Next week, Lee Harrington and I will be presenting the latest in Henry Jenkins' series of discussions about gender and fan studies. Since Lee has been a pioneer in research on soap opera fan communities and since much of my recent focus have been on fans of daytime drama, I wanted to return to a paper that I presented at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association's conference here in Boston back in April. It was a great conference, with a followup discussion about the present and future of soaps with a variety of interesting and interested scholars who have written and presented on soaps. I thought I would present the content of that paper, sans the footnotes, as I prepare for next week.
Television is an actor's medium. While budgets and schedules have often given movies a greater mastery of grand visual spectacle than television (a divide between film and television that is growing increasingly thin), the actor has always remained the currency of television fiction. Even today, with television series consistently raising the bar for production values, the actor still holds the most power in connecting with the audience.
The smaller screen of (most) television sets values the close-up, the study of human emotion (and especially the human face), in a way that the grand vistas and elaborate cinematography of most Hollywood films seem to miss. The value placed on the actor and the exploration of character is more suited to the seriality of television as well. While films visit a character's life for a short time, a television series visits characters on a regular basis, over a number of seasons.
In the case of the American soap opera, the exploration of characters may not last for several years but decades. The soap opera features the power of television at its most raw, with its use of tight shots and close-ups and the camera's focus on actors instead of expansive sets. With low production budgets compared to primetime fare, soap operas instead put the focus on character instead of place.
Soaps feature a cast of about 40 regulars, including both full-time stars and frequently recurring characters, and they often place special emphasis on the faces of these characters. The alternation of zoom-in close-up reaction shots from one character to the other through the course of a conversation are the defining shots of the genre. Viewers come to know the facial movements and the voice of actors so well that the most minute change in expression or inflection are meaningful to longtime viewers who have come to know a character well when that character has been portrayed consistently by one actor.
As I've suggested, soap operas provide not only a chance for the raw expression of character acting in American television but also the best use of seriality. The soap operas currently on American television have persisted through every shift in network programming (Passions now being the neophyte of the soap industry, having only been on the air since 1999, first on NBC and then moving to DirecTV--a full lifespan for many successful primetime shows that only air once a week and have summers and holidays off).
Because of the genre's continued vitality, many viewers believe the individual shows to be indestructible. Therefore, slumps in creativity, the loss of top actors, or any other obstacle that would destroy most shows are often only a temporary glitch to soaps, as viewers feel (and in this case are somewhat justified by history) that these shows are bigger than any particular actor or writing team that passes through.
However, some actors on each soap become not just temporary stars in the soap industry on their way to "bigger" things but instead regulars in a role they go on to play for many years. Here, the seriality of soap operas exploits the power of television in a way that primetime shows cannot fully realize.
The soap opera is not only an actor's medium but especially a character's medium, as an audience reads a character over a number of years. Because of the collective memory of the viewing audience, soaps are most powerful when they rely on the historical understanding of a character.
And, especially when that character is played by the same actor for a number of years, audiences continually learn more about that character's traits, predicting her or his actions based on past decisions and then revising their understanding of a character based on new actions. It comes as no surprise, then, that soaps--when they are at their most powerful--value character over plot, reaction over action, and relationships amongst the characters over more episodic "situation" stories.
Procter & Gamble Productions (PGP) produce the longest running soaps still on the air in 2006. The soap opera got its name on radio because of the sponsorship by soap companies of the short drama programs that aired, targeting females.
PGP is the only direct involvement a "soap" company has in the soap opera genre today, producing the shows Guiding Light (CBS, 1952-present) and As the World Turns (CBS, 1956-present). Guiding Light has been on the television broadcast airwaves now for 54 years, but the show is even older than that. Guiding Light was originally a radio soap opera that made the transition to television in 1952, aired in 15-minute episodes.