February 24, 2008
GL Makes Major Shift in Soap Opera Production This Week

One industry many have come to expect the Consortium blog to post on, per my entries, over the past couple of years is American soap operas, the area in which I've done my thesis work and continue to write about substantially. In fact, my particular areas of interest and my acting as the primary contributor to this blog explains why there are robust categories of entries on soap operas and professional wrestling. (NOTE: We have not completely tagged all the posts in our archives, so these categories often do not include a significant number of the posts we've done on a subject.)

I'm actually teaching a course on the American soap opera this spring here at MIT for the Program in Comparative Media Studies, and my students and I are in the process of launching a class blog about soaps and particularly about the soap opera we are following for the semester, Procter & Gamble Productions' As the World Turns. We'd love to have you stop by and join in the conversation here. The good news is that comments actually work over at that site! We've also been invited to run regular class updates at the official blog for Procter & Gamble Productions, located here.

But one of the most significant stories in soaps this year is set to take place this week, when Guiding Light switches over to a new taping format that uses handheld cameras and four-walled sets.

The positive is that it allows for a proliferation of sets, with the handful of sets currently allowed for by the studio setup required by traditional soap opera taping and the dwindling production budgets of soaps being replaced by, for GL, 40 permanent sets that don't have to be constantly deconstructed and reconstructed. For a show with so many characters, perhaps that means we can see more people working in their actual offices, more than one coffee shop or restaurant for everyone to meet at, and living rooms and other spaces returning for families who have seemed homeless for years.

Ed Martin provides pictures and more details on the switch, writing, "Gone are the cumbersome two- and three-walled sets, giant pedestal cameras, dozens of overhead lights and miles of cable connecting all of the equipment. In their places are approximately forty permanent sets, each with four walls and a ceiling. On-set equipment now consists of three hand-held cameras, a few hand-held microphones and a couple of hand-held lights, and it is all wireless."

The article points out how the new taping techniques also allows for increased possibilities for product placement, especially with permanently constructed sets that can have even more detail, since they don't have to be torn down and rebuilt constantly. There are also more details about the use of Peapack, New Jersey, as an outdoor venue to shoot a variety of scenes to create Springfield as a community with vehicles, roads, gas stations, etc.

These changes have been discussed as coming from As the World Turns as well. As I wrote back in October, "ATWT revolutionized the way that soaps tell their stories visually, and Irna Phillips and her original crew at that show were responsible for creating many of the visuals that have now become the standard for soaps. It would be fitting indeed if it were the PGP shows that again revolutionized how American soaps are taped."

One thing that seems to concern some fans is that the show's reaction to their desire to make the shows seem more real is to change the visuals. As I wrote back in October, "Judging from the comments in the TelevisionWeek piece, most fans concur on one thing: that they will be fine with the visual changes but they want to see 'The Powers That Be' listen to the online fan community more often when it comes to creative as well, that it is the story and the characters that really matter."

This is a story I plan to follow closely because it could stand to have a major impact not just on my soap of choice--ATWT--but on the American daytime industry as a whole. I find the possibilities opened by proliferating the number of sets and including many more outdoor shots to be substantial if it corresponds with freeing up energy to tell stories in ways that satisfies the audience. And, while this was definitely done for budgeting motivations, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that P&G can use this as a way to revolutionize the way these soaps tell their stories and realize the artistic potential in the expansion of sets, etc., coupled with assuaging longtime fans who are losing some of the familiar aesthetics of the show by continuing to feature the longtime characters and histories of these shows in compelling and meaningful, transgenerational ways.

Any thoughts? Feel free to e-mail me at samford@mit.edu. And thanks to Lynn Liccardo for forwarding the Ed Martin article to me.