Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gay men, straight men, and soaps

Okay, so I'm not sure I'm going to be clear with this post, but I have been trying to put a bunch of ideas together here.

I. A lot of men (still) watch soaps. Roger Newcomb recently showed that a high proportion of soap viewers is men.

Using SON Toups' most recent ratings at the time of this writing, it breaks out like this (for men 18+):

Y&R, 26% male
B&B, 25% male
GH, 17% male
DAYS, 21% male
ATWT, 21% male
AMC, 20% male
OLTL, 18% male
GL, 21% male

Now, think about this! The advertisers ostensibly only care about women aged 18-39. So all the older women, and all the men (fully a fifth to a quarter of the audience!!) are irrelevant! Really? These advertisers can afford to throw away all these viewers in desperate times?

Okay--but that is not my point. Roger Newcomb makes this point much more eloquently in his post.

II. My point is....who ARE these men? More to the point, how gay are these men?

I don't have an answer. I think a lot of the male viewers are straight...attracted to the soaps by the mothers and grandmothers who watched when they were younger. Or by wives and girlfriends who drew them in. Or by a general love for drama (there ARE straight men like that). Or they are shift workers who either wake up or unwind with the soaps.

But I also think a lot of the male viewers are gay. I have no clue what proportion, but if the online internet community offers ANY guide, I think as many as 50% of those viewers could be gay men.

III. Now why would that be? Why would gay men love soaps?

I think there are a few reasons. (It is interesting to note that in the great soap history book, Worlds Without End, one essay posits that gay men have been a big part of the fandom all along).

1. I think a lot of gay men identified, from an early end, more with the matrilineal part of the clan. (This doesn't mean to imply femininization of gay men! Just that gay men may be less bound up less in the macho 'emotion suppression' thing of the straight male world). So, they could watch the soaps with the moms and grandmoms.

2. I think that soaps offer "high emotion" (at least they used to). And I think high emotion has always been an outlet for gay men in drama. (Yes, I'm referencing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and...). I think that the need to live such lives of quiet restraint and suppressed feelings while in the closet means that vicariously living through on-screen/on-stage characters who can cry FOR you, scream FOR you, feel FOR you is a big deal. Unfortunately, there have been relatively few such male-oriented "grand emotional displays". So, gay men have to gravitate to the divas to express those emotions for them.

Related to this is the idea that closet-induced depressivity means that there may also be a preference for "darker" themes in literature, music, art, and drama. Soaps have historically appealed to that.

3. Eye candy. This homoerotic aspect of soaps (and don't even TRY to tell me that OLTL isn't striving for the gay male demo these days...even though the numbers suggest they are failing) has been a growing influence since the 80s. is a powerful testament to it.

Soaps is a rare place where young straight women and gay men can jointly share their lust objects in a fairly safe way. After all, we're tuning in for the "story", not the sex appeal, right? A closeted gay man can claim he is "checking out the hot chicks"...and he "isn't even looking" at the hot guy next to the girl.

When ATWT was in the early stages of their Nuke romance, right after the first kiss, the male numbers started growing faster than on any other soap. You can't tell me that was not the gay male demographic, FINALLY seeing something authentic on American soap screens. Alas, we all know that Nuke has been largely squandered.


IV, All of this leads me to the point that, in the quest for reinvention and new audiences, I am perplexed that the soaps have not abandoned their strategy of pursuing the midwestern housewife. She's declining in numbers. Why aren't they aggressively courting a gay male viewership (reportedly a group higher in education and income than many other groups)?

(Institutional heterosexism? Nah, can't be that....)


V. In one of his blogs, Keith Boykin discusses "Why Gay Men Love Female Divas" (which I think is a part of the soap appeal...especially of the Melrose Place variety)

He says (speaking of singing Divas):

A few months ago I found myself talking to a group of friends who were pondering why gay men seem to love female recording artists so much more than male artists. Because gay men are attracted to other men, you might expect them to fawn over attractive male singers instead of female divas....I've never had a good answer for this phenomenon but it seems that part of the explanation is that most of the popular male recording artists don't seem to want our attention. While the female divas openly acknowledge their gay fan bases, the men seem afraid to admit that they have gay fans.

Boykin goes on to praise Enrique Iglesias (who appeared on Y&R last year) for actively embracing gay fans at one recent concert. And it strikes me that maybe soaps could take a page from that. Could you imagine: There might even be audience GROWTH in this time of spiralling decline!


VI. Now, I also get the sense that "classic soap" may be increasingly less appealing to modern, young gay men.

Historically, high drama (the aforemention Crawford, Davis, or Judy Garland) attracted the gay male viewer. Said Damien Cave in Salon:

[M]any gay men lived vicariously through Hollywood's women. In Judy Garland's drugs and multiple comebacks, they saw their own closeted battle between loneliness and survival. In the lines of Bette Davis' characters -- "You can lose everything else, but you can't lose your talent" -- they recognized the ability to overcome, even cackle at life's villains. And Joan Crawford, with her broad shoulders and masculine air, embodied the in-your-face assertiveness that gay men longed to express....Later, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and then Madonna also offered gay men real-life versions of Davis' and Crawford's wonderfully bitchy characters.

But Cave argues that as the closet door has loosened, so has diva worship declined. Indeed, my own perspective is that modern gay culture has a growing love for a kind of hyper-masculinity that, actually, would make something too bitchy, too campy, and too feminine actually UNAPPEALING for gay men. The low male numbers for OLTL right now seem to kind of confirm that for me.

So, if soaps DID want to leverage their appeal to gay male viewers (to grow audiences), I don't think the answer is bitchy camp. At least, not too much. I think "Nuke" is the template: Authetic portrayals of young gay men, in all their flavors. I also think that (see another post in this blog) there have actually been a fair number of gay characters on soaps by now. And most of the front burner stories have been "coming out" stories.

This means that a different kind of story...being a proud, out man (like Brothers and Sisters Scotty) ... or gay (in the background) but active in stories that have nothing to do with sexuality (like the new Dr. Julian on Night Shift) may be the way to go.

Indeed, I think Night Shift may really be the way to go. We have classic soap veterans and new characters. We have eye candy (Antonio Sabato Jr., Jason Thompson). We have fierce women (especially Dr. Robin Scorpio). We will soon have a bona fide gay icon diva (Anna Scorpio will guest). We have a front-burner out gay male (Dr. Kyle Julian), integrated into (for Night Shift) a new core family (the Julians). Indeed, Dr. Kyle's mother will soon be played by gay diva icon Kathleen Noone! Although Kyle has mostly been involved in non-relationship stories (with his straight female best friend)...and he will soon have a mature relationship (with out actor Chad Allen...dreamboat!). THAT, I think, is the template. I hope it succeeds for SoapNet...and I hope due to success, daytime follows suit.


VII. Do you think I am right? Do you think there is a disproportionately large gay representation among male soap viewers? Or does the male soap viewer look more like typical males...majority straight?

End of days?

Tom Casiello really has me thinking with a recent blog post, prompted by some recent scathing revelations by Victoria Rowell (in an interview with Daytime Confidential).

In it, he says, in part, "But here's what's interesting... after the strike, and the Days firings, and the "Real Greenlee" and Guiding-Light-Wants-to-Be-The-Hills, and the Bryce/McClain/Byrne firings, and the Nuke Ban, and the Higley/Scott/Corday debacle, and the Y&R Is-He-Or-Isn't-He-Still-EP mess, and then the Carolyn Hinsey firing... honestly I hear a scathing interview like Ms. Rowell's? And all I can do is shrug."

He goes on to say, "And I think a lot of people finally see that it's time to just come clean. To be upfront and honest and the hell with where it leaves them. Because there's a good possibility that everyone who even has a job now will be looking for a new career before the next decade is over....Cheerful, isn't it?...Actually, yes. It very well could be. If history has taught us anything, it's that eventually, you get that Renaissance. You get the Roaring Twenties, the Summer of Love, so to speak....Somewhere out there, there must be another William Bell - a man who can take all of these artists, all of these differences of opinion and creative disagreements, and channel them - funnel them into one driving force that can create the number one daytime drama for over two decades without compromising anyone's artistic integrity. I wish he or she would show up - we're long overdue."

Casiello concludes with this: "Because from what I've seen of this calendar year, I'm not so sure 2009 will be the saving grace we all want it to be. But they say it's always darkest before the dawn, and I truly wish that if the events of the last nine months have taught us anything, it's that if you push enough people down, they will eventually find each other, and rise up again."

So, I'm focused on this apocalyptic vision. Heck, I have shared it. I have (somewhat tongue in cheek) predicted (by similar linear interpolation of the falling ratings trends, across all soaps, and by the assumption that once ratings fall below 1.0 soaps are not viable) that the last soap (Y&R) will leave us in 2016.

At the same time, I don't think "the strike, and the Days firings, and the "Real Greenlee" and Guiding-Light-Wants-to-Be-The-Hills, and the Bryce/McClain/Byrne firings, and the Nuke Ban, and the Higley/Scott/Corday debacle, and the Y&R Is-He-Or-Isn't-He-Still-EP mess, and then the Carolyn Hinsey firing" or the Rowell interview are AT ALL symptomatic of the death of soaps.

Let me explain.

I think soaps are dying for myriad reasons that have relatively little to do with their creative state. These include (and have been mentioned many times before)
- women out of home
- lack of intergenerational viewing
- failure to move soaps to a time when people are home
- lack of off-network and out-of-daypart promotion
- general perception (from their beginnings, on radio) as soaps as uncool and for "ladies" with little better to do (the stimga phenomenon)
- growing cultural distaste (in all dayparts) for the commitment that serials require (look at the viewer attrition in Lost or ER)
- general decline of passive TV viewership in favor of video games, internet
- movement of TV viewership to downloaded torrents and youtube (which doesn't count in the ratings).

Many of these problems extend beyond daytime. Each of them (and others) contributes to the decline of soaps. I also think the magazines (revealing spoilers) kills soaps.

It is tempting to think that "the strike, and the Days firings, and the "Real Greenlee" and Guiding-Light-Wants-to-Be-The-Hills, and the Bryce/McClain/Byrne firings, and the Nuke Ban, and the Higley/Scott/Corday debacle, and the Y&R Is-He-Or-Isn't-He-Still-EP mess, and then the Carolyn Hinsey firing" represents some kind of Lord of the Flies...the abandoned islanders feeding off each other, driven to bloodlust.

But, honestly, I think the REAL issue in these events is "new media" and "the Perez Hilton effect" (these two are related). New media means that "news" is released INSTANTLY, unfiltered, around the protective walls of publicists. This sh*t ALWAYS happened...we just didn't know it because SOD/SOW etc. protected the industry.

Now, though, as the Hinsey Jossip thread shows, the stuff gets out there INSTANTLY. Under clever nom-de-plumes, SOD/SOW staffers allegedly got on the internet and told everyone what they were experiencing.

Think about it:

- Days firings. Many of us found out about that on a SUNDAY thanks to Toups at Soap Opera Network. In the old days, the magazines might not even have REPORTED this.

- Real Greenlee. Horrible, horrible, horrible. was internet disgust--shared animus against that mean-spirited promotion...that made public rancor spread. I might have thought it was horrible...but it was only when an online community convinced me that I was not alone that my disgust wasn't just me

- Guiding Light. Well...that one doesn't have much to do directly with the internet. That is just bad :). (Sorry DonnaB...I know you love the show. But actually, I APPLAUD the experiment. Indeed, I think if the writing can become 'soapier' (something EP Ellen Wheeler apparently doesn't want) the new production model could work

- Bryce/McClain/Byrne firings...those would have been quickly forgotten "Comings and Goings" if internet communities hadn't brewed them into shared outrage. I say this EVEN THOUGH these were stellar veterans. It takes a community to create communal outrage.

- Nuke ban. Well, the no kissing was outrageous. BUT, let us not forget Roger Newcomb's campaign. He was masterful, with his colleagues, in exposing light on it via...the internet (and every print publication in the WORLD, it seemed). But I don't see how this one is a BAD thing. Fan outrage got us kisses. LOTS of them. I see no problems here.

- Higley/Scott. Internet. AGAIN, an internet venue (Canadian TV Guide) released the news on a Friday, with weekend updates. And ever message board in soapdom glowed red with outrage for a long weekend. The print media poo-poo'ed it.

- Hinsey firing. That is news ONLY on Jossip, and with the 2000 posters who went there.

My point is this: These events all seem more apocalyptic...but they really were only disseminated, promulgated, and reacted to in a narrow blogosphere. (Well blogosphere + message boards + a few online publications). To the broad "laiety" of soap viewership, they didn't even know it happened. To the passionate few hundred who haunt this soap-world, it was a big deal.

I am convinced this kind of chaos always happened (look at the headwriter parade at Another World)...but the "fan revolt" that surrounds it is localized to this weird internet community we are all in.

If I am right, then all this "chaos" is a chronic state (in most industries), and has few implications for the death of soaps.

The death of soaps, when it comes, will have to do with those plummeting numbers and that huge list of factors up above that nobody is attending to.

The plan to save soap print media

Excuse the provocative title.

In case you missed it, soap magazines are dying. (Judging by the vitriol in the Jossip Hinsey thread, they are already dead). Circulations have been falling for years, in part due to the decline of soap viewership, and in part due to the general decline in many print media). SOD/SOW were sold from Primedia to Source Interlink...and somehow I don't think companies sell off highly profitable ventures.

Now, Roger Newcomb points us to the fact that Source Interlink has experienced particularly stunning ad page losses lately--20% This pretty much is the highest of the losses.

Couple that with news that SOW is not replacing (cannot afford to replace??) Carolyn Hinsey...and you get the idea that the red ink may soon bleed off the page.

I think there are a few other problems with SOD/SOW that are hastening their demise--and I say this NOT with Schadenfreude, but as a reader (of SOD) since 1979 who LOVED those magazines and wishes they would thrive.

1. They have not adequately cultivated their subscriber base. Thus, they rely on fickle newsstand sales.

2. Newsstand sales forces sensationalistic covers. How many "Sonny leaving!" covers can you read (only to learn the ACTOR is taking a two week vacation that you won't even notice due to pre- and post-taping) before losing trust in the mag?

3. Subscriptions are further harmed by the WORST fulfillment house ON THE PLANET (Palm Coast). Most of use SOD subscribers get the mag a week after it appears on newsstands.

4. SOD is experimenting with an online version, but when I wrote to the fulfillment house about it, they said I had to UNSUBSCRIBE from the print version to get the online version. Or I had to pay double? Huh??? Where does that make business sense. A smart venture would have been to give all print subscribers free online content (it is the SAME product)...and try to wean them off the print version with immediacy. Unfortunately, I'm told even the online version appears days after the print version! Silly, huh?

5. SOD and especially SOW are trying to goose their sales with "news". (This is the term used to refer to story SPOILERS and casting changes). In the modern era, HOW FOOLISH.

Why? Because the moderately literate reader gets all the news WEEKS before the mags from Soap Opera Network, Daytime Confidential, Roger Newcomb, and Canadian TV Guide. The few scoops that remain in the mags (US TV Guide's Michael Logan and SOD/SOW) are INSTANTLY telegraphed on EVERY message board.

News/spoilers is NOT the way to build a magazine nowadays. The news travels faster than print. The only people who will buy your mag for "news" are older people without computers...NOT the desirable demographic for advertisers.

6. What to do? I think there is a multi-part strategy:

a. Shift the news to your online sites. Make it hard to cut-and-paste your news, and surround it with internet advertising. Release the news instantly (I'm really talking about casting and production changes), and soon you will be a destination.

b. Abandon story spoilers. They are killing the industry. The last few viewers don't need to watch, thanks to the mags. So stop "screwing the pooch" by printing spoilers. (Where did I hear that phrase?)

c. Use your legacy content (SOD goes back to the mid 70s) to build a return visitor base. Print subscribers should get exclusive access to your full back library, scanned, online. That builds an "incentive" for subscribership that goes beyond the current print edition.

d. What, then, should go in the mag? DETAILED analysis and interviews (not just with stars). These should be long, multi-page jobs without BREAKING NEWS. Why? Because the message boards will be less inclined to steal and disseminate this lengthier kind of article (how many Vanity Fair articles are being pilfered?). That makes the magazine a place for exclusive content.

e. Broker deals with the major online sites that they can release "exclusive" previews of your articles. That drives an audience to your print product. In return, ask those online sites to censor piracy, so that users are forbidden to share your copywritten material. Soap Opera Network is excellent about doing this (protecting the magazines) is Roger Newcomb.

Soon, your magazines become a haven for detailed, analytical, insightful content (and fashion spreads, if you must, though they make me retch). This is stuff you can't get anywhere.

Instead of spoilers, talk to actors and producers about what happened LAST WEEK. Instead of cagey "I can't tell you" responses, now they can freely talk to you about the motivations and intentions of scenes we all watched together last week. For the non-watching viewers, if written right, the "catchup" on recent story will STILL help them keep up with their soaps.

On credentials in the new media

Who the hell am I, asks a "commenter" in one of my Carolyn Hinsey blogs from a few weeks back.

Who indeed? What are my credentials? None. I am, proudly, a nobody.

Let me explain that. There are terrific bloggers out there with bona fide credentials in the soap industry. First and foremost we have Tom Casiello (thank you for the recent shout out...I am humbled) and Sara Bibel. These two have real street cred as people who know the industry, and many of the players still in it. They have taken different post-strike approaches (Tom seems to blog out of sheer sense of community...his voice is so passionate and ardent that sometimes my eyes get teary at his love of the genre...but he is not making any money off it; Sara seems to be transforming into a soap journalist, with a combination of interviews, editorials, and historical insights), but both have become must-read because (at least for me) you feel a little smarter and more insightful after reading their words.

Then we have the once-published journalists (Marlena Delacroix and Lynn Liccardo), who offer the insights of long time fans with historical insight, knowledge of the industry. The gang at Daytime Confidential produces a product that simply trumps every soap publication left for breaking new and outstanding (podcast) interviews. The Canadian TV Guide Online has filled the void left behind after the US TV Guide Online essentially abandoned soaps...with a voice that is best described as "Perez Hilton for Daytime".

Then we have Roger Newcomb, who is pioneering fan-written (radio!) soaps (and whose Manhattanites independent film is eagerly awaited by many of us). Roger's "We Love Soaps" blog initially functioned as a consolidator of headlines. This is amazing. I do not know what kind of RSS feeds Roger has figured out, but literally no soap item (even regarding ex-soap actors) breaks, even in some podunk farm village, without Roger finding it and posting a link to it. Lately, Roger has been bringing more of his own "voice" to his blog, as recent pieces of fan advocacy for ATWT's Nuke or an insightful analysis of the impact of men/older viewers on rating shows.

In the ranks of such luminaries, what am I? Nothing...just a fan for all my days, but with no particular expertise.

Moreover, if you take my show (Y&R), there are 5 million people like me. And more than a few of us have blogs.

Yet, I think, that is where I have something unique to contribute. My voice (and the other 4,999,999 voices) are the outsiders, the consumers. Each of us views the soaps from a unique lens. Mine is as a 40-something guy with a lifelong attachment to soaps, and with some schooling (behavioral science, gerontology, statistics) that gives me a particular take on what is happening to the industry. Someone else--say, a mother of four who works at home--has a different lens (how the show fits into her busy life, why she makes time for it, how it resonates with the reality of her life...or maybe how it represents a 'Take me Away' part of her day).

The blogosphere is very different than old media. Access to "publishing" is no longer limited. The good part is that, in the beautiful anarchy that results, a much broader mix of voices can be heard. I suspect that the soap industry would be wise to sample this more than they apparently do. (Indeed, ATWT's Christopher Goutman has espoused the belief that internet fans are a trivial minority....I suspect he does this at his own risk).

On the other hand, it means that blowhards like me can espouse opinions that have very little backing. They are not "industry-savvy". I may lack experience, history, insight, etc. Yet, because I have carved out a "place" on the internet, some may feel that I am claiming myself to be an "authority" (which I am not).

For me, as a reader, I think the new media is an exciting way to get real time information and analysis that is less filtered, less polished. I think each of us adds interesting perspectives which, taken in their whole, represent a real resource for criticism and opinion. But a fair disclaimer: Opinions are worth what you pay for them.