July 31, 2007
Daytime and Primetime Serial Dramas: The Question of Complexity

One final post for the day. I have been meaning to post links to the latest two rounds in Henry Jenkins' fan studies and gender discussions, and I also wanted to respond to some detailed comments from Jason Mittell over at his blog, Just TV. Jason is one of our consulting researchers here in the consortium.

First, see the posts and debate surrounding a round of posts from Kristina Busse and Cornel Sandvoss here and here.

This week's posts are from Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea, here and here.

The first round of Abigail and Christian's debate brought up a lot of issues about soap operas and pro wrestling and other massive narratives which exist on the "margins" of popular culture, which of course got me particularly interested in the discussion. Be sure to look through the comments there for more.

Mittell's post on these issues particularly interested me, as he addresses his own works on narrative complexity in primetime television. I have often credited Jason with being one of the few scholars who does not try and hide the ties to daytime serial drama that primetime complexity has, but some in a recent conversation criticized his essay for not going very in-depth with that connection. He brings up quite a valid point in his blog--that many scholars have pointed out that it's hard to understand soaps from the outside and that it's best not to try and analyze them without intimate knowledge of them. Of course, that makes folks who aren't looking particularly at soaps at a loss for how to cover them, since many of their visual and storytelling markers have been so stereotyped, and are often misunderstood.

His point about the nature of the complexity is also important. While both are about serialization, the difference between 13-to-24 episodes per year and 250 are a major difference. I would always say that an individual episode of a good primetime show will almost always be better than an individual episode from a good daytime show, but that's because the two shows place differing degrees of value on the individual episode. Even the most serialized primetime show still gives authority to the single episode and often has some issues to be brought up and resolved in a single day. This is not what daytime dramas are good at, so I don't agree that they should copy this format. So I think that he's quite right that we should consider primetime complex television in its own right, but I think the gripe among some of the fans and scholars writing was the continual exclusion of daytime serial dramas from the conversation altogether. In the comments on Henry's blog, Lynn Liccardo points out that some primetime shows are doing what daytime is good at better than daytime these days, but it's still important to point out that primetime shows CANNOT be as good as a good daytime show at what daytime shows are good at, particularly with their lack of long-term history. Passions is a newbie in the soaps world; there's not been a high-quality long-term serial fictional in primetime that has lasted as long as Passions (since 1999).

Where things get a little more complicated, though, is in the discussion of audience attention. Jason is right that the way shows use that attention is important. For daytime soaps, it's about the day-to-day, the accretion, and not the visual detail. He points out that soaps were intended for the housewife not sitting directly in front of them, so visual detail is not as important. But dialogue is, so the dialogue is always privileged on soaps, and we don't need to tie complexity to the visual, I don't think. I'm not saying here that Jason is making that false connection; his point that the traditional lack of reruns caused redundancy in soaps can't be disputed.

But people outside the genre often greatly overstate the amount of redundancy in soaps, I think. Reader StinkyLuLu makes this point, writing, "My basic feeling is that what you call redundancy is actually a pivotal soap pleasure--revisiting key moments from the recent and distant past--not unlike the narrative data mining you describe in contemporary prime time serial drama."

I'd like to develop that thought a little further.

At their worst, soaps are recap-laden. I've seen Days of Our Lives have episodes a few years ago, for instance, that seemed more flashback to earlier in the week than current. That's not good soap, and we have to distinguish between good and bad practices in the genre. However, with five episodes a week and little in terms of reruns, the redundancy is necessary. That's why REaction is so important in soaps. The redundancy becomes a central part of the story. It matters not as much that X happens as it does seeing how everyone in town responds to finding out about X. In that case, the plot is a driver for character-driven stories. Anyone who missed X will find out about it during various scenes retelling and reaction to parts of it, but that retelling process IS the show; it's about interpersonal relationships, not the what. (By the way, my guess is that some of the fans who fast-forward are also some of the ones who archive; fans often pick out particular characters or stories they follow on a show that they actively consume, even while skipping others...)

I think Jason's piece lays out his points well, and, as someone who studies soaps and is a professed fan, I thank him for his acknowledgment of the links between complex primetime shows and daytime serial dramas. My only major caveat would be the point outlined here, that redundancy in daytime, when done correctly, is actually what provides the complexity and the enjoyment from the viewer's perspective. This dialogue is also where the peppered clues come back into play, as soap writers at their best make passing references to past events and characters throughout the dialogue that reward longtime viewers in the way Jason is talking about without distracting newbies.

I really do hope we continue pushing this conversation, as I think some valuable dialogue between primetime and daytime television is on the verge of emerging.


On July 31, 2007 at 7:17 PM, Scott Ellington said:

Speaking as one of the un-immersed (but deeply curious) I find it very difficult to guess what Lynn Liccardo finds preferable in primetime's treatment of serial devices; not disagreement, just difficulty in following the comparison without specific references.

I'm rereading Jason Mittel's essay to improve my understanding of his post, but the nonspecific "historical poetics" approach to innovations in the early 80s that crossfertilized episodic and serial forms in television leads me to look for shifts in emphasis in St. Elsewhere (season 1), and Hill Street Blues (season 3) probably reflecting my prejudice or branding by David Chase and David Milch, respectively.

I'm not stating criticisms of either Liccardo nor Mittel, just personal stumbling blocks to my pursuit of their perspectives. I think the devices and the shows in question go largely unidentified. So I chalk my confusion up to "early days" (which simply insures that I'll stay tuned).


You ask a good question, Scott. Speaking of myself, I would say that it has to do with character-driven scenes. Because of the amount of time soaps have, and the greater number of chracters, in theory more time should be dedicated to scenes designed solely to build character and relationships, rather than move the plot forward. That's where this issue of redundancy comes in, in that the best scenes that talk about prior events both serve to fill in narrative gaps for those who might have missed a show but, even more vital, serve to tell us more about the people who are speaking. No new plot information is delivered, but quite a bit is related regarding the character's emotional state, etc.

The problem is that, in an effort to battle declining ratings, soaps often seem to push more toward always making "something happen," which precipitates rather than solves the problem. Primetime shows might be having more of these character-driven shows than daytime, but they can never achieve the same feel because they are more episodic in nature, involve a much smaller cast of featured characters, etc.

On August 8, 2007 at 5:20 PM, Scott Ellington said:

Primetime shows might be having more of these character-driven shows than daytime, but they can never achieve the same feel because they are more episodic in nature, involve a much smaller cast of featured characters, etc....and primetime attempts to compress 250 hours of character-driven plot into 13-24 hours of a given season. Along with the imperative of covering a lot more narrative ground (I'm guessing) than has ever been required of daytime serials.
Adding feature films to this continuum (and using the same terms), I think, illustrates a wildly divergent range of duration, budget and connectedness that may correlate in a surprisingly positive way. Perhaps ROI in each format strikes an acceptable financial balance, my guess is that the shorter the form, the greater the expectation of profit but the more the "inefficient humanity" is purged from the production.
Thanks for providing a fascinating set of variables for further consideration.


Not to harp on this too much, but this is where daytime gets itself in trouble. If the feeling is that the best way to get numbers up is to copy the narrative pace of primetime, you end up with daytime blowing through way too much material too quickly. This happened in pro wrestling as well, during the "Russo Era" of the late 1990s in the WWE, in which--eventually--so much happened that it felt like nothing was happening, because nothing was surprising anymore.

It sort of reminds me of the FX show Nip/Tuck as well. At first, that show had some real shocks on it, but they were contextualized by good storytelling so that they didn't revert into shock TV for no particular reason. As the show went on, it was often just one crazy thing after another, so that the shocks didn't feel nearly as enjoyable or "shocking" anymore.

That's not to stay that I still don't enjoy it, but my level of engagement with it isn't as deep. For a good example of a plot-driven instead of character-driven drama in primetime, see Melrose Place. The show was still enjoyable from a plot standpoint, perhaps, but I used to watch it every afternoon in reruns, and if I missed a couple of days, it seemed like half the cast would change. :)

On August 9, 2007 at 1:29 PM, Scott Ellington said:

I've been using Kristina Busse's anecdotal model (in her debate with Cornel Sandvoss) as my conceptual key to the gendered differential of approaches to fandom and media engagement, generally; that men collect while women connect. And that despite having read a few press releases to the contrary, that the preponderance of male television executives have long attempted to collect attention magnets into their respective programming schedules, nudging producers to amalgamate two very different modes of narrative toward a centrist position (without connecting organically with the needs and desires of the affected audiences)...to the unequivocal detriment of daytime programming.
I need to read a lot more about metrics, but it really seems that the feedback loop is seriously busted.

On August 9, 2007 at 2:32 PM, Scott Ellington said:

...and don't think that these references to character-driven programs (with which I'm 98% unacquainted) are falling on deaf ears. Melrose Place; Season One is now wishlisted for closer inspection of reviews.

It strikes me that any media scholar's personal history of programming preferences would be a useful starting point for the uninitiated; useful as a bibliography, or a map of constellations.


They started that process over at Flow a while back, polling some of the television scholars about their television preferences. I do think it's an interesting exercise. Re: your prior points, I would say that there are complications to that idea of collecting versus connecting, but that there are also some truths behind what is, in some ways, stereotypes. Men as hunters-and-gatherers vs. women as social and relational beings are deep-rooted in our society, and some argue genetic structure.

But I would say that there are plenty of women archiving and collecting, and that many of the collecting activities are very much about social connectivity, which came out in the spillout of the Cornel/Kristina conversation, I believe.

On August 9, 2007 at 8:07 PM, Scott Ellington said:

Much agreement! Just to overstretch the metaphor, when geeky truly becomes as good as cool it may be possible to extricate genetic sexual predisposition from the Mythic Marlboro Manhood of RegularGuy. Connect/Collect is really just a handy binary summary of inferred stereotypes I've been collating since MiT5, with a meaty assist by Brian K. Vaughn's Y: The Last Man.


I agree, Scott, that binaries are especially useful when we acknowledge their constructedness at the beginning. Any categorization of course leads to a lack of nuance, but that's our tradeoff for being able to make any sense of the world at all. The key, of course, is to use categorizations to the point that they are helpful tools but to not extend them past their limitations...Sorta like stereotypes, I guess. I have a stereotype that, if I wake up and the sky is cloudy, I should take my umbrella. That's a useful generalization, even though it may not actually rain. Of course, stereotypes can be extended far out of logic, which is when they become so dangerous.

On August 14, 2007 at 9:18 AM, lynn liccardo said:

i posted a longish reply to jason's original piece here. some of what i posted there relates to scott's original post. i'm in the process of preparing a more in-depth looke at the differences and similarities between daytime and primetime seriality. but for now, i want to talk a little about sam's contention (and exactly where you said this, i can't remember) but that while primetime has gained from adopting the serial narrative, time, for daytime, it's been the reverse.

while i agree with sam's conclusion, understanding why goes beyond primetime doing a better job at telling character-driven stories and providing viewers with better emotional serial narrative in the late-70s-early-80s (dallas, 1978; hill street 1981), but i think i can state with some degree of certainty that it was not because primetime was in trouble. nor was daytime at the time. but the roots of daytime's shift from character-driven stories began in 1978 when gloria monty and douglas marland took over a general hospital on the verge of cancellation (see robert laguardia's soap world for a full account), and reached full flower in 1981 with the "luke and laura" phenomenon (yes, i appreciate the irony of the dates:)

as i said, daytime was not in trouble in the late-70s-early-80s, but bringing younger viewers in was priority. when all my children debuted in 1970, a then teenaged erica kane was at the center on many amc storylines, but those storylines didn't stray from the character-driven, multi-generational stories that defined daytime. that all changed with "luke and laura." according to robert laguardia's soap world, tony geary told gloria monty that he "hate(d) soap opera." monty replied, "honey, so do i. i want you to help me change all that." and so they did, with action-driven plot in exotic locations.

the public response was so out of proportion to previous media attention received by soaps--the wedding made the cover of newsweek, elizabeth taylor asked to be part of the show (she subsequently made several appearances on all my children with considerably less media fanfare)--that (combined with rising ratings of gh) other shows began scrambling down the path of attracting the "youth market," specifically women between the ages of 18-49 so prized by advertisers.

the problem is that in pursuing younger viewers, soaps have alienated many longtime viewers, my late mother among them. when as the world turns mothballed the veterans and began focusing on the escapades of tom, margo and mr. big in the early 1980s, she stopped watching. and refused to watch even when douglas marland, another irony :), returned the show to its roots a few years later. it was the shift in focus and the alienation of longtime viewers that laid the groundwork for the steady decline of soap opera viewership. see sam's thoughts here and here.

another important difference is that while there networks tend to offer a lot of "advice" regarding storytelling and casting in the daytime soaps, they are relatively hands-off with primetime shows. the times they do interfere with a show runner--cost overruns on hill street, getting scripts completed on time for the west wing-- generally have little to do with the actual storytelling. they may shift the timeslot, and ultimately cancel a show (too quickly some might argue, see sam's thoughts here), but they tend not to screw around with the storytelling itself. character-driven, serial narratives in primetime may have long broadcast lives, or be killed quickly, but the storytellers (the bochcos, sorkins, et al) get to tell their stories the way they want to tell them. not so daytime, and that's a huge part of why primetime has gained from adopting (borrowing? co-opting?) character-driven serial narratives while daytime has lost by sacrificing character to plot.

On August 14, 2007 at 10:38 PM, lynn liccardo said:

a couple of more things i remembered while i was in the pool this morning. first, the creative process is largely derivative; when it comes to all forms of popular culture (and recipes:), there are very few truly original ideas. so i find the idea that somehow primetime adopted, stole, borrowed or co-opted the serial narrative something of a rhetorical, albeit interesting, exercise.

what i do find very interesting, in particular, since no one has yet mentioned it, is how this primetime/daytime discussion breaks out along gender lines. on jason's blog i wondered "and i've always wondered if the efforts to distinguish daytime from primetime seriality stem as much from daytime soaps' marginalization as from scholars' intellectual curiosity" on live blog, http://community.livejournal.com/fandebate/2861.html?thread=154669#t154669, cryptoxin put it this way: "Despite Jason's qualifications earlier in the essay re: avoiding any automatic value statements deeming shows that fit into his "narrative complexity" mold as superior, I don't think that he really manages to escape implying that his genre is an advancement over soap operas that offers a richer range of pleasures." can't tell cryptoxin's gender, so take this next statement with a grain of salt (and i'd be happy to proved wrong) but with the exception of sam, it seems to me that those working the hardest to differentiate primetime from daytime are men. any thoughts?


Lynn, thanks for all the links and your thoughtful comments, both here and over on Jason's blog. I think your brief history lesson provides some context to the discussion. The whole idea of folks who hate soap operas revolutionizing the genre speaks volumes, even if what they did works for them. I can think of several examples in shows tht I've watched of things that work in the short-term or for a particular show or company but had a detrimental impact overall. I think this is also proof that more publicity doesn't necessarily equal better ratings. The thing about soaps is that they were doing quite well in the ratings before they were ever getting the kind of coverage Luke and Laura did. The problem with Luka and Laura, and using it as an ideal, is that was more about a period centered on one super-couple, than it was about sustainable growth of a fan base.

Re: your points about primetime vs. daytime, I think you are right that too many cooks can indeed spoil the (insert favored dish here). I think soaps are all about community, but the problem is inviting people who do not care about that show's history, or who don't even consider it artistic, to have substantial influence on the creative direction of the program.

Lynn, regarding the scholarship issue, I've felt soaps have traditionally gotten the short end of the stick. Many of the people who first started writing on soaps did some great work, and it was indeed refreshing to see soaps get some attention, but much of it focused very little on any perceived artistic merit in soaps but rather on the experiences of the viewer and how they can transcend, resist, and derive their own meanings from the text. Robert C. Allen was among the first prominent scholars to really take soaps seriously, I feel, and I hope to push forward with the work that really values soaps as serious television, when done well.

I think soaps run into problems oftentimes because they are not easy to categorize as being "good" or "bad." I touched on this in my thesis work and in prior conversations, but the problem with a show that runs 50 years is that you can't easily say that it is high or low quality. It's like those other immersive story worlds. A comic book run will probably have good eras and bad eras. Pro wrestling has its good time periods and bad time periods as well. For WWE, the mid-1980s, with the "Rock and Wrestling Connection," was particularly strong, and the late 1990s through the beginning part of this era was as well. For ATWT, more recent fans would point to the Marland era as a strong time for the show, and the mid-1990s as one of the weakest. That makes soaps hard to talk about when it comes to artistry, I think, especially since it's hard to talk about single episodes or break the text down in any easily defined form.

Back to Jason's work, I still consider it a major accomplishment for someone who is working on complex television to point back to soaps at all, considering many other accounts are strangely silent in that regard. But I think it would be great to see the comparison between daytime and primetime really spelled out in a full-length project at some point. I don't know who or how that should be done, but I think it would be quite helpful at gaining a better understanding of how primetime and daytime interact.

On August 15, 2007 at 9:58 PM, lynn liccardo said:

a couple of things -- can't help but think that both tony geary and gloria monty weren't both being a tad hyberbolic when each said they "hated" soaps.

what i think is far more interesting is how the rest of the industry responded. you're absolutely right that soap ratings were still extremely strong. so why did those in charge at the time react so rashly and recklessly to gh's success instead of believing in, and standing by their shows/networks? a rheteorical question, perhaps. but given the enormous damage that's been inflicted on the industry over the past 25 years, i believe that this is perhaps the profound and devestating manifestation of how soaps' marginalization has been internalized.


Lynn, I agree that it is hyperbole as well, but I think language itself can make a real difference, as I've written about before.

Re: the reaction of the industry, it just sounds like television in general. One can see the same trend anytime a new genre crops up. Suddenly, everyone who is already doing well sees someone else's numbers move and think they need to jump on "the next big thing" instead of doing what's working for them and improving on that instead.

The problem is still about genre. One might understand if one news program incorporated something a rival news organization was doing if it works, or if one talk show does the same to another, or even that cop shows post-NYPD Blue had to behave in a different way. What I don't understand, though, is why shows in soaps think they need to rip stories off other soaps, because the soaps don't share a particular topic in the way that most television genres do. If the thing that primarily binds you together genre-wise is that you are about human relationships and character over plot, in theory, that doesn't suggest that being derivative is such a good idea...

On August 21, 2007 at 12:22 AM, lynn liccardo said:

sam, i think we are in basic agreement here. but i do want to make a few distinctions. as far as "television in general" jumping on "the next big thing." Agreed, but it's one thing to cancel a still-viable show that been around maybe ten years (usually many fewer years) to go to whatever "the next big thing" is, and quite another to screw with a show that's been around for decades -- i mean if a primetime show's been around a decade it totals fewer than a single year of a soap. cancel a primetime show and however pissed fans might be, it's highly unlikely the network will have lost them permanently; mess with soaps and eventually viewers will leave -- and not come back. so while the dynamics may be the same, the stakes are a lot higher in daytime.

as far the problem still being about genre, i really am growing to loathe that word; it's just so elastic. anyway, to address your underlying question, "why shows in soaps think they need to rip stories off other soaps," a major reason, as we've discussed many times, is that TPTB see the daytime audience as a zero sum game, never an incentive for doing what's working for them an improving on that instead. and as far as derivative not being such a good idea, there are those who say there are only seven stories in the world, but a thousand different ways of telling them, and different can mean fresh and imaginative -- or not. derivative doesn't have to be pejorative.


Lynn, your comments about use of the term "derivative" is much the same as "redundant." Jason Mittell pointed out to me not long ago that, even though he doesn't mean anything bad about the term "redundant," it often has that connotation, as derivative does. Of course, all brilliant work is often derivative, and playing with the past and audience expectations can lead to brilliant work.

But your sentiments in the first paragraph is why that I argue that soaps should be managed like brands instead of shows, because week-by-week changes and "quick-fix" approaches make much less sense for programs that are on daily and have been for decades...

On August 26, 2007 at 11:43 PM, lynn liccardo said:

re "soaps should be managed like brands:" i'm not sure that we've ever discussed in any detail what that means in practical terms. so, let's talk about what managing a brand actually entails. from what little i've read about branding, it would seem that's what abc has been doing with their soaps -- and they're in no better shape than cbs (nbc seems to have thrown in the towel). what am i missing here?


When I'm talking about managing soaps as brands, I'm not thinking about merchandise related to the show or anything like that. It's really just the principles I discuss in the thesis:

The general idea of brand management in terms of a soap is based on the idea that these shows are not just a short-term television series but a longtime part of the television landscape, more of a longterm brand than just programming to fill the TV schedule. When I discuss soaps as a brand, that's what I am referring to: the need for long-term planning, the need for extending the experience outside of just the show itself, and the need for understanding the ways these shows exist in people's lives and the importance of grassroots marketers for the show. What I am thining about here is:

1.) Thinking of long-term planning rather than short-term planning. Brand managers would seldom think of the property they manage on a two-week turnaround, but those who are managing these shows seem to think of their "brands" in ways just like that: some big one-time event, rather than two-or-three-year plans to increase viewership.

2.) Working with proselytizers. Brand managers increasingly think about ways to empower fans as marketers, which is what these shows should be doing as well.

3.) Branded extensions. Soaps are tipping their toes in this water, but the key here would be to think of GL or ATWT or B&B the property as more than just the TV show but as every aspect of the experience.

I personally don't think that ABC Daytime is any farther ahead than anyone else in this regard, other than the fact that the network owns the show, which could be a real positive in that regard.

What I mean is that the business seems to understand how to manage brands, but they seem at a loss what to do with soaps. I think companies like P&G should take many of the priniciples they understand in relation to Tide and think about how that relates to ATWT.

On August 27, 2007 at 8:00 PM, lynn liccardo said:

good to see it boiled down and laid out in a few pithy paragraphs.


Believe me, Lynn...it was hard. :) You know me...Journalist or not, when you get me on a topic I'm passionate about, it's hard to be pithy.