June 10, 2007
Soap Operas and the History of Fan Discussion: Part I of V

At this year's Media in Transition 5 conference, I presented a portion of the work I have been doing on soap operas. I wanted to share that work here on the blog in a series of posts this weekend. I've been fortunate enough to get a great deal of feedback from members of the soap opera fan community while working on this research, some of which I haven't been able to incorporate back into the work thus far, but I look forward to any thoughts you all might have as well. Thanks again to Henry Jenkins, William Uricchio, Lynn Liccardo, and Kay Alden for all their help on this project, as well as a variety of others.

Soap Opera and Fan Discussion

Soaps do not exist in a vacuum, and the show's daily texts can only be completely understood in the context of the community of fans surrounding them. Instead of imagining the audience as a passive sea of eyeballs measured through impressions, this approach views soap operas as the central piece and catalyst for a social network of fans. Acting as dynamic social texts, soap operas are created as much by the audience that debates, critiques, and interprets them than through the production team itself. Of course, the power of the reader is not new ground. For instance, see Roland Barthes' 1967 essay "The Death of the Author." While Barthes focuses on the solitary reader's ability to "author" the text, the social connectivity of today's media landscape enables much more widespread meaning-making from the audience.

This collective attribution of meaning has been proven to be a strong motivation for viewing the show, whether those discussions take place in conversations between families while the show is on, post-"story" phone calls among friends and relatives, or else at the workplace or on soaps discussion boards. The changing ways that viewers conceive their relationships with these shows creates a shift in soap opera texts are conceived, produced, and received. The public discussions now facilitated by Internet discussion leads not only to new ways for fans to connect but also a new dynamic between consumer and producer that has impacted and could further substantially change the ways in which soap operas operate.

Soaps have always had a close correlation with the daily lives of their viewers. Watching the drama of people's personal lives unfold on a daily basis was seen as a discourse with housewives, inviting them to perceive the characters first on radio and later on television serial dramas as friends and relatives whose daily lives one was privy to. Soaps were driven not just by the actions of characters but also by the reaction to those events as news spreads across the social connections on a show.

Much of the scholarship about soap operas has focused on this intended dialogue between the show and the viewer and the intimacy that the visual image accords the viewer with characters. For instance, in his 1983 essay "The Rhetoric of the Camera in Television Soap Opera," Bernard Timberg posits that the direct involvement audience members (himself included) feel when watching soaps is aided by the way the episode is filmed, "making (viewers) feel somehow complicit in the ebb and flow of relationships and emotions."

This degree of intimacy and connectedness may have indeed caused soaps characters to feel somehow more "real" than those on other shows, and anecdotal evidence has always pointed toward that being the case. One of my high school teachers recalled visiting with her mother while she was on the phone with an aunt one day, and listening in horror as her mother described a bad situation that one of their friends was going through. Only later did she realize that it wasn't a story about someone who lived on their block but rather about one of the Lowells on As the World Turns.

The lack of documentation about the power of social connectedness in soaps in these earlier days is not surprising because these discussions happened informally and in unobservable everyday conversations. Even as the channels through which fans can discuss soaps have changed, this personal interaction with family and friends over the text of the show that was at the heart of the social connections surrounding soaps texts from the beginning of the genre has not, as a more recent essay by Elaine Rapping demonstrates in her 2002 essay "Daytime Utopias: If You Lived in Pine Valley, You'd Be Home."

Because social connections around soaps were limited to these direct interpersonal relationships in the earliest days of soaps viewing, soap opera characters may have seemed particularly localized. These characters may have seemed like members of the community or the family, and these stories may very well have seemed to be a personal possession of a small number of viewers who conversed about them, without a wider forum of discussion for these shows.