Soap Opera Essays

Just as marketers have become fascinated with and its depiction of the “golden age” of television advertising, a study of soap operas can help brands, storytellers, scholars, and fans alike understand this “digital era” everyone is trying to wrap their heads around, through the perspective of a genre that has adapted and changed through every evolution of mass media since the beginning of the 1930s.

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I had the great fortune of taking part in an event in honor of the enduring legacy of media scholar John Fiske’s work at The University of Wisconsin-Madison last June.

At Fiske Matters, we talked about ways that academic publishing on the media might be reformed in a digital era, which inspired me to publish this piece.

Yet, the six shows on the air still draw in millions of viewers a week for five weekly episodes with no off-season. soap opera viewer and fan but a good portion of the past five-and-a-half years researching, writing, teaching, and arguing about what scholars, students, marketers, viewers, and media content creators can learn from a genre too often maligned as being unable to produce anything of artistic or cultural merit.

That’s 260 episodes or so a year, with the “youngest” soap on the air (CBS’s ) being almost 25 years old and broadcasting more than 6,000 episodes to date. In the process, I’ve met a variety of other scholars as fascinated as I am, personally and professionally, with these immersive story worlds which enthrall generations of viewers with stories more frequent and enduring than any other type of narrative.

That’s what led to myself and two colleagues–Abigail De Kosnik at UC-Berkeley and C.

Lee Harrington at Miami University–to put together a collection called (released late last year), bringing together the perspectives of academics, industry practitioners, critics, and fans to look at the plight the soap opera industry finds itself in today but also what makes the genre unique and important to our culture and areas of promise or potential for seeing the soap opera continuing to thrive.Procter & Gamble, the last actual “soap company” still making soap operas, ended their soaps, thus canceling the run of (which had been on the air since its radio days in 1937).For most of their television runs, soaps have slowly seen their ratings dwindle.As the boomer population who grew up during the heyday of television soaps age out of the 18-49 target demographic, soap operas have particularly suffered financially.And, as networks and advertisers have put pressure on these shows to try and lure in young adults in ways that have potentially damaged viewership in other categories, the shows have ultimately damaged their overall ecosystem for gaining and maintaining the very viewers they were hoping to attract.Thus, the travails of Ma Perkins and her many sisters on what were initially called “washboard weepers” proliferated, and what was the most robust example of serialized storytelling in media history began, with ongoing 15-minute episodes of shows that stretched on for years.Soaps made the transition to television, even when many feared (or hoped) that these stories wouldn’t translate well to the visual screen, especially since it was assumed women listened to “their stories” while doing housework during the day.What we hope to capture in are a variety of perspectives on a common industry and a look at how a variety of stakeholders ultimately determine the value of and contribute to the meaning of any type of media content.After all, what better way to contextualize and truly understand our current media age by looking at a genre that has survived all the many changes to mass media of the past eight decades?We talked about the need to make such projects come to life, to find ways to use the anthology to bring a variety of voices together, perhaps even including voices from outside “the academy” and certainly potentially from multiple academic disciplines.We discussed as well how to move beyond having a collection of independent essays but rather finding ways, through the logic and structure of the book, to add new meaning to the content in how pieces are put in conversation with one another.


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