August 23, 2007
Surplus Audiences, ATWT, and the Luke/Noah Kiss

Those who follow the blog even with casual interest probably know that the world of soap opera is the site of a significant amount of my research and writing. I'm currently in the early stages of preparing a course here at MIT in the spring on soap operas, and my Master's thesis work was on the subject as well.

I'm also really interested in the topic of surplus audiences, those that rest outside the "target demographic" but who still create a valid and significant audience portion. The fact that pro wrestling is sometimes among the most popular content for young adult women, according to some numbers I've seen, or that 25 percent of gamers are over 50, as I wrote about earlier today, are key examples of this.

Perhaps most interesting to me, then, is male soap opera fans, a group I fit into. There are many male soap opera fans, and that's nothing new, but soaps have always been about the 18-49 female demo. Some have gone so far as to say that anyone else simply doesn't matter or doesn't exist, since that's not who shows are selling to advertisers.

But the recent popularity of a soap opera storyline on As the World Turns with online gay communities demonstrate many ways in which surplus audiences can be quite valuable.

First, there's the numbers. If a show isn't doing as well as it would like among the target demographic, what happens if it can appeal to other viewers? After all, I'm an advocate of viewing television as social content in the first place, so even staying within the assumption that ultimately the target demo is what really matters, wouldn't attracting a decent-sized surplus audience be valuable in then working with those folks to help recruit other new fans, many of whom might be in that target demo?

That's what my thesis is about: valuing older audience members as proselytizers for the target demo. And male soaps fans can work just the same.

Here's the story. ATWT gained some significant interest from the online gay community with its storyline depicting the coming out of the teenage son of a prominent family in town, Luke Snyder. In the early part of 2006, Luke's coming out was a major focus on the show. I wrote in February 2006 about Luke's online blog depicting his struggle with the secret.

The coming out was played over several months, in which his father found out and came to grips before Luke ever told anyone else, his mother was in denial, and viewers slowly go to see the reaction of every character on the show, including how several "people" the audience had known for years were reacting to Luke's being gay.

This particularly attracted attention on online gay forums, such as the Dreamcaps Forum I wrote about back in June. There, a thread was started by some ATWT fans pointing out the coming out storyline to others in the community. Soon, people were following the stories and not just Luke's coming out but other stories on the show as well.

I wrote then that:

The discussion about the Luke storyline starts morphing into a dicussion of the distinctive elements of the soap opera genre and its emphasis on dialogue and slow-moving action paced out over several days with multiple storylines juggled simultaneously. Posters begin encourgaging each other to not just watch the Luke storyline but also check out other current stories as well. And the thread has now gone to 17 pages over the past few months as people continuously follow ATWT.

A great example of the power of the fan community, particularly when a show taps into a niche "surplus" audience that is not its primary demographic, which is women 18-49.

ATWT chose to tell the story of Luke's coming out slowly, making him a character in the background for several months and never having a romantic interest after his coming out. Then, Noah entered the picture. A new intern at local television station WOAK (of which Luke's mother is part-owner and where Luke is interning as well) catches Luke's eye. Noah is the son of an army colonel, one who thinks that his choice to go to Northwestern (Oakdale is close to Chicago) instead of enlisting to serve is country proves that he's not much of a man. Noah may be attracted to Luke as well, but he's seeking his father's approval, and he ends up sleeping with and dating another intern at the station, Maddie Coleman.

Last Friday, Luke and Noah had what is the first significant male homosexual kissing scene in American soap opera television history (see Faith's note below). In response, I know that CBS' streaming of ATWT had started running slow, perhaps due to increased traffic, and the most viewed version of the ATWT story has been watched 267,245 times as of this evening, favorited 619 times, and commented on 245 times. (Look here).

From AfterElton, I learned that the clip was originally marked as inappropriate on YouTube, but that other fans responded by posting duplicate clips of the scene, at least 10 at the count Lyle Masaki had.

EP Christopher Goutman expressed his support of the storyline, while a GLAAD press release celebrated the event, poitning out that there had been a same-sex kiss among females in daytime in 2000 (All My Children) and that the first network airing of a gay male kiss was in 2000.

It also made the main page of celebrity gossip site Perez Hilton. And see a fan site here.

What does this attention from gay male viewers, and the possibility of recruiting more gay male viewers through the story, mean for the target demographic? Immediately, nothing. But this surplus audience could have major repercussions for recruiting other new fans, some of whom may be adult women in the target demo. It will be interesting to see how the show continues to deal with its potential popularity among more gay male fans and what that might mean for the show.



"Luke and Noah had what is the first significant male homosexual kissing scene in soap opera television history"

I think you might have left the word 'American' out of that sentence. UK soaps have had a fair number of gay and lesbian kisses (Eastenders, Corrie, Brookside, Doctors, The Bill, Hollyoaks, Casualty/Holby etc) the significance of which could be argued but at least some would fit that definition. Hollyoaks has even done the soap teen gay kiss (I think, I am not 100% sure of the ages of the characters) and Emmerdale is just about to have our second soap gay wedding (the first being on Doctors which is on at lunchtime). So, yay, for the US beginning to catch on but television history isn't like the world series - it includes countries outside the US as well ;-)

On August 25, 2007 at 1:02 AM, Joseph said:

Excellent essay, and I entirely agree with your thesis. I'm a 37 year old gay man who first watched As the World Turns in the mid-80s (when Lily and Holden, Luke's parents, first met); I watched it solid for about 5 years, then only occasionally after that, and then really didn't watch it for about 10 years until I heard that Lily and Holden's son was coming out last year--I started watching again and was immediately hooked not just by Luke's storyline but by other stories on the show.

Recently, an issue of Soap Opera Digest invited reader/viewer comments about the shows they cover and, tellingly, in the piece on As the World Turns, they revealed that Luke's storyline had brought in more new viewers than any other aspect of the show.

And I've seen that statistic indicated elsewhere: at a message board devoted to actor Van Hansis (, there's been a massive increase in the number of participants since Noah was introduced in early June.

Personally, I'd like to add that I think it is incumbent of the writers and producers of soap operas to reflect the diversity of the American population--not just because it would be a more accurate reflection of our society, but also because it would, undoubtedly, bring in new viewers to the genre. The Luke/Noah storyline is reflective of this: audiences want to see "themselves" and "their stories" represented as it gives them not just satisfaction but a sense of pride to know that "our people" are included, too.


Okay, Faith, to be fair to myself (I always want that, of course!), I have often included the word "American" in my posts on soaps, since I've made it clear that I only consider myself an expert on American soap operas. But, issues of cultural snobbery aside, you are right that British soaps...and British culture...are another matter altogether, so I will include a note back in the main post. :)

On October 1, 2007 at 10:15 PM, Mario said:

Let's get all the American bashing out of the way shall we. Regardless of what the state-run British TV shows, the US is decades ahead of the UK in gay culture and gay rights. After all, the modern gay rights movement started in the US. Anyone ever heard of Gay Pride?? Having said that (and I'm sure I'll be censored for daring to criticize the grandeur of euroland) this is NOT the first male/male kiss on daytime soaps. It is however the first male/male kiss between teenagers on a US soap.


Mario, you may not stop by here again, but I was curious where the other kisses had taken place, as I saw some references to it being the first SIGNIFICANT male/male kiss in U.S. soaps history, but I didn't see the details of the other male homosexual kisses on American soaps.