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

Fan Clubs and Fan Letters

The earliest attempts at official connection for soaps, not surprisingly, came through letter writing to the network and fan clubs. I have found little information about the history of fan clubs, and my correspondence with the current president of both the As the World Turns and Guiding Light official fan clubs, Mindi Schulman, emphasized that there had not been an institutional history passed down and that she did not know much about the history of the organization prior to her taking over in 1999.

No matter how long this "official" fan club has been in operation, evidence indicates that various fan clubs have existed around these shows for some time. The current ATWT Fan Club hosts an annual luncheon with various current and former cast members and provides members with pen pal lists and various documents about the current creative team behind the show and the names and birthdays of current actors. The fan club also provides two resources to fans that echo the earliest powers that fans employed: a list of people to contact in the press in reaction to soaps, as well as a list of the executive producer, head writer, and contacts for both Procter & Gamble Productions/TeleVest Daytime Programs and the Senior Vice-President of CBS Daytime, all of whom fans might be interested in sending praise or (more likely) complaints.

Other accounts of fan correspondence directed toward soap producers and stars are anecdotal and perhaps colored by the biases of unreliable narrators such as actors themselves, or else historical claims that may nor may not be able to be directly substantiated. For As the World Turns, the famous incident that drove a significant amount of fan letters to the show involved what the official historian for the show labeled "the first soap supercouple before the phrase was even coined," the relationship between Jeff Baker and Penny Hughes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In her 1996 book on the show, ATWT historian Julie Poll, in fact, directly attributes the show's rise to the top of soaps ratings (where it would reside from 1958 until 1978) as being "propelled" by the romance of these two characters. At the height of popularity for this couple, the actor who portrayed Jeff Baker opted to leave the show, and his character was quickly written off with a car crash.

According to a retrospective on the show's 50th anniversary from TelevisionWeek, "the on-and-off love story of Penny and Jeff so captivated the nation that CBS was deluged with protest letters when Jeff was killed." The Wikipedia entry on As the World Turns points out that TV Guide considered the death of Jeff Baker "the car accident that shook the nation," and the event was listed among its 100 most shocking events in TV history.

The only direct historical evidence I tracked down from the time was an August 1962 Time article on the death of Jeff Baker. The author writes that the actor, Mark Rydell, had been "held to the show by salary and sentiment ($50,000 and 5,000 fan letters a year)" but that his aspirations to work in primetime television had caused continued problems for those scripting the show who planned his death. Rydel went on to be an actor and director on other television shows and in films.) A letter then appeared two weeks later in Time responding to the article, detailing how what the reader identifies as "our group" had "a reception on Penny and Jeff's wedding day" and was subsequently "suitably attired in black to watch As the World Turns on the day Jeff died."

The audience's backlash to Jeff's death has become part of soaps--and television--lore, although it is somewhat hard to distinguish the actual response from the hyperbole generated by the industry and fans to promote the width and depth of soap opera fandom.

Even harder to distinguish is how much hyperbole is involved in actor accounts of fan interaction. While the show's producers have long been the target of fan mail protesting and complaining about certain creative decisions or directions, there has been reported an equally--or perhaps more--ardent collection of fan mail for actors, who are the most recognizable components of the show for fans.

As the World Turns' Eileen Fulton, who has played the character of Lisa for about 45 years now, provides a typical account of what actors remember most and like to tell others about their fan mail in her memoir with Desmond Atholl and Michael Cherikinian, As My World Still Turns. She claims that, shortly after she began with the show in 1960, "it wasn't long before viewers started calling in and sending telegrams from all over the country, declaring, 'If that bitch Lisa marries Bob I'll never watch your show again. I can't stand that conniving little tramp. She's wrong for the Hughes family. Stop her!!'" (x).

Even more dubious than her claims about delusional fans over the years is the hyperbole involved in Fulton's description of fan reaction when she left the show for brief periods of time. At one point, another actress temporarily replaced her. "Phone calls started coming through by the hundreds and letters and telegrams by the thousands, begging for the return of the real Lisa. Even the newspapers picked up on it" (67).

In an earlier attempt to provide an insider's account of the business, Madeleine and David Rounds describe fan reactions to cancelled or preempted shows in their 1973 book The Soaps: Daytime Serials of Radio and TV, claiming that CBS got "at least 35,000 letters" protesting the cancellation of some of its least popular daytime shows. "The cancellation of a day's episode in order to show some national event--such as an Apollo launching, a presidential funeral, or a Senate hearing--brings an avalanche of protest mail." However, Edmondson and Rounds claim that the majority of mail received by the networks "could be classified as morality mail. Almost anything offends someone, and soap watchers are quick to complain" (195).

Each of these accounts was either written by people within the industry or dependant upon numbers quoted by the industry. One would guess that these authors may take some degree of creative license to exaggerate the quantity and quality of this viewer passion in order to bolster their own stories and to make more emphatic statements about the emotions that soap opera texts generate. Nevertheless, whether these accounts are completely accurate or not, the fact remains that fan mail has long been a viable and popular form of interaction between producers and consumers in the soap opera industry.

In his1985 book All for Love: A Study in Soap Opera, Peter Buckman writes about the types of comments that are sent into shows for the producers to read, such as comments sent to Guiding Light in 1982, focusing on the fact that the show had slipped to ninth place in the ratings (then five from the bottom). "Do you want to know the reason - Boring!! GL, you are boring, boring, boring. The writers must be tapped out" (188). Buckman points out that fan letters are often sent to producers to prove the audience's self-awareness and to attempt to assert some power over the current direction of the show, writing, "The viewers have, if you like, a political sense of their own power, and its limitations. They know that it is on their loyalty that the programme makers rely - and yet [ . . . ] the older viewers at least are aware that they are not a strong enough market force to have a great influence on the producers" (189).

In her 2001 essay "Toward a Paradigm for Media Production Research: Behind the Scenes at General Hospital", Elana Levine describes the more recent handling of fan mail for General Hospital on ABC, pointing out that the show's main way to handle understanding fan responses in the late 1990s, in addition to focus groups, was to have writers' assistants and student interns group the mail and make appropriate reports on that fan response. Fan mail is considered negative if the audience member says he or she will quit watching the show, but fan mail is considered positive even if it is criticism when the viewer does not threaten to quit watching.

It is important to note that this process was a case study of one particular time period for one specific show. While I am using it here as a point of comparison as to how soap opera fan letters are received and responded to, this is not necessarily representative of the industry's handling of fan mail in general.

Levine writes:

While the system in place to handle audience response is thorough and efficient, it does not really account for most viewers' perspectives, as the letters must be neatly classified into positive or negative categories and the actual words of audience members are only rarely seen by anyone higher in the chain of command than a writer's assistant.

Fulton writes, "Most soap viewers don't realize how much power they have. Enough letters, telegrams, and phone calls can kill characters and story lines or turn a temporary part (like Lisa) into a long-term love affair" (67). While she--like Edmondson and Rounds--may be inclined to exaggerate and--in Fulton's case--to concentrate on some of her stranger fan interactions over the years, her point about the power that fandom can yield when organized is an important component of soaps history.

The problem of a disconnect in the direction of the creative team and the most common directions desired by fans can often be overcome when fans find ways to articulate themselves in ways that the shows' producers understand. However, these floods of letters were generally not collective action, as there were few ways for soaps fans to organize themselves. As Buckman emphasizes, producers often ignore that physical fan mail, perhaps because of its lack of collective engagement. It may be easier to dismiss the singular desires of fans rather than a large and social collective action.