs logically saw as necessary for the future of daytime.

While Gloria Monty was "improving" daytime soaps, primetime soaps were undergoing some changes of their own. The first primetime soap was Peyton Place, which ran on ABC from 1964-1969. Our Private World, a primetime spin-off of As the World Turns, had a short run during the summer of 1965. But the primetime soap opera that would have the most impact on daytime was the 1978 premiere of Dallas. Described on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as "The soapy, backstabbing machinations of Dallas oil magnate J.R. Ewing and his family," Dallas captured the public's fancy, culminating in the classic, "Who shot J.R." episode, which on November 21st 1981, garnered ratings in the stratosphere; according to Entertainment Weekly, 83 million.

But, was Dallas really a soap opera? Not according to Larry Hagman, who played the charmingly villainous J.R. Ewing, and had previously spent several years on the daytime soap, The Edge of Night. In Hagman's opinion, "Dallas was a cartoon." It was an apt description: there was never any character development, just never-ending plot-driven scheming and betrayals. This was a far cry from daytime soaps of the time; I don't recall the soaps I grew up watching ever exploring the "backstabbing machinations" of the filthy rich. My memories of daytime soaps echo those of former Amherst professor William H. Prichard, who, in a 1986 article for TV Guide, described soap operas as "a seemingly endless process by which people talk themselves into and out of happiness and misery," a "process," I suspect, far more familiar to soap opera viewers than the Ewing family's wheeling and dealing.

In his description of the show, IMDB poster, Tad Dibbern, was careful to distinguish between soap opera as a noun and soap opera as an adjective; by calling it "a soap-opera style," Dibbern acknowledged the serial format of the show, but stopped short of actually calling it a soap opera. It was a distinction largely lost in the aftermath of Dallas and the shows that followed in its wake, Dynasty, Knots Landing and Falcon Crest. In the mind of the non-daytime watching public, "soapy," the adjective became synonymous with "soap opera," the noun. And since "soapy" has become shorthand for everything from what Sam Ford called "a cheaply melodramatic plot twist," to an IMDB poster's description of Dynasty as, "surreal, campy, and wayyyy out to the left of reality", to an oxymoron recalling our Puritan roots, "guilty pleasure," that's how the public has ultimately come to perceive all soap opera. So too, as Sara Bibel noted above, have many of daytime's decision makers.

Indeed, the conflation of soap opera as a noun and soap opera as an adjective runs rampant among TPTB, but none more so than ABC's head of daytime, Brian Frons. What else could explain this press release announcing SOAPnet's Sunday Night Movie?

"SOAPnet is making strides to expand its ‘soapy' programming, and movies are the next logical step. We recognize that movies can be just as soapy as daytime drama," said Frons. "Our viewers love the drama, fantasy and anticipation ripe in traditional soaps, and we are stretching their equity to incorporate reality, primetime, daytime and now movies into our lineup."

I mean, if nothing else, soap opera, as least soap opera the noun, has always meant serialized storytelling. As an adjective, apparently anything goes.

I wish I could say that the disconnect between soap opera as a noun and soap opera as an adjective was limited to SOAPnet's programming decisions, but the problem runs much deeper. Because those in charge of soaps, Frons being perhaps the most egregious example, are creating shows in the image of the adjective, "soapy," this conflation permeates virtually every aspect of today's soaps, from the kinds of stories being told, to how those stories are being told - and how those stories are being promoted. The result is that now, most daytime soaps look more like cartoons than Dallas ever did. But observers, critics, not to mention many viewers, look upon soap opera as a noun, and while most soap fans may not be able to articulate the particulars, on some visceral level they do understand that there is failure to communicate. So, while bits and pieces may appear here and there on the boards and blogs, fans' collective understanding of this disconnect is reflected with frightening clarity as soaps' ratings continue to fall.

 

© 2008 Lynn Liccardo

 

Comments
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Great Column

Since you've been posting positive comments on my blog, I thought I'd return the favor.  I grew up on 80s soaps.  I have only seen earlier clips on YouTube.  I think the solution is a mixture of the two styles, with family and relationship oriented, character driven plots combined with the occasional "big events" and largerthan life romances.  One of my favorite primetime shows is Friday Night Lights. I think it would be a great daytime soap, with its small town setting and combination of family stories with the high stakes world of Texas football.  It feels more like a true soap than other primetime soaps.

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good to hear from you...

lots and lots to say. fnl really has captured the imagination of daytime fans.

would love to continue the conversation and explore all the possibilties re how to balance the "mixture" you suggest. i've been having trouble posting comments on your blog. let's try to get in touch directly.

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Glad to see more and more

Glad to see more and more people looking at the FNL/soap opera comparison.  I would really like to see daytime borrow THIS from primetime, rather than explosions and serial killers.  To me, FNL is precisely what an ATWT should be, since that's my soap of choice.  A show dedicated to a small town and the families that live in it.  Dramatic things may happen, but the truly big stuff is held off for once in a blue moon, and the shows can do what they're better at, anyway: the drama of everyday life, the kind that encourages daily watching to see the plot progress bit by bit, rather than rushing stories and helping facilitate audiences getting their gratification and moving on.  Like a good soap, there's never a good time to quit watching FNL, no way it can be "all tied up."  In the end, it's not the plot but the people you care about, and not one protagonist but the community as a whole.