April 9, 2008
PCA/ACA: Marsha Ducey on FCC Complaints; Other Soap Projects

One project that really caught my eye at this years soap opera area at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association national conference in San Francisco was from Marsha Ducey at the State University of New York--Buffalo, whose project was entitled "As the World Turns: 'Indecency' in American Soap Operas."

Marsha's project looks at complaints filed against soap operas in particular with the Federal Communications Commission from 2004 through January 2008, with information provided through a Freedom of Information request. Marsha became interested in her projects in a post-nipple society, as she wondered what impact--if any--the controversy surrounding the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl would have on daytime television. She was also interested in the FCC issuing what had been the largest fine in history at the time for a show called Married in America, despite abysmal ratings and the fact that there were only about 25 complaints, stemming from a couple of form letters. She could not find any research on complaints filed for soaps and decided to investigate.

What she found was 31 complains for 2004, 17 of which were for language, with Days of Our Lives being the biggest offender, with nine complaints. For 2005, there were 25 complaints, 12 of them for images (the most prominent type of complaint that year), with Passions being the biggest offender with nine complaints. For 2006, there were 37 complaints, 17 for language, and most of the complaints coming from Days of Our Lives (8), followed by As the World Turns, with six. The two biggest complaints were from those professing anti-gay sentiments, perhaps tied to the launch of Luke Snyder's storyline on ATWT, and from some complaining about missing closed captioning.
For all soaps:

In 2007, there were a total of 60 complaints, up significantly from prior years. These were driven by antigay sentiments once again, in part by the increase in prominence in ATWT's Luke Snyder storyline. Both ATWT and Days of Our Lives received 13 complaints each, while Passions received 14. There were also a significant number of complaints about characters saying something offensive about God. Finally, just in January 2008, there were 17 complaints, 14 of which were about General Hospital, in particular a story in which involves an HIV positive storyline that people felt was not handled carefully and accurately enough, particularly in making it seem as if one would only have to have one HIV test.

The project was interesting, not just in some of its findings but in how it establishes a way of comparatively studying FCC complaints across a genre. I look forward to seeing what happens with it as Marsha seeks publication and continues working on it, and I'd love to see--as she suggests--an eventual comparison with prior years. What interested me most is she said there was little, if any, evidence at any formal campaigns against the soaps, with the number of letters about the HIV positive storyline being the most likely to have been driven by a call from some central force, even though none of them were chain letters, but just because there were several complaints in a finite time period for a particular show and storyline.

Also presenting at the PCA/ACA conference this year was Mary Devine, a regular at the soap opera area, who had done research on how families and dynasties are built on a soap opera, using All My Children as her case study. There was also a project presented from Melixa Abad-Izquierdo from the State University of New York--Stony Brook, entitled "Cinderella, Indians and Aspirations to Modernity: Mexican Telenovelas 1958-1973." We discussed some of the common forces involved in developing the U.S. soap opera and the Mexican telenovela (in particular, U.S. soap companies like Colgate and Procter & Gamble), as well as some of the differences between the two forms, most prominently a stronger focuses on class issues in Mexican telenovelas and the fundamental difference between a serial that comes on several times a week but with a finite duration and the concept of "worlds without end" for U.S. soaps.

Unfortunately, I missed the presentation from California State San Marcos' Jessica Savalla, entitled "From Disreputable Vamp to Admired Hotel Owner: Gender Politics as Seen in General Hospital's Carly Corinthos." Jessica plans to send me a copy of her paper, and I look forward to sharing more information about her project in the future here on the Consortium's blog, for those of you who are interested in particular in television studies and my work on soaps.

In my next post, I'm going to conclude my coverage of the conference by looking at a few more interesting soap opera projects from the PCA/ACA conference.