Saturday, June 21, 2008

I do believe soaps are dying, but you don't have to be mean about it :-)

I dearly miss the soon-to-die "World of Soap Themes" ( Owner Brian D. Puckett created an unparalleled resource of classic soap clips, themes, and a safe discussion place to talk about them.

Alas, he was henpecked to death, and found enthusiasm about some of his classic offerings was too low to keep offering them.

So, this led to my chiming in. Where to start?

So, WostBrian wrote this on the fabulous Snark Weighs In blog. You have to go there for the full thing, because Snark wants link-only. A few excerpts follow:

I must say that all these "developments" in daytime don't interest me much.... I'm always saddened to read comments from those who think any given soap is "great" right now, when history (yes, friends, history actually dates back prior to 1995). I understand the desire by some to want to "never give up" and I commend those who have the stomachs to withstand this bad period -- this extremely long bad period -- in hopes things will get better. But I know enough about the business of television to know that we HAVE absolutely seen the last of the good times for daytime television. It pains me to say it... but it is the honest-to-goodness truth. Daytime executives are now investing heavily in a young demographic and what they THINK appeals to this young demographic has killed the daytime drama of old that longtime fans have known and loved. This is a big reason why ratings suck so bad... this "desired demographic" is actually small in numbers. Longtime fans... hardcore longtime fans... are leaving or have left. This will NOT get better. All of the hand-wringing and wishing will not change it. I apologize for the harsh tone these words take... but it's true. It's almost comical to watch so many of us grind forth as if things are changing -- as if daytime will suddenly get its legs back. The heavy internet participation here, at SON, and other places online where soaps are discussed and debated isn't an indication of those who enjoy the crap producers are dishing out these days... internet participation is strictly a time-killer. We're here because we enjoy Snark, each other... and it's just something to do other than laundry, the dishes, or washing the car. Sorry for the negativity.. but I really feel as if I'm speaking from the heart and telling the truth of the matter.
Snark made fun of him.

I don't disagree with Brian...that should be clear from my posts. But I somehow feel the tone is wrong. I guess I'm too reverential.

Here is what I said to Brian:

I find WostBrian to be factually right and emotionally wrong :-). On one of the sites he mentions (SON) I and others have recently posted ratings trends (since 1952) that support his thesis. The downward trajectory of soaps began in the 1950s, and you could predict we would get to this point, ratings wise, as early as the 1950s or 1960s. Social forces, like maternal employment, increased viewing options, social stigma about serial drama ("soap opera" was not meant as anything but a perjorative) that discourage new viewers...

I do not concur with Brian that the current creative problems have CAUSED the viewership decline. I find no strong statistical evidence of accelerated decline in recent years (although, I will acknowledge, there has been some acceleration...just not a lot). I believe that there is NO CREATIVE CHOICE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN MADE, of any time, that would have stopped us from getting to this place. A daytime drama is counter to the changing viewing patterns of Americans.

Again, I concur with Brian about recent quality declines. (Well, his thesis is they are not so recent). That is definitely happening, but I think that is symptom, not cause. As budgets get lower and lower and closer to the bone (an inevitability given the ratings decline trends that started in the 1950s), we see the consequence of that on screen. Now, there is no denying too that the taint of desperation--the scent of death--also is leading to some bad decision making. A poster at Usenet said something very clever recently: She said that the short term stints of headwriters and other creative types has led to a kind of existentialism. Because you doubt you'll be around next year, you write for NOW...for the current ratings spike...for what will save your job this month. That, of course, defies the logic of SERIAL drama, which requires setting up for the future.

So, again, I do not deny what Brian sees...but I dispute the causal structure of it. I think what we're seeing on screen today is effect, not cause.

Above, I also talked about the idea that Brian is "emotionally wrong". I'm teasing, kind of, but what I mean is this: All of us who loved WOST saw that Brian just kind of reached the end of his rope. If he was getting lots of complaints, I would have too! His labor of love was a love for all of us...I miss WOST every day. But my point is this: Brian's emotional response--the thing that helped him break free--was a "hardening of the heart". We all have coping strategies, and Brian needed to do his: The genre he loved was dead, some WOST users were emotionally toxic, and he had a more enjoyable life to get too.

That "hardened heart" shows up in this comment.

Again, I do not dispute what he says, but emotionally, I feel like this: Come, friends, let's enjoy these final days. We're down to embers, and they're growing dark. What we see now in no way reflects the bright fire we once enjoyed, but it's still throwing a little warmth. Let's enjoy it while it is there, and let's remember how gloriously it once burned. " If I accept the bitterness and the anger for myself, then I've already lost the genre I love.

Another analogy is the dying relative. Do you just say "She's basically dead already? I'm gonna turn my back?" Or do you sit by her side, stroke her forehead, and remember the better days? Either way, she's dying...nobody is disagreeing on that. For me, though, confronting it with gratitude and reverence makes the pain more tolerable. I don't direct my anger at today's creative types, because really, it doesn't matter. We would have come to this point no matter what. It could not be avoided.

I just felt Brian rolling his eyes :-).

And here is what Brian said back: (he was generous and gracious)

Alas, Mark, I am not rolling my eyes... I think your post has hit the mark! Absolutely awesome! The only point I might take issue with is the notion that a downware trajectory for soaps began in the 1950's. By this conclusion, soaps began a decline immediately upon debut. My feeling is that, though the genre may have seemed stale through much of the 60's, color TV and then videotape led to a remarkable period of innovation and creativity during the 70's and, of course, the early 80's. I think consumer VCR's help sustain this period. I believe technology and societal changes have reduced the number of overall viewers... But ratings held fairly firm even through the emergence of cable tv. The most notable decline, to me, occurred even before the explosive growth of the internet (and still, long before streaming video became a commonplace, quality entertainment option online). The failure of writers to entertain us with clever plots, etc., seemed to me to hit in the mid-90's. It's as if the whole genre ran out of steam. Given that history, I can't wrap my head around the concept of a big decline beginning in the 1950's. But anyway, bravo Mark! You're on the mark... no pun intended! And with regard to WoST, you are SOOOO dead on regarding my state of mind. I'm grateful there are some folks like you out there who can see things so clearly...
In the end, we even had a thread about it at Soap Opera Network.

One thing that is clear...we're all linked in our passion for the genre, and it hurts to see it so sick.

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