What do academics talk about when they talk about soaps? The same things that all soap fans do: respect for history, nostalgia for the genre’s golden era, concern for its future. Thursday I attended the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, a sprawling academic conference with hundreds of panels on everything from Historicizing The Video Game to The Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Remake, for a panel entitled The Survival of the Soap Opera. The panelists included several contributors to the upcoming book of the same name, including ‘General Hospital’s Tristan Rogers (Robert). In the interest of full disclosure, I also contributed an essay to the book and piped in a few times during the conversation.
The small group of professors and graduate students who gathered covered much familiar ground. It began with the moderator asking where the genre would be in five years. The book’s editor Sam Ford said, “In five years there will be fewer than six soap operas. But there will still be some soap operas on the air.”
Rogers had a more pessimistic take. “The genre of soap opera is in good shape. There’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is daytime. The daytime sector of soap opera, which is probably the purest form of soap opera, is in a lot of trouble. The trouble itself is essentially perceived by the networks. They are finished with soap operas. They want to get rid of them. They’ve wanted to get rid of them for a long time. Back in the late 70s ABC openly discussed getting rid of its daytime line-up. Gloria Monty was actually hired to prepare ‘General Hospital‘ for cancellation. What she did was actually turn it around and usher in the golden era of soaps. But in reality what she did was buy soaps a bit of time.”
It was interesting to hear the thoughts of people who spend a great deal of time analyzing popular culture without, in most cases, having any practical experience working in the entertainment industry. Ford brought up how ridiculous it is that Emmys are awarded based on only one or two episodes, when the soap genre is about longterm storytelling. He is absolutely right, and it leads to all sorts of frustrating winners and omissions. But pragmatically, it is not possible for people to sit down and watch 50 consecutive episodes to accurately judge a show. Nor is it possible to keep soaps on the air solely because of their historical importance.
A grad student spoke up to make what I thought was the best point of the entire panel: that daytime fans and networks often have a different definition of what makes a soap high quality. She said of message boards, “People will say I didn’t watch for the production values. I watched for the people.”
At that point things got really interesting. A very special guest star weighed in: ‘General Hospital’s Lisa LoCicero (Olivia). LoCicero sat in the back, in classic soap surprise appearance fashion. Apparently, she read about the panel and decided it sounded interesting. I give her major points for taking time out of her busy schedule to drive to a hotel in downtown Los Angeles and hang out with a bunch of pop culture geeks. LoCicero said, “I was part of a show called ‘The City.’ The fan response that we got when the show spun off from ‘Loving’ and the studio started using handheld [cameras] was, ‘I don’t like it. I feel dizzy. ‘ They did a film look transfer and [people said], ‘All the other shows are clear on my TV but yours is fuzzy.’ They paid however many millions of dollars to provide that. It seems like soaps are something that when people watch they want to have a certain kind of consistency.”
She went on to compare soaps to reality television, which is perceived as real even though so-called docusoaps are clearly scripted. “I think that what we’re doing now, because the budgets are so low, we’re going three times faster than we did when I started when I was 25. If you didn’t fall over, it’s going on the air. But I think there’s a certain kind of beauty that comes with that as well. It’s a different experience of watching. You can sell the fact that it’s a little more raw. You do get to ad lib a lot.” She admitted that some of the lines in Olivia’s memorable confrontation with Sonny that aired on March 9th, in which she called out Sonny for blaming everybody but himself for shooting Dante, were ad-libbed though the content and structure of the scene came straight from the script.
Ford went on to discuss how difficult it is to explain soaps unique characteristics to people who are non watchers. This connected with LoCicero. “It was very interesting when James Franco came on our show. A lot of mainstream media tuned in for that big episode. Everyone got to have their little erudite fingerpoint: ‘Did you see the cheesiness of that gun battle? ‘ They had people who had never watched a soap in their lives. Lucky for me I got to have the three page monologue to God in the opening scene. All of the smarty pants were like, ‘What was she talking about?’ It really showed an attitude in the outside media about what we’re doing and how it’s perceived.” I hope the insightful LoCicero will consider adding a blog to her official website, because she has a lot of interesting things to say.
I left the panel without gaining much new insight into how soaps might survive. Critical studies professors are in the business of studying the media, not transforming it. But I was inspired by the enthusiasm these non-stereotypical soap viewers had for the genre.