May 20, 2008
Soap Operas, Relative Realism, and Implicit Contracts

Just yesterday, I was out to lunch with someone when the subject of soap operas came up. This person vaguely knew that I have done a fair amount of writing about soap operas and their audience, so we started to discuss the nature of soaps, pro wrestling, and the other media content that I study.

It didn't take long for the importance of cultural taste hierarchies to get established, as my lunch partner made it clear she had never watched soap operas much herself. She felt the need to clarify after she had told a third person briefly involved in the conversation that they could download their soaps for free and podcast them for the commute to work. "Don't ask me how I know these things, because I don't watch those shows, but I do."

And I believe her. She doesn't watch them. These shows are just pervasive enough in our culture that even those who feel they've safely distanced themselves from "low culture" media texts are often more implicit than they want to be. This person is a media industries professional, who has worked and lived in the New York City area for some time now, and she wanted to be clear, even when talking to a soap opera fan and someone who not only is a fan of soaps but also studies soaps and their viewers, that she doesn't watch.

During the lunch, the difference between East Coast and West Coast soaps came up. I pointed out to her that East Coast soaps often have a different feel, because of the number of stage actors who appear in them. She said that she knew many stage actors worked in soaps for the steady pay, to fund their lifestyle on the stage. I agreed that it was sometimes the case and then posited that soaps often have quite good actors involved.

She agreed, but quickly limited it by pointing out it was the writing that made such good actors often sound so bad. I countered by pointing out that there is a much different, but perhaps even deeper, creativity involved in telling stories with characaters for 260 episodes a year, for decades, compared to 22 first run episodes for most primetime shows a season.

She seemed a little skeptical and soon moved the conversation to where it seems, ultimately, her fundamental problem with soap operas lie: melodrama and "realism." Now, melodrama is something television studies has been interested in for a long time now. David Thorburn, a friend and former professor of mine at MIT, wrote a foundational essay on the subject years ago, looking at how melodrama functions in television texts.

More recently, a colleague of mine in C3, Alec Austin, did his Master's thesis work on the idea of implicit contracts in television texts, and the importance expectations play in regards to any genre or any particular show. In short, texts like soaps, or pro wrestling, may look ridiculous to those who are porting an external version of realism to the genre, but those shows look quite different when you evaluate them based on the internal rules of the world, the rules that both creators and fans have implicitly agreed to going in.

Pro wrestling is "fake." For no apparent reason, people throw each other into the ropes in a pro wrestling match, do extensive acrobatics, and so on. But that doesn't mean that fans of pro wrestling have no sense of realism that they grade the show back. Quite the opposite. Fans are brutal in the ways in which they measure pro wrestling performances. Performers whose in-ring actions don't adhere to the right version of realism are often greeted with quite harsh language from crowds.

Similarly, soap operas might allow some seemingly outlandish actions to transpire in the plot, but that doesn't mean there aren't rules that bound what fans are more likely to accept, and what breaks that implicit contract between producer and consumer.

The reason I've been thinking about many of these issues was the chance I had recently to read Drew Beard's work on U.S. soap operas, both daytime soaps and primetime. Drew sent me a paper he presented at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference back in March, where he argues that the familiar sets that define many of the soap operas on U.S. television today are an important part of the realism, so that--even when outlandish plots are taking place (including the stereotypical amnesia, evil double, coma, etc.), they are happening in Emma Snyder's kitchen, Oakdale Memorial Hospital, etc. (As the World Turns examples); he provides an example in which a soap opera had an outlandish plot take place that simultaneously removed characters from their natural habitats, pointing out that fans' complaints about realism came from the simultaneous appearance of a dubious plot alongside the removal of these characters from their familiar settings onto an island.

I think Drew is onto something crucial here, and his work demonstrates an important case study for how soap operas function. There is a realism that can be broken ,and shows do it often, much to the chagrin of fans. As I poitned out in my previous post, soap fans are quite ambivalent about how realism is treated in their shows, and they often have spiried discussions about these issues. The difference is understanding the logical underpenning of these shows, the implicit rules audiences have agreed to before entering the fictional world and engaging in that "willing suspension of disbelief" we talk about so often regarding pro wrestling and which people have written about regarding literature for many years now.

I'd posit that the problem is that outsiders often think that the ridiculousness defines genres like pro wrestling and soaps, because they don't understand the internal rules, so when those outsiders who don't truly understand the space get some degree of creative power, they believe that fans will accept anything, and therein lies the "jump the shark" moments that Drew writes about in his work.

One only needs to read The Death of WCW to find some great anecdotes for this misunderstanding from the outside in pro wrestling terms, or think through the implications of the term "soapy," as Lynn Liccardo and I have discussed multiple times. See, for instance, my post from the soaps class blog, and this post about the danger of rhetoric among media practitioners shaping the way the various creative powers invovled in creating a show see their cultural product.


On June 15, 2008 at 3:43 PM, Sudha Author Profile Page said:

This reminds me of what I have found in my own work. I have researched audience reception of Indian cinema in the Soviet Union. One of the things I found was while Soviet elitist reviews insisted Indian popular cinema was far removed from reality and therefore not an 'art form,' fans wrote defiant letters stating that critics didn't get Indian films like they did. These films were realistic, they wrote; what reviews dismissed as melodramatic tripe, fans interpreted as injunctions on love, friendship and marriage...all real life issues. So how could critics think these films were removed from reality when they taught you how to live in it? They used the same criterium of realism to judge these films but only articulated that criterium in different ways. I found your post fascinating because of its resonance in this other reception context.


Thanks for stopping by, Sudha. This is another great example.

You may be interested in this related post about a New York Times reviewer and her constantly referring to soaps as an example of melodrama or poorly done acting. In the comments, Dave Feldman has a great example of theater critics referring to some performances as "sitcom-worthy," or some similar comment, as a put down. But, of course, this disconnect doesn't distinguish between sitcoms highly regarded by fans of that genre and sitcoms that are judged poorly, instead pretending all are the same. Further, these are theater critics writing disparagingly about another genre/medium altogether, partially because they are grading sitcom performances by what would make good theater.

If they were instead to say, "a performance that would have played well on sitcom but just didn't work in a comedy on stage," that would be a good cross-media reference. To dismiss it as "a stereotypical performance worthy of a Wednesday night sitcom" shows little regard for the other genre...

In short, people all too often value critical distance to the point that we end up with cultural commentators who know too little about the genre of art they are commenting on and who are completely disconnected to the communication that's been cultivated between the media producers and their audiences.

On June 18, 2008 at 6:02 AM, Sudha Author Profile Page said:

You've pointed to an important problem: the absence of cross-media references. It seems like while television, cinema, radio and the internet have become interdependent and inter-referential in many ways (sharing audiences, sharing programming and cross-referencing each other), theatre has been unable to break out of its isolation.

The key difference is of course technology but also audience. (sorry if this is tangential.....)


No, that makes a lot of sense. In genres like professional wrestling, writers have figured out a way to link live experience, television, Internet, music, etc., but the theater has not found a mainstream way to do something across platform. That's not to say that there haven't been a variety of ways in which some plays have experimented, but it's nonetheless hard to fit live events into the cross-media platform as effectively. In a way, although often virtually, ARGs fall into this sort of realm of bridging broadcast or recorded media with the physical world...

On June 22, 2008 at 11:30 AM, Sudha Author Profile Page said:

What are ARGs?


Check out this Wikipedia page for a quick overview, Sudha. ARG stands for "alternate reality game."