Tuesday, December 30, 2008
But the Monday 12/29/2008 ABC shows were, in large measure, perfect soap confections...enough that even this lapsed viewer might tune in tomorrow...which, after all, (per J. Bernard Jones) is the point.
Of the three ABC shows, All My Children was the weakest. However, a trio of villains has energized this show and restored some rooting value. David Hayward is just dastardly, but Vincent Irizarry is a revelation. Unlike his flopped character (David Chow on Y&R), Hayward has an unapologetic agenda. He wants to claim his grand-daughter, and 'avenge' Babe's death. The character's throughline is fairly clear. Amanda...well, I know her troubled background, and Chrisell Stause plays just the right note of ambivalence and guilt to make her deeds more interesting. Melissa Claire Egan plays her psycho with such a powerful vulnerability and childishness, and again (from her dead brother Richie) we understand that there are likely dark roots that explain her behavior. The big thing is that when any of these three are on the screen, they captivate and keep the show interesting.
Better was One Life to Live, which just seemed like payoff city. Asa's video-from-the-dead, revealing both his connection to David Vickers and his challenge to his sons to come out on top. The unrivalled Tuc Watkins, playing just the right amount of winking as a 'reformed' (and Buddhist) David Chow returns to town. Payoff that Viki and Charlie found out about Dorian's role in their previous undoing. Payoff that Dorian is trying to high-tail it out of town. Payoff that Marty is getting Todd right where she wants him. I literally could not wait to see the next chapter...and it helped that a lot of the characters on the canvas are those I would recognize from decades past.
And, shockingly to me, best was General Hospital. Yup. Start with the mob that everyone hates. Except Jason and Sonny had a heartfelt scene, remembering that it was Michael's birthday, and remembering their next rivalry. The delightful chemistry between Jax and Carly continues to add an element of romance to a show that often forgets the importance of this element. SpinMax...who can eat the show...were much fun, and I enjoyed Bradford Anderson's romantic fantasy, as a debonair young man dancing with his Maxie. But, of course, everything Scorpio-Drake was perfection...from the vows, the toasts, the flashbacks, the dyadic conversations on the edges of the dance floor. For one episode, GH reclaimed all that it had won this summer on (the cancelled?) Night Shift II...and restored hope that the "mothership" could again rediscover its heart.
It seemed that these episodes are being scripted for people like me...lapsed viewers who are home during the holiday "break", and who might be enticed to keep watching. This strategy can work, too. As long as ABC doesn't do a bait-and-switch and return to the usual dreck. Might the network be rediscovering that heart, history, engaging villains and innocents, and payoff all work together to make a show watchable?
I'm always encouraged by these flashes of greatness, because they show me the potential is still there. The trick is to make it more regular and consistent.
Sunday, December 28, 2008
This excerpt, from the same out of print source as my last entry, was written by Robert J. Thompson, and is called "Architects of the Afternoon".
The emphasis in red notes is from me, and represents particular points I want to consider in a future posting. The rest of this post is all quotation from that chapter.
For all its 100 million-plus viewers worldwide, the American soap opera remains shrouded in anonymity. Production credits do not even appear on most daily installments, and, unlike episodes in prime-time series, even the names of the stars of the soaps are not identified in the opening sequences. Although many devotees of daytime serials follow the creative processes as they are reported in fan magazines and Web sites, many others have little idea who created their favorite stories, much less who writes, produces, and directs them. Strangely enough, the only truly famous soap personage, Susan Lucci, made her way into the American consciousness through the phenomenal string of Emmy awards she didn't win.
None of this, of course, should come as any surprise. With some notable exceptions, the people who make mass media entertainment do so, as far as most consumers are concerned, incognito. The widespread recognition of the behind-the-scenes people who make movies did not really begin in any significant way until a group of French critics developed the auteur (authorship) theory in the fifties. This theory advances the idea that the director of a film could be seen as the author, that is, the driving creative force, even in the seemingly anonymous workings of the
The Secret Life of Soap Operas: James Thurber as Broadcasting Auteur
Which brings us to James Thurber, a writer ahead of his time in both the harm and the good that he did in helping Americans to understand the soap opera. On the one hand, as a major author writing in a major national magazine, Thurber consolidated and perpetuated the glib generalizations that were already circulating about the daytime serial. Thurber set the tone for the shallow treatments of the soap opera that are very much in evidence to this day by taking the soap as an easy target for facile humor based on its complicated plot descriptions and affinity for narrative contrivances such as amnesia.
He also did something in his five-part 1948 New Yorker series that has some real historic significance: he launched the series with "0 Pioneers!," a piece that identifies the real people who were churning out thousands of words per week in the very popular but already intellectually disdained form of the daytime radio serial. By refraining from treating these programs, as most others did, and still do, as something that materialized out of thin air, Thurber himself was a pioneer of sorts.
The elevation of popular culture creators to the status of subjects for serious studies is not a particularly fashionable strategy among many intellectuals. Many believe that attention and legitimacy given to individual artists distracts us from the social and economic factors that are so crucial to the production of mass-media entertainment. In the case of the soap opera, programs were developed by station and network executives, advertising agencies, writers, and producers to serve the commercial needs of big businesses which, many argue, ultimately determined the form the soap would take. Robert C. Allen wrote in Speaking of Soap Operas that "the force exercised by individual genius in the origins of the soap opera was slight, despite the roles played in its early development by such figures as Irna Phillips and the Hummerts."
Although the early radio soaps were indeed very much in the service of their sponsors' marketing needs—characters would hawk products within the narrative of the show and story lines were developed around the sponsors' goods—we still must remember that individuals, not industries, ultimately create programming. Thurber seemed to recognize the need to identify both the people and the context in which they worked. After introducing the major creative players in his first essay, he goes on to discuss the roles ot sponsors, actors, and audiences in subsequent essays. Thurber doesn't reduce the study of soaps merely to the study of single individuals; rather, he identifies individuals who work within a swirl of competing commercial and creative forces.
As we might expect in essays written so long ago, Thurber's prescient auteurist leanings had their limits. Though he does supply brief career profiles of several radio artists, he never really gets around to identifying individual creative styles. We learn, for example, that the prolific soap creator Elaine Carrington dictated her scripts into a tape recorder while standing up (although later accounts say she dictated them while smoking in bed). Thurber, however, tells us little about her style. His comments that her dialogue was "frequent and facile" and that she liked to deal with "the frustrations, heartbreaks, kindliness, nastiness, cruelties and tragedies of the middle class" appear in a description of the short stories she wrote for women's magazines, not of her subsequent work in radio soaps. Thurber says nothing about the gushing romance and unpretentious, prosaic narratives that distinguished Carrington's programs such as Red Adams, which evolved into the immensely popular Pepper Young's Family, from the work of other suppliers. All he gives us on Paul Rhymer, the creator of the hit serial Vie and Sade, was that his material was funny, and, for all of Thurber's fascination with itinerant writer Robert H. Andrews, we are left knowing little more than the fact that he wrote really fast.
Thurber, like most people who write and think about soaps, identified Frank and Anne Hummert and Irna Phillips as the two founding forces of the broadcast soap opera. Phillips usually gets credit for creating the first local radio soap, Painted Dreams, which began airing on WGN in
We Remember Irna
Of all the soap artists Thurber mentions, only Irna Phillips still remains much on the American mind. A prime-time celebration of the genre on CBS in 1994, for example, included a loving, eight-minute panegyric to the "queen of the soaps" and two of her proteges. In the entire two-hour program, the Hummerts, Robert Andrews, and Elaine Carrington get not a single mention. While unknown by most Americans, Phillips's name continues to come up with some frequency in everything from Ph.D. dissertations to soap digests.
The principal reason for this is that Irna Phillips's radio serials had a distinct and unique style that was adaptable to the new medium of television, while none of the other radio soap creators were able to make this transition. Unfortunately, Thurber's essays are not much help in determining what this style was. In his second installment, "Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners," Thurber defines the genre by lumping all the soaps together and coming up with a list of conventions and characteristics common to the form. Overall, it's a pretty good survey of the art in 1948, but it doesn't recognize how different producers and writers used these conventions in unique and individual ways. Thurber identifies the soaps' predilection for small town settings, for example, hut he then fails to distinguish the difference between a Hummert small town and a Phillips small town.
He does, however, give us a place from which to start. Many of the stylistic differences between the leading soap suppliers were the result of differences in production philosophies. The Hummerts were, primarily, manufacturers. Starting out as employees of an ad agency, they produced not only serials, but mysteries and dramas as well, selling them to sponsors and taking the finished product to the networks, from whom they needed nothing but airtime. According to radio historian John Dunning, the Hummerts were buying as much as 8 percent of available network time slots at the peak of their assembly-line production. While Anne Hummert did some other own writing and apparently dictated plotlines the Hummerts were known for employing a stable of dialoguers, who wrote most of the actual scripts. Robert Andrews was one of their most productive employees, a "hack" on a colossal scale.
Serial historian Raymond W. Stedman suggests that the Hummerts nudged out the possibility of a higher aesthetic standard in daytime drama. "If one serial factory had not been in such a dominant position [in the second half of the 1930s]," he argues, "a few more Carringtons, or [Gertrude] Bergs, might have begun writing daytime serials. As it happened, the genre had little attraction for good writers because of the relatively narrow opportunity to place worthwhile dramas on the air."
If the Hummerts were producers and Robert Andrews was a hired gun writing for someone else's creations, Irna Phillips was a true candidate for the status of broadcast auteur. Like Carrington, she created worlds, then produced and wrote about them herself. The Hummerts created the production style of the soaps, explain sociologists Muriel Cantor and Suzanne Pingree in their book The Soap Opera, but Phillips developed modern soap opera content.
Phillips was first and foremost a writer, and she remained intimately involved in the stories she created. She not only wrote 520 scripts for her first creation, Painted Dreams, she also acted in the program. Once her product was in high demand, she used a system similar to the one developed by the Hummerts: plotting shows and approving scripts but employing others to write some of the dialogue. She continued to do much other own writing, however, some two to three million broadcast words per year during her prime.
Radio historian J. Fred MacDonald wrote in 1979 that "unlike the massive operation of the Hummerts, which could have as many as a dozen different series broadcast weekly, Phillips confined her efforts to four or five quality serials per season. She also avoided the fantasy that sometimes entered the Hummert product, and preferred dramas about people caught up in more realistic predicaments." Stedman agrees, arguing that Phillips was a principal creator of a style of soap opera that "displayed literary quality beyond that turned out by the 'dialoguers.'' Phillips sought to present what she saw as the ultimate goal of American women: a safe and secure family. "The foundations of all dreams of all the men and women in the world," declared the matriarch of Today’s Children, Phillips's second soap, are "love, family, home."
Phillips knew, of course, that all drama needed conflict, but in a 1972 interview in the trade magazine Broadcasting, she pointed out that conflict between characters didn't need to be sordid to be interesting. Dramatic tension could be achieved by introducing realistic threats to the ideal family situation. "I'm trying to get back to the fundamentals," she explained. "For example, the way in which a death in the family or serious illness brings members of the family closer together, gives them a real sense of how much they're dependent on each other."'
The Hummerts also claimed that they "painted against the canvas of everyday American life" and we see plenty of homespun material in Thurber's descriptions of many of the soaps from the forties. But the degrees of realism in the homey settings of the soaps could vary dramatically. Stedman points out that "the canvas of American life was not filled with so many crimes, trials, strange diseases, lost mates, and causes for extended suffering as was the canvas of the daytime serial, especially as painted by Frank and Anne Hummert." The Cinderella story, for example, was one of the Hummerts' favorite fairy-tale inspirations. Our Gal Sunday concerned an orphan girl from a depression-era mining camp in
Phillips's serials, on the other hand, were less exaggerated, less melodramatic, and less fantastic than those of the Hummerts. Her characters and their problems were more like those that listeners might actually encounter, both personally and professionally. Thurber lamented that "Many a soap town appears to have no policemen, mailmen, milkmen, storekeepers, lawyers, ministers, or even neighbors" and that while we might hear about a hospital or a courtroom, we seldom saw one. This wasn't, in fact, true of many contemporary soaps, and it certainly wasn't true of those made by Phillips. Both Guiding Light and The Brighter Day were centered around a clergyman, and professional settings like hospitals and courtrooms would become a Phillips trademark, especially in her later television work.
Only two radio soaps, in fact, met with any long-term success when they were moved to television. Both Guiding Light and The Brighter Day were concocted by Phillips, who has been identified by popular culture expert Carol Traynor Williams as "one of the few (and best) radio writers to be energized by television." Phillips's television work continued to emphasize realistic presentations of family life, professional settings, and rich characterizations that drove the narrative. Her homey realism was consistent with the small screens and claustrophobic settings of fifties television. Her characters' bent toward amateur philosophy and psychotherapy provided a perfect opportunity for the use of long, lingering close-ups that television was so good at providing. Some of the less realistic creations of the Hummerts, though, could never have worked on television. In The Romance of Helen Trent, for example, Helen remains somewhere on the far side of thirty five for more than twenty-seven years. Even with modern makeup, this could never have been pulled off on television.
Furthermore, Irna Phillips trained a new generation of soap creators that would move the genre to places Thurber could never have imagined. Agnes Nixon was a Phillips protege and employee who would bring the television soap into the relevance era of the sixties, seventies, and beyond, with creations that include All My Children, One Life to Live, and Loving. Nixon took the basic formula that she had learned from Phillips and added contemporary social issues. Announcing that she wanted her soaps to educate and inform as well as to entertain, she introduced topical stories concerning race, abortion, infertility, depression, child abuse, AIDS, and a host of other subjects that would have turned crimson the cheek of her Victorian mentor (who had once quit her job as a consultant on Peyton Place because the subject matter was too risque). An extended story line on Loving in 1984 explored the plight of
William J. Bell, another former employee of Irna Phillips, and his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, followed a path similar to Nixon's. The Young and the Restless, like the Nixon soaps, injected topical issues (its 1975 story about breast cancer was especially notorious) and, in so doing, brought an increasingly younger audience to the soap opera. As Nixon had introduced a new visual style to the soap by occasionally taking her shows on location (St. Croix, the streets of
Insight, Foresight, Hindsight
Although James Thurber had the insight to recognize the soaps' creators and introduce them to the wide readership of the New Yorker, his decision not to flesh out the unique ways in which each of those creators used a set of formulaic dramatic ingredients in the end left his readers without much of an idea that individual style matters, even in a commercially driven, factory-produced art form like the soap opera. Unfortunately, the most-often quoted bit from the five essays reveals their greatest weakness: a tendency to define all soap opera with generalizations. "A soap opera is a kind of sandwich," Thurber writes in the first essay, "whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week."
Comments like this perpetuate our inability to make distinctions of quality between the products in our most popular media. John Ford's Westerns, of course, had horses and cacti and marshals and outlaws just like hundreds of B Westerns, but how he used all those ingredients makes Stagecoach a better and more important film than Six Shootin Sheriff. The auteur theorists showed us one way to make these distinctions with regard to movies.
They didn't do this, however, until movies had been around for over half a century. Thurber, on the other hand, was writing about the soap opera less than twenty years after its invention. That his essays did not lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the daytime serial is probably more the fault of his readers than of Thurber himself. Had they chosen to concentrate on Thurber's innovative invitations to focus on the people who made the soaps rather than on his characteristic humorous broadsides, the genre may have received—nearly fifty years ago—the attention it is finally getting today.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
The excerpts that follow in this first post (more to come on other days) come from a historical article, entitled "Serial Seduction", by Ron Simon, who curated the exhibit. The article is a tremendous resource, providing a genuine critical review of the soap genre's history from the emergence of serial (English) fiction to the present (well, 1997). The article comes from this (sadly) out of print book. I urge you to get a remaindered copy though...the whole book, from cover to cover, is an awesome read for fans of the genre.
The second post is here.
There is method in the madness of my posting this: I'll come back in my next post to talk about some of the "lessons learned" in this article and how -- again, as with Marland's rules -- they often seem to be ignored.
The remainder of this post is quoted excerpts from that source.
Is it possible that Irna Phillips, the former schoolteacher who became the doyenne of the soap opera, was somehow influenced by philosopher George Santayana's dictum, "another world to live in ... is what we mean by having a religion," as she created and then developed the daytime serial over forty years? Phillips certainly approached the genre with a spiritual discipline and intensity, and in 1964 even titled one other creations Another World. More than any other art form, the soap opera creates an alternative world, where the characters and their environment seem to exist in a parallel dimension. Unlike individual works of art—a poem, novel, or film— which require Coleridge's temporary "suspension of disbelief," the serial demands ongoing belief and a daily commitment from the follower. Such surrender to an imaginative universe has engendered a loyalty and devotion that supersedes all rules of engagement: perhaps that is one reason why the soaps and their enthusiasts have been treated with suspicion, and sometimes contempt. The well-made classical work of fiction is conscious of its structure: exposition in the beginning leads to a well-reasoned middle, culminating in the catharsis of the denouement. The never-ending soap, however, is a relentless series of beginnings and middles, without any final resolutions. The soap's characters take on a life of their own, often growing beyond the intentions, and even the lifetime, of the original author. When Guiding Light turned sixty in 1997, the serial had already outlived its creator, Irna Phillips, by twenty-three years. As they say, "life is short, and art is long," but how did an art get this long?
Since the beginning of mass culture at the turn of the nineteenth century, authors and entrepreneurs have tried to hook an audience and keep it coming back for more. Magazines, books, comic strips, and films have all employed a serial narrative to actively engage consumers. The soap opera was an invention of American radio, perhaps the only new term created by the media. Critic Gilbert Seldes thought that the serial was "[radio's] single notable contribution to the art of fiction."- This new form offered writers no temporal restrictions and thus the ability to achieve a whole new way of storytelling with a realism unheard of in any other art. Over time, the daily soap exploited the defining quality that made radio and then television distinct from other artistic experiences: their pervasive presence in the home, day in and day out. Characters could live, love, and die, experiencing the same happiness and hardships through the years as their audience. No doubt this is why a special kinship arose between soap characters and the listeners and viewers, a relationship so intense that psychologists have been analyzing the bond for more than fifty years.
It is certainly not the nature of a genre to have a single inventor, but the soap opera comes close, having been suffused from the beginning with the philosophy of Irna Phillips. More than sixty-five years after her first serial aired on radio, most of the television soaps can be traced back directly to Phillips and her disciples. How Phillips came to engender the serial tradition in broadcasting is a story worthy of the master herself. And like much that she wrote, it still continues today.
The Serial Narrative Before Radio
One can date the start of the serial narrative as we understand it from 1836, when publishers Chapman and Hall offered fledging newspaper columnist Charles Dickens the opportunity to sustain a story in monthly installments to accompany the illustrations of popular cartoonist Robert Seymour. Dickens was asked to write about the comic exploits of a metropolitan club whose members would include character types that mirrored the new urban population. Publishers had issued completed stories in serial installments before, but this was the first time that a story was published without the ending in sight. The Pickwick Papers became the 1830s equivalent of a pop culture phenomenon. The publishers had at first set a print run of four hundred copies; by the end they were printing forty thousand. One contemporary commentator wrote that "needy admirers flattened their noses against the booksellers' windows eager to secure a good look at the etchings and to peruse every line of the letterpress that might be exposed to view, frequently reading aloud to applauding bystanders ... so great was the craze." From that point on, the serial narrative combining the word and the image has thrived.
In America in 1850, Harper's Monthly magazine inspired the development of the serialized novel, and American readers found themselves immersed in the continuing tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James. As in England, readers identified with the characters and actively sought out fellow subscribers to discuss what was going to happen next. In fact, many publications had a regular forum that allowed readers to offer their feelings on the developing action. Such camaraderie has been part and parcel of the serial narrative ever since, as anyone in a soap opera chat room on the Internet can testify. At the turn of the century the serial narrative was further popularized in daily newspapers through comic strips, descendants of the drawings that accompanied the Dickens installments. One of the earliest "funnies," A. Mutt (later to become Mutt and Jeff), was conceived by Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher and began running in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907, appearing seven days a week. Fisher understood the power of the comics to bring readers back morning after morning. Increasingly, he showed his protagonist, compulsive gambler Augustus Mutt, engaging in activities that could be resolved in future strips.
The next advance in comic strip serials involved a penetrating look at everyday family life. Cartoonist Sidney Smith and his publisher Captain Joseph Patterson of the Chicago Tribune conceived The Gumps to be a visual equivalent of Theodore Dreiser's social-realist novels. The Gumps were a typical American family yearning to experience the prosperity of the Jazz Age. Smith wanted "everyday things to happen to them,"'' which found a resonance in the audience. When one of the characters died after her wedding was disrupted, there was an outpouring of emotion across the nation.
Print and pictures also coalesced in a serial narrative for the movies. Charles Dwyer, editor of The Ladies' World, involved his magazine readers in a contest to predict the fate of virginal heroine Mary, whose fictional story, featuring a portrait by Charles Dana Gibson, appeared in a 1912 issue. Dwyer joined forces with Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope Company, and Mary's adventures were soon presented monthly both in print and film. Noticing the public's enthusiasm, the Chicago Tribune combined a continuing newspaper scenario with a biweekly screen version of The Adventures of Kathlyn, spawning a cycle of women-in-peril imitations. The serial, thus, became a part of regular moviegoing, especially for adolescents, who enjoyed the continuing exploits of such heroes as Tarzan and Dick Tracy, who were also comic strip favorites.
The Serial Comes to Radio
Much of the mystique of radio derived from the compelling power of the individual voice. Think of the intimate chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the crooning of Bing Crosby, or the harangues of Father Charles Coughlin. But no single person, regardless of how artful, can sustain an audience day in and day out. Dialogue between two people, however, has been the basis of daily radio serials for many years. The roots of the serial lie in the intimate conversation of two characters eavesdropped on by an entire nation: Amos and Andy, Ma Perkins and one of her daughters, Reverend Ruthledge and a parishioner of The Guiding Light.
The serial first came to radio in 1926, when the Chicago Tribune decided to bring a comic strip and its daily newspaper audience to its station, WGN. The Gumps, those middle-class dreamers, were chosen. Two veterans of touring comedy and minstrel shows, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were approached to lend their voices. The two performers, however, proposed another series more in keeping with their training. They suggested a serial about two poor black Southerners, Sam and Henry, who were forced to migrate to the big city. The Gumps went on the air without them, but for two years Sam 'n' Henry was broadcast six nights a week in ten-minute episodes. In 1928 Gosden and Correll wanted to syndicate the show nationally, so they left WON to create a similar series, called Amos 'n' Andy, for a competing radio station, an NEC affiliate, owned by the Chicago Daily News. As audiences identified with the economic hardships of the two displaced Georgians, Amos 'n Andy became broadcasting's first mass phenomenon, a nightly ritual for most of the nation. Radio writers began to copy the Amos 'n Andy formula and created programs with fictional locales peopled with characters who reflected universal emotions: Paul Rhymer evoked the entire small town of Crooper, Illinois, through his characters Vie and Sade; Carlton Morse delineated the Barbour clan of Sea Cliff, San Francisco, in One Man's Family; and Gertrude Berg, creator of The Goldbergs, made millions of listeners care about a poor Jewish family on New York's lower East Side.
Nearly all of this earliest radio programming was scheduled in the evening, because executives were concerned that housewives would not be able to concentrate on a program while performing their chores. During the formative years, radio was, as one scholar has noted, an "evening, family, and father-controlled entertainment."' That soon changed as the home products manufacturer General Mills looked for ways to integrate information about the home into an instructional program for women. In 1926 the food company created the character "Betty Crocker" to give daily hints on how to shop and take care of the home more efficiently. The late twenties saw a boom in these specialized programs for women. NBC created The Women's Magazine of the Air to combine ideas and entertainment of "genuine inspiration and help." Procter & Gamble became one of the main sponsors of the series and advertised three times during the week: health and beauty on Monday, underwritten by Camay soap; "Crisco Cooking Lessons" on Thursday, spotlighting "everyday dishes that are new, simple and different" and Ivory Flakes' fashion trends on Friday. The manufacturer encouraged listeners to request companion guide booklets, which further connected the audience to the program.
Now enters Irna Phillips, the former teacher who was struggling to break into radio as an actress. She began her career as host of the inspirational show Thought for a Day for Chicago Tribune's WGN in 1930. Station executives were not satisfied with her thespian talents and suggested that she take a crack at scriptwriting to create a serial along the lines of their previous successes, The Gumps and Sam 'n Henry. Phillips melded several key elements in her work—the structure of the serial, the homey philosophy of the woman's program, and aspects other own lonely, introspective life—to create one of the most resilient genres of broadcasting, the soap opera. Few writers would have such an impact on the history of radio and television: Phillips's disciples, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell, have kept her paradigm going after more than sixty-five years. Despite this achievement, Phillips has gone largely unrecognized outside the scope of daytime radio and television broadcasting. She is not mentioned in Eric Barnouw's sweeping history of the mediums, and her one-time bosses, David Sarnoff at NBC Radio and William S. Paley of CBS Television, give no credit to one of their key moneymakers in their autobiographies.
Phillips's first series, Painted Dreams, debuted unsponsored in the fall of 1930. In it, she formed the bedrock of all the soaps that followed—a core family surviving the trials and tribulations of daily life. Phillips focused on the role of Mother Moynihan, a part she played herself, who oversaw a large family and ran a boardinghouse. The scripts emphasized the domestic sphere and personal relationships; Mother Moynihan's biggest worry was the future of her youngest daughter Irene, who fancied herself a modern girl, ambitious for a successful career very much like the creator herself. The tensions between the old and new ways of life were played out in a series of interlocking story lines as characters grasped for their own happiness. Phillips was also shrewd enough to develop ideas that might interest potential sponsors, arguing that for any radio series to be a "utility to its sponsor, [it] must actually sell merchandise; otherwise the object of radio advertising has failed." Among other story elements, Phillips conceived of an engagement and wedding that offered the possibility for product tie-ins.
With a good head for business, Phillips saw the national possibilities for her daily serial and wanted to sell it to one of the networks. She took WGN to court over their claim to the copyright of Painted Dreams, but lost the case. Then, acting as an independent producer, she retooled her concept for the NBC Chicago affiliate WMAQ and created Today’s Children for national network broadcast. The program's opening epigram delineates a major principle of all soap opera: "And today's children with their hopes and dreams, their laughter and tears, shall be the builders of a brighter world tomorrow." Mother Moynihan became Mother Moran, but in Phillips's mind both were modeled on her own mother. So closely were reality and the fictional world intertwined for the creator that when her mother died in 1938, a heartbroken Irna Phillips decided to do the unthinkable in the soap world—she canceled her own serial.
In 1937 Phillips, wanting to capture "life as most of us know it," created her "never-ending" saga, The Guiding Light, which has become the longest-running drama in broadcasting history. In the first incarnation of the serial—the life and times of a nonsectarian minister, Dr. John Ruthledge, and his flock in small-town Five Points—Phillips fully realized the essence of the soap opera: a continuous series of first and second acts, with a complex juggling act of dominant and secondary stories that never reach a final denouement. A year after the series began Phillips supervised publication of a companion volume for fans that traced the backstory (the unwritten history that exists before a soap goes on) of The Guiding Light (Ed: Oh how I'd love to see this book), "authored" by the fictitious Dr. Ruthledge. In it she made clear that each character's pain and confusion is interlocked with others in the community. Rose Kransky, for example, born of Jewish parents but refusing to define herself by orthodox rules (very much a reflection of Irna herself), was nurtured by her friendship with Mary Ruthledge, the Reverend's daughter. If Phillips felt the pain of Rose Kransky, her alter superego was Ruthledge, whose philosophy was that "no matter how difficult your problems may be ... others have been faced with the same obstacles, and with faith and determination and courage have managed to overcome them."10
By the early forties Irna Phillips was assigned the mantle "Queen of the Soap Opera" by the press. She served as independent producer of her work, packaging entire programs for a sponsor, generally Procter & Gamble, the genre's leading impresario. Working on several serials at the same time, she was generating two million words a year, the equivalent of approximately twenty-five novels. When five serials became too taxing, Phillips hired assistant writers to fill in the dialogue after she blocked the story, but she continued to be the wellspring of plot devices, one of which became a staple of the genre, the amnesia story line. To get them to tune in again, she once said she liked to "cliff-hang" her audience.
There was such a defined universe to a Phillips serial that three of her stories were programmed consecutively to constitute The General Mills Hour, which ran for one year in 1945. Within this larger narrative framework Phillips allowed her characters to drift from serial to serial. One of the remaining examples of this experiment of running together programs that are connected by the characters and themes of one creator is a remarkable self-reflexive deliberation on the nature of the soap opera. In the broadcast of May 7, 1945, the eve of V-E Day, Phillips has a character, a World War II veteran, produce a radio drama about his own disability. The fictitious broadcast is listened to and discussed by the other characters in all three serials, who comment that radio stories "taken out of life" can help make "their own" lives better.
The Hummerts and the Serial Factory
Frank and Anne Hummert provide a fascinating contrast to Irna Phillips. Frank Hummert had been working in copywriting and advertising when he noticed "the success of serial fiction in newspapers and magazines." In the early thirties, he decided to translate that serial narrative to the infant medium of radio. He wanted his radio dramas to accommodate the daily pattern of the homemaker, but at the same time to offer a release into the world of romance and fantasy—very different from the "real" world of Irna Phillips. He worked with his assistant Anne Ashenhurst (whom he married in 1935) and writer Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews to devise fantasies to help alleviate the boredom and repetition of ritualistic housework. By the mid-forties the Hummerts were producing twelve serials a day and were operating what was derided as a soap opera mill, which now might be considered the prototype for a television soap opera's writing staff, where various aspects of the scripts are written by different people.
Each Hummert serial answered a basic rhetorical question, around which multiple plots were woven. For Our Gal Sunday the question was "can this girl from a small mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?" In Backstage Wife the audience learned what it meant for Mary Noble, the small-town Iowa girl, "to he the wife of a famous Broadway star, dream sweetheart of a million other women." Most of the Hummert plots focused on the gap between the wealthy and the aspiring middle class, bringing comfort to millions of listeners who were struggling with the reality of deprivation, first during the depression years and then World War II. A notable example is the Hummerts' 1938 adaptation of the 1937 film Stella Dallas. In the Barbara Stanwyck movie, the self-sacrificing mother is resigned to wait outside the gates of a mansion, feeling she is not good enough to attend her daughter's wedding to the son of the wealthy family. The Hummerts reconcile that disjunction in their fantasy world, and the mother, still obviously from a lower class, feels right at home in the grand Grosvenor mansion and helps both the upstairs and downstairs characters with their problems. Thus, the Hummerts did not try to reflect reality, but rather to improve it, or, as Frank Hummert stated, to paint "against the canvas of everyday American life."
The Daytime Controversy
During the early forties there were more than seventy daytime serials on the air, listened to by approximately half of all women at home. Beginning in 1939, the genre was regularly referred to as "soap opera" by the press, mocking these sentimental tales that were sponsored almost exclusively by manufacturers of household products, especially cleansers. Educators and psychologists were disturbed by the morbid content of the soaps, also called "washboard weepers," and tried to analyze why the audience was habitually addicted to endless stories of calamity and unhappiness. As the country prepared for war, cultural critics theorized that all the suffering on the airwaves was undermining the moral fiber of American womanhood. New York psychiatrist Dr. Louis Berg compared the repetitiveness of the soaps to Hitler's propaganda machine, claiming that each was corrupting the human nervous system.
In the wake of the widespread success of the soaps, a small industry trying to understand the effects of long-term listening began to flourish. Paul Lazarsfeld, director of the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University, discovered two almost contradictory gratifications that women received from the soaps: the first, pure escapism, removed the listener from the drudgery of daily life; and the second, moral guidance, helped the housewife solve her own personal problems. In examining the audience, various studies sponsored by the networks proved that there was little difference in social and cultural activities between listeners and nonlisteners.
Although fantasy remained a consistent aspect of soaps, during World War II the radio serial matured to create more story lines about the realities of wartime. Stella Dallas worked in a munitions factory; one of Ma Perkins's sons died on the European battlefield. The real change in the radio serial, however, came after World War II, and not from reformers hut from the television industry, when major daytime sponsors such as General Mills and Pillsbury were lured to the new medium, leaving a major vacuum in the radio schedule. Without the hacking of a single advertiser, radio networks experimented with programs that attracted multiple sponsors, including talk and variety programs. By the mid-fifties, many broadcasting executives felt the serial was a product of depression America and had outlived its usefulness, although the radio soap lingered on until 1960.
The Soap Opera on Television
Despite the serial's proven success in magazine publishing, at the movies, and on radio, there was genuine resistance by television executives to employ the form. One of the visionaries of early television, NBC president Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, felt that the old radio soap opera technique would not work in a visual medium "because of the higher absorption and tension demands of television over radio."' Prime-time entertainment first hit its stride in 1948 with the success of Milton Berle's translation of vaudeville to television; it would take at least three more years for the soap opera to successfully adapt to the new technology.
While the established networks, CBS and NBC, concentrated on weekly programs for their nightly schedules, it was newcomer DuMont that experimented with the low-budget serial. In 1944 Lever Brothers sponsored television versions of two radio soaps, Big Sister and Aunt Jenny’s True Life Stories, on DuMont's New York affiliate, and two years later DuMont created the serial Faraway Hill especially for the network. Its producer, David P. Lewis, searched for techniques that would not require total viewer attention, allowing the housewife time "to turn away and go on peeling potatoes or knitting." He devised a stream-of-consciousness technique, an offscreen voice that probed the interior motives of the series heroine, Karen St. John, a widow searching for emotional refuge in the country. The most successful television programs immediately after World War II, however, were live remote broadcasts, especially boxing, and the studio-bound Faraway Hill faded after three months. Even Irna Phillips failed in her initial attempt, a reworking other first radio serial Painted Dreams, because she made no concessions to the visual medium.
One influential experiment from Chicago, a production center noted for its low-key realism, was Hawkins Falls, a self-proclaimed television novel about a typical small town that wistfully evoked an earlier America whose way of life was being transformed by the fifties flight to the suburbs. Although this rural community with a population of 6,200 was too far removed from the contemporary American experience to make the show successful in terms of the great soaps (Hawkins Falls ran three months in prime time and four years in the afternoon), the genre had finally found a template that would be developed further by co-creator Roy Winsor. In 1951, a veteran of the Hummerts' Ma Perkins, Winsor used the dominant heroine archetype from his predecessors' tradition to build the first viable soap, Search for Tomorrow, around one female character, Jo Tate. (Jo was played by the indomitable Mary Stuart from day one until the serial ended in 1986.) Winsor insisted on a bare-stage technique for his series and emphasized the close-up to connect his characters to the audience. There was no need for elaborate sets or long shots, since most of the action took place in the living room or kitchen, key places in the geography of a soap. The critical importance of Search for Tomorrow is that it found an audience that was emotionally invested enough to make a daily commitment, which proved that the serial had a future on daytime television.
Ten months after Search, Irna Phillips brought The Guiding Light to television. Reverend Ruthledge and his family had been written out of the series years before, and "the guiding light" in the title no longer had religious connotations, but rather the camaraderie of a loving family in times of upheaval. The core family was now the Bauers, a German American brood trying to find a better life, first in Selby Flats, a fictionalized West Coast suburb, and later in Springfield, the prototype for the midwestern towns that would provide a haven for most of the soap world.
When Phillips first brought the show to television, the series followed the fifteen-minute format of the ongoing radio program. Up to this point, soaps had always run fifteen minutes, which came to formalize the way a story progressed. Then, in 1956, she created As the World Turns and threw out the rules of the radio serial. With this new series she pioneered the first thirty-minute drama, and in the process, reconceived the genre for the visual medium. Few people at the time realized that the thirty-minute serial revolutionized the dynamics of serial storytelling. The longer format allowed Phillips to underline two central tenets: that the heart of the serial is the exchange of feeling and memories between two characters; and that any incident should not affect a handful of characters but the whole community. Serial tellers now had the time to go beyond the core family and explore two families from different social classes, reflecting the search for the American dream of advancement and happiness.
Phillips's other groundbreaking work came in creating the visual look for the entire genre. She worked with her producer/director from radio, Ted Corday, to create an intimate style that emphasized the interior lives other characters. Slow, lingering close-ups during intimate revelations became the visual paradigm of the serial and presented many possibilities for character revelation.
As the World Turns was structured around the patrician Lowells and the solidly middle-class Hugheses, a clan whose ambitions and frustrations would be a motif for over forty years. It also provided the dominant story line of the late fifties, the romance between Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker, played by Rosemary Prinz and Mark Rydell, who later became a film director. The impetuous Penny and the spoiled Jeff, whom many consider soap's first "supercouple," gave youth its own reasons in the television soap. Phillips, with a new generation of writers, was able to reflect the rebellion and disillusionment of the developing youth culture, while still keeping the family-oriented serial intact.
Daytime Versus Early Prime Time
Whatever the ultimate root of the critical prejudice against the television soap opera, it is interesting to note that it existed from the beginning, even when daytime and prime-time dramas were much closer in tone and style. During the fifties, daytime serial and live drama shared many of the same aesthetic values: both emphasized psychology of character and the power of the revelatory close-up; both employed actors who had training in the theater and writers working in the realistic tradition of the Broadway problem play; both were performed live, solidifying their association with a theatrical experience. The phrase that defined the apogee of anthology drama, Chayefsky's "this marvelous world of the ordinary," could equally apply to the best of lrna Phillips. Yet whereas the masters of live drama—Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Gore Vidal—were praised for authenticity and depth, there was little critical appraisal of any kind for daytime.
By the end of the decade, serial and prime-time television were on divergent paths. West Coast studios were producing the evening schedule, and television was no longer live hut recorded on film, with Hollywood production values. (Soaps were broadcast live until the late sixties and then performed as if live, on tape.) The first genre to conquer prime time, the Western, underlined the rigid dichotomy between television in the afternoon and in the evening—the soap opera and the horse opera. Daytime was the province of perceived feminine values, talk and negotiation; prime time was the arena for masculine resolve, on the range or in the streets. Soaps catered to character growth and memory—Bert Bauer matured from an anxious housewife into Guiding Light's philosophical matriarch—while prime time was an existential wilderness, where lead characters acted without the past as a guide. The new heroes of prime time, Cheyenne and Matt Dillon, discovered themselves anew each week, continuing characters without the benefit of the soap's connecting memories.
A Look at Sponsorship
Throughout the fifties the most successful serials were put together by advertising agencies for a sponsor. This sponsor-originated formula had its roots in radio and ceded production control to the agency, which in theory better understood the needs of its intended audience. CBS dominated the daytime ratings because of its alliance with Procter & Gamble, which worked directly with the early soap auteurs, Irna Phillips and Roy Winsor. September 3, 1951, proved to he a defining day for P&G: it not only debuted Search for Tomorrow, but also marketed two new products, Joy and Spic and Span, to its largely female audience. With the sponsor owning the production, the network's role was passive, providing the airwaves and exercising little creative authority. To compete with P&G's tightly controlled schedule on CBS, both ABC and NBC decided to package their own soaps, assuming greater control over daytime programming. After several misfires by both networks, in 1963 ABC hired Frank and Doris Hursley, longtime writers of Search for Tomorrow, to create a "daytime Ben Casey” the popular evening series starring Vince Edwards. The hospital, that dramatic intersection where personal and professional spheres collided, had been a fixture on radio serials. Irna Phillips had remarked that doctors especially were "an integral part of everything I have written," introducing the first serial surgeon on The Road of Life in 1937. It is ironic that in the early sixties daytime executives were looking to prime time for inspiration, instead of the soap's own considerable history on radio.
The Hursleys' creation, General Hospital, was produced at the ABC facilities in Hollywood and brought a new element to the soap. Until then most of the serials had been produced in New York, with roots in the city's performing arts heritage. Beginning with General Hospital, soap producers on the West Coast started their own tradition, using videotape, but searching for the more polished look and artful camera angles associated with the movies. Casting directors now searched for actors who had performed on film, whether in the movies or on television. The star of General Hospital, John Beradino, had previously been featured in the syndicated series I Led Three Lives and worked in such genre series on film as Cheyenne and The Untouchables. In 1965 the collaboration between Hollywood and the serial was further solidified when Columbia Pictures Television became a partner in another medical soap, Days of Our Lives. Although created by Irna Phillips and Ted Corday, an East Coast team, Days featured Hollywood leading man Macdonald Carey. It was the first serial to be broadcast in color, although for NBC, which had pioneered color technology in the early fifties, this was late in the game for bringing color to the daytime soap.
Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell
Irna Phillips taught her most gifted progeny, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell (who were toddlers when the domestic soaps began), not only story structure and character development, but, more importantly, a respect for the metier. In Nixon's words, from this respect emerges "the ability and capacity to develop one's craft and perhaps even raise the standards of the form.19 Both Nixon and Bell served an arduous apprenticeship under Phillips, and emerged with the belief that soap opera had meaning and relevance in the turbulent world of the late sixties.
Nixon began as a dialogue writer on Phillips's Woman in White, a radio serial about the checkered romance between a nurse and a fledgling surgeon. She wrote scripts for early television anthologies and developed the inaugural stories for Search for Tomorrow. Returning to the Phillips fold, she wrote for Guiding Light for thirteen years, eight as head writer, and co-created the defining television soap, As the World Turns. During these years with Phillips the Nixon touch emerges in her treatment of Bert Bauer, the "tentpole" character of Guiding Light. Bert, played by Charita Bauer for thirty-five years, had matured into the homey philosopher of the series by the early sixties, and viewers were stunned when she underwent treatment for uterine cancer. Nixon had struggled with P&G executives and network censors to have Bert first undergo a Pap smear test. Capitalizing on the temporal quality of the serial, Nixon played the cancer story line out over many months, educating her public about the necessity of medical prevention. The soap form and the pedagogical story coalesced perfectly, and the positive viewer reaction suggested a more sophisticated audience than the industry had realized.
While she was head writing Guiding Light, Nixon had created the bible for what would become All My Children. Procter & Gamble was not able to find a slot for it, but offered her head-writing duties on a struggling show, Another World, which Phillips and Bill Bell created in 1964. Much has been written about Nixon's ability to dramatize topical issues, hut here she displayed her mastery of traditional soap fundamentals. Nixon revived Another World with a romantic triangle that sustained itself for more than seven years. With the success of General Hospital on ABC, the network allowed Nixon to create a signature series, One Live to Live, allowing her to realize a personal ambition to take soap operas out of WASP Valley. She conceived a multicultural community of ethnic types and challenged her audience to confront their prejudices. While prime-time television was receiving congratulations for starring Diahann Carroll as the innocuous black nurse on Julia, Nixon developed a black character, Carla Gray, who was passing for white. In superb use of dramatic irony, the audience was clued in to her heritage before her suitors, a white doctor and a black intern.
Nixon consolidated soap traditions and advanced the respectability of the genre. While she maintained the theatrical base other mentor, having all her serials produced in New York facilities, her work has made creative use of videotape. (Two important examples are the exploration of the fantasies and desires of lead characters, notably the split personality of Victoria Lord, and going on location outside the studio, as for the unscripted Odyssey House sequences for One Life to Live.) Most importantly, she sustained the moral seriousness that characterized Phillips's creations. When her story of a peace activist was debated in the New York Times, Nixon brought daytime to a critical plateau it never had reached. Her examinations of the generation gap and sixties politics predated by several years prime time's breakthrough series, All in the Family.
Bill Bell was in advertising before Irna Phillips made him dialogue writer on the Guiding Light in 1957. Working in the same room with Phillips he co-wrote As the World Turns for nine years, where he developed the ability to capture an audience with expansive storytelling, and to allow stories to go on past the traditional breaking points. Remaining in Chicago, Bell was appointed head writer of Days of Our Lives on the West Coast in an effort to salvage one of Phillips's floundering co-creations. Sensing a potential audience fascination with abnormal psychology, Bell ventured into sexual territories hitherto unexplored anywhere in television. His signature storyline for Days was the return of an amnesiac Korean War veteran, whose looks had been horribly disfigured in captivity. Having undergone plastic surgery, he returns unrecognized to the nurturing community of Salem and falls in love with his sister. Integrating such sexual taboos as incest and rape into the narrative of the soap has remained Bell's specialty.
Where the center of Phillips's soap universe had been the kitchen and the living room, Bell staked his claim to the bedroom. His first creation with his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, The Young and the Restless, took for granted the sexual revolution that was sweeping America. Although he appropriated from Phillips the two-family schemata that he knew so well, Bell focused on the sexual desires and entrapments of the younger characters. The Young and the Restless, packaged by Columbia Pictures Television, furthered the integration of Hollywood production values into the serial. Bell and his production team cast glamorous model types for lead roles and photographed his stars in sensuous lighting. There was no mistaking a Bell close-up; its lingering caress would have made Garbo or Dietrich proud. In 1987 Bell underscored the Hollywood connection with his next creation, The Bold and the Beautiful, by setting the serial in Los Angeles, one of the few specific sites in the soap world, and by concentrating on the chic fashion industry.
One of the many defining legacies of the Phillips-Nixon-Bell collaboration is the soap archetype that transformed and defined the entire genre: the bitch goddess. Since the sixties no character has energized more plots than the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who will stop at nothing to achieve material happiness. The once-passive Cinderella of radio serials, a lowly commoner waiting to be swept off her feet, was transformed in the early sixties into a hurricane of lustful desires. Phillips and Bell conspired with actress Eileen Fulton to create the prototypical home-wrecking villainess of unlimited ambition, Lisa Miller on As the World Turns. Nixon revitalized Phillips and Bell's Another World with the Bitch of Bay City, Rachel Davis, who lusted after power and privilege. Rachel was modeled on a character that Nixon envisioned for her own soap, which took five years to find a sponsor. When that serial, All My Children, was finally produced in 1970, Nixon unleashed Erica Kane as a conniving teenage vixen. After years of amorous escapades and serial marriages, Susan Lucci's character has become the femme fatale incarnate. For Nixon and Bell, who have led the way in exploring family problems, the avenging goddess archetype borrows from the Hummerts' tradition an element of pure fantasy, thereby giving their work the possibility of outrageous fun and exaggerated melodrama that is missing from their mentor's.
The Monty Revolution
By the mid-seventies most soaps had expanded into an hour every day. As production became more costly and complex, the role of the executive producer became as crucial as the head writer's. It fell to the producer to fuse the writing and production teams into a unified whole, sustaining the look and rhythm of a specific soap world, day in and day out, fifty-two weeks a year. Producing the equivalent of more than 100 movies, the executive producer was like the mogul of old, overseeing a highly coordinated studio.
The producer who epitomized this new power was a longtime veteran of the field, Gloria Monty. A director of Roy Winsor's The Secret Storm for sixteen years, Monty left, and experimented with ways to make daytime drama less studiobound. She directed the first daytime special shot entirely on location, This Child of Mine, but when she was put in charge of General Hospital she changed all the rules. During her first meeting with Tony Geary, the actor confessed, "I hate soap opera." Monty replied: "Honey, so do I. I want you to help me change all that."22
Monty subverted all the strictures that she had learned during her live television days in New York. For one thing, she wanted the pacing of a prime-time program, so she eliminated the long pauses of the serial and ordered more than twice the number of scenes per episode of the average soap. In addition to redesigning the sets and costumes, she challenged the form itself. She romantically paired troubled teen Laura Vining with the streetwise, antihero Luke Spencer. United by a problematic rape scene, which Monty labeled a "choreographed seduction," but which others saw as unmitigated violence, Luke and Laura spent the summer of 1980 on the lam, an unprecedented story line that liberated the characters from the established community. Monty enlivened the escapades with homages to Hitchcock and, particularly, to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. With the new look capturing a youthful and collegiate audience, General Hospital became a cultural phenomenon; a benchmark equal to anything in the history of television.
For almost fifty years, beginning in radio, the techniques and strategies of the daytime serial were rejected by evening entertainment. Prime time's major experiment with the serial, Peyton Place (1964-69), had limited appeal; only the heavily promoted first season reached the Nielsen top twenty-five programs. Nighttime's most successful use of the genre was parody, epitomized by "As the Stomach Turns," a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, and the almost surrealistic serials Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. In the late seventies, with competition from the cable industry, network producers began looking for new ways to capture an audience. They reconsidered the form of the soap opera, a genre that they had derided for years. Both Dallas and Dynasty employed the cliff-hanger to engage an audience in the continuing sagas of greed and lust in a core family, the Ewings and Carringtons, respectively. In the eighties, the writers of episodic television, wanting to find more dimensions for their characters, experimented with stories that lingered over many episodes and with characters who had a consciousness of their own histories. Several prime-time series did pioneering work in employing the serial structure, including St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and L.A. Law. But the place it really all began for nighttime was Hill Street Blues.
Whereas Joe Friday of the fifties Dragnet seemed to have neither a personal life nor any memories of his previous cases, Captain Frank Furillo entered the landscape of Hill Street Blues with a complicated backstory: a son and an ex-wife, a job in turmoil, and a budding romance with the district attorney. Importantly, Furillo's history was not just a premise. Co-creator Steven Bochco used the details of the character's life to spin story lines that explored the private and public turmoils of Furillo's life each week, interlocking those situations with equally rich vignettes of ten or more characters. This soap opera structure forms the basis for the powerful storytelling that characterizes Bochco's series. The audience is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the Hill Street station, gathering memories of the series and its characters over many years.
Time and memory for both the characters and the audience are at the heart of the soap opera. While prime-time programming since Hill Street has incorporated the serial as a sustaining narrative element, there is no way that evening drama can match how familiar a character can become to a soap opera viewer: the combined run of Hill Street Blues and Cheers equals approximately one year's worth of any hour long soap. Moreover, the very narrative structure of the soap demands that the viewer bring memories of the pain and joy and subtle emotional nuances to each scene.
When characters with such rich, penetrating histories as Victor Newman and Nikki Reed on The Young and the Restless or Alan and Monica Quartermaine on General Hospital confront each other, the viewer fills in the sustained silences and piercing reaction shots that characterize the genre with a keen knowledge of their pasts, thus becoming an important partner in the scene. This deep, emotional involvement in a story that is unfolding day by day over years is ultimately the triumph of the soap opera. No other art form can achieve, much less sustain, this kind of connection with an audience for so long in such a deeply satisfying way.
The audience for the daytime serial is following in the footsteps of Dickens's passionate admirers, who likewise embraced fictionalized characters as another family: that has been the essential quality of the serial, linking story with audience. The history of the soap opera on radio and television, lasting more than sixty-five years, is in itself a continuing story, with the work of lrna Phillips being carried forward by Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell. As new creative forces enter the world of daytime, whoever carries on the work of Nixon and Bell well into the twenty-first century will by lineage have some connection to Irna Phillips, no doubt reaffirming her vision that "we do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds."
Monday, December 22, 2008
I wasn't planning to write this, but I stumbled on this item. I don't usually mention Perez Hilton here, but in this case...
In a pst today, the gossip blogger writes:
Viewership for The Hills is down.
Original episodes have tumbled 26% in the coveted 12-34 y.o. viewer demographic in the fourth quarter, compared with the same period last year.
This is actually a lesson soaps (should have) learned after Gloria Monty elevated General Hospital to all-time highs. As Roger Newcomb's blog reminds us today, the viewers attracted for a pop culture phenom were not the "foundational" audience that stays with a show for decades. Two years after the Ice Princess, GH was in freefall.
The lesson then, as now, is that you have to program for mom and grandma, but do it in such a compelling way that they suck their daughters (and sometimes sons) into watching too. That is not the MTV model. But it is how soaps are built.
So how is this relevant to GL? Remember this article about GL?
The villain in this piece is the reality show. When veteran soap-opera producer Mary-Ellis Bunim created The Real World for MTV in 1992, soap opera’s exclusive grip on emotionally manipulative programming began to loosen.
Notice the Laguna Beach mention in the next quote. That is, ahem, the progenitor of that falling morass mentioned by Perez, The Hills!
Where other daytime producers are amping up the supernatural plots and onscreen text messaging to attract viewers, Wheeler has given her show an extreme makeover, reality-show style. For the first time, fans can see the actual streets of Springfield, a midwestern town in an undisclosed state—which look suspiciously like the streets in Peapack, New Jersey, where one-fifth of the scenes are being shot, all with handheld cameras. “We finally get to come into their world,” says Wheeler, who was inspired by shows like Laguna Beach and Friday Night Lights.The elusive quest for 12 year olds....
With its face-lift, Guiding Light is banking on pulling in a whole new generation of viewers. “I do think if you were flipping through the channels you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is a soap opera, I’m not going to stop,’ ” says Wheeler. “You wouldn’t know what it was.”
...leaves 39 year olds behind...
When the “new” show debuted on February 29, there was the expected backlash. Fans immediately hit CBS with online complaints about the artsy flourishes (producers have toned them down). “These shows are created to be romantic fantasy and fantastical adventure,” says TV Guide’s soap columnist, Michael Logan. “We don’t want reality when we’re watching a soap. We want a ‘Calgon, take me away’ moment.”
I wasn't planning it, but I think this blog post serves as a kind of companion for the other one I wrote today.
I deeply believe that Ellen Wheeler/GL's production model can and should work. It produces a cheaper show to make, and it looks pretty darn good on my (computer) screen. I applaud the show for conducting the experiment! Michael Bruno said (in last week's SOD) that GL is actually making money! So, by that metric, GL is a success. And these shows have to make money to survive! (If you don't like conceding to the commercial demands of television, go to some art house film or an experimental theater).
GL has exemplars that show it can be a storytelling success too, even with this lower-cost production model. We know there are pop culture hits (critically and/or box office) that use a similar style, it can work! It is now time to invest, though, in some writers of immense vision. Don't let the inspiration be MTV's Real World. Even if you draw in 12 year old viewers...they won't stick around. It doesn't work that way anymore. Let your models be Cloverfield or the Office or both. Those things entertain.
The secret is to stay away from the pedestrian (e.g., a routine conversation in an autumnal field), and give us the exciting. Give us big stakes that are in our face. Let the narrative make use of the intimacy and immediacy of the form, and the shaky anxiety of its hand-held cams, and write to that!
Cloverfield. Blair Witch. Friday Night Lights. The Office. By my reckoning, each one has powerful similarities to GL's new production model. Admittedly, each of these shows has much higher budgets, but at the core, it is the use of digital video, intimate hand held cameras. In the case of all four clips/shows, the production model conveys a "you are there" feeling that is actually quite remarkable, and contributes to the power of the show.
For Cloverfield and Blair Witch, the limited perspective was actually used to create suspense and confusion, so that we were suffering through the un-named horror with the same lack of information as the protagonists. This made the film far more effective. The intimacy, limited perspective, shakiness all worked together to ramp up the tension.
In a strange way, The Office works the same way. The Office is all about the cringeworthy moments that emerge from people caged like rats...too closely spaced, too different, yet thrown together every day. So, again, the "you are here" feeling really works. We hide our faces when Michael Scott does something especially boorish, because he is in our faces.
Now, Friday Night Lights, which I have watched with less frequency, uses the same quality in a more traditional drama. Again, it is effective. When characters are having conversations in cars or homes, we are there with them. In the locker room, we're in the middle of disputes and conversations. And on the field, we are pacing with coaches or privy to heated exchanges. Since football is fundamentally action, and the characters are mostly the action-filled young players and the people in their lives, all that movement works to give us a feeling of verisimilitude that simply makes us feel more involved.
The production model, which I am not the first to point out, is pretty similar to what Ellen Wheeler and her team are trying to accomplish at Guiding Light. Yet, pretty widely, many viewers and critics seem to feel that the model just isn't working for GL.
Notice the common theme for each of the foregoing examples. Action, tension, suspense, nervousness. In each example case above, the production model works perfectly with the writing, almost a kind of "partner" to create the tone and atmosphere that supports the narrative goals of the piece.
Now, at GL, we have something different. We see an attempt to use the technique for very pedestrian scenes with very little tension--conversations for the most part. The scenes are not narratively filled with high emotion or unrelenting energy, so there is a mismatch between this potentially effective style and underlying story and tone.
Imagine if GL had been revamped not just in production style, but if the narrative style had been shift to more nervous, high energy, anxious, high stakes. It would have been an abrupt departure from classic GL...from classic daytime in general...but it could have worked. Indeed, with a constant level of anxiety and stress and speed and movement, the show could have been edgy and could have attracted the attention of those young viewers everyone wants.
I think a mistake that GL has made is that they are patterning themselves after a reality show...but reality can often be boring. Their production model lends itself perfectly for high-stakes adrenaline storytelling...and I think that could have attracted an audience.
It all comes back to the same point: form should follow function. If GL sought to remake itself, it should have remade its narrative structure too. Storytelling at GL seems to have taken a backseat to the production model. In this next critical year, it is time for nothing less than a wholesale reinvention of the script writing, probably with the help of a fresh eye. Imagine if some hotshot young auteur were matched with a senior consultant who knows the story bones of GL (think Nancy Curlee or even Pam Long). That could be something. If the show played a more constant state of emotional tension and intimate high stakes, with that very fresh and modern production model, I think we might actually not be able to stay away!
Sunday, December 21, 2008
So, of course, I would not miss her funeral for the world! In this post, I confess that I feel a bit petty for having some less than positive things to say. I have no complaint about the way Myrtle was honored per se, but I find myself reacting to the fact that I think this funeral was actually a fair demonstration of the relatively poor health of All My Children these days. It is in that "meta" sense that I offer these impressions. I apologize to those who feel AMC is doing better these days, or who loved the episode unabashedly.
Now, let me start with fulsome praise. The fact that AMC would even honor its fallen vet, in the modern era, is remarkable. For a show that just let Julia Barr disappear, this is a terrific gift. There was genuine love, too, from all of the cast members who were present. Thorsten Kaye showed every drop of his true love for Herlie, and his poem at the end was goosebump inducing. The flashbacks were a special treat.
But even as I was grateful for all this, as a lapsed viewer who just watched the "funeral" for Katherine Chancellor on "my" show (Y&R)...well...the contrasts were stunning.
Where was Dr. Joe? Where was Tad? Where was Linc Tyler? Where was granddaugther Skye Alcazar? (They explained that daughter Rae Cummings was overseas).
All in all, there was so much sparseness...in the sets used, the characters used (some of whom had little meaningful connection to Myrtle). There was only one notable return, even though most of Pine Valley has lived with Myrtle at some point.
Sadly, I have to compare this to Y&R, where no expense was spared, from a sumptuous church set, to a half dozen returning favorites (who made sense and were logically connected to Kay).
There was also a heavy handedness in the AMC treatment that I, as a non-regular viewer, didn't like. The tinkling bells everywhere. The gold-burnished fadeouts on the flashbacks. The "crystal ball" made me feel I was watching Passions, and there was no need for that device...especially one that broadcast images to both Opal and Petey simultaneously. That, sadly, purely provoked eye rolls.
In the end, as a "visiting" viewer, it was clear to me that this was a departure episode with very little integration into the larger current canvas of the show. Moreover, as a "historical" episode, apart from a few flashbacks, there was very little attempt to link Myrtle into her larger history on the show. No flashback of Lenny/Langley?
There was no greater testament of how separated today's AMC has come from its' history than when "legacy" character (I know some folks hate that term) Petey Cortland had this exchange with his mother:
Opal: She wasn't fooling anybody. This here crystal ball's the real McCoy. She had this from way back when Phoebe Wallingford pulled her out of a homeless shelter to pose as Kitty Shea's mama.
It is such a sign of how much AMC has lost its historical throughline that Petey, legimitately, could have no idea whom his mother Opal she was talking about.
Ah, but in the end, at least Myrtle was honored, and that is all that mattered. In that context, I feel petty even listing these grievances. The heart strings were duly plucked.
It is my own selfish nostalgia...wishing for an AMC of my youth... I call this wish "selfish" because I did not hold up my end of the bargain. I did not "age along" with my old show. I stopped watching some time in the 80s, so AMC doesn't owe me any historical "feel good" hour. Theirs was an episode for current viewers.
Like a real funeral with a family you no longer often see, it was nice, for an hour, to come together with my old show, and some faces I remembered, and say goodbye to that wonderful old friend. The final poem by Thorsten Kaye was a beautiful ending, and I reproduce it here with gratitude, courtesy of the TV Megasite:
And who will make us stronger?
Who will mend our broken sleep when she is here no longer?
For whose part do we stand and bow?
What stories do we tell?
And will we memorize the day when great and greatness fell?
Say will this valley overcome, and will these shadows fade?
And will we lift our eyes to see the beauty that she made?
The disappearing last of her that leads to worlds unknown
has left a path to softly tread when sadness wanders home.
I'll meet thee where the highland winds divide wild mountain tyne,
where I will be forever yours and you,
Friday, December 19, 2008
But "saving" a show creatively IS NOT equivalent to saving it financially. The primetime landscape is littered with shows that were very good--often critically successful--that didn't last more than a few episodes.
In the world of commercial TV, the only way a show can survive is to attract enough (of the right kind of) eyeballs to make it appealing to advertisers to pay the freight. With ever shrinking numbers of viewers, the traditional broadcast advertiser-supported model is getting trickier and tricker to uphold.
In his remarkable interview with Maria Arena Bell and Paul Rauch, from which I quoted heavily in my last post, Nelson Branco also revealed that this leader has keen insights into the evolution of the business model. I believe she is on the right track regarding how to save daytime financially too. Now...if only someone would listen!
What the rest of this show suggests is that the Bell team has figured out a way to maximize viewership using a mix of quality and sumptuousness, DVR loyalty, cable and internet distribution, and international distribution. In other countries, viewership has been further maximized by moving to late afternoon/early evening time slots (Canada, eh!).
It is up to the media outlets and the advertisers to figure out how to monetize that. Y&R is delivering the eyeballs. By my count, the number is close to 8-10 million daily viewers in the US, and substantially more in international distribution. (CBS claims 5.6 million domestically and about another 4.5 million globally, but I think these are underestimates only count live TV broadcast viewers). Now, it is time for those in charge of making money to capitalize on those well delivered eyeballs.
Here is what I mean:
1. Maintain a unified creative vision and historical integrity
Translation: You have to want to watch the show!
Arena Bells says:
We have a very respectful relationship with the network. But this is my show and my vision.This is standard for primetime. A showrunner is selected, and the show rises and falls with the showrunner's vision. Of course there is (always, endemically) corporate interference, but there is some respect for the "auteur". Daytime has really let that go in the last two decades.
If the show isn't watchable...if it doesn't produce an enjoyable and coherent experience...people won't tune in. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the survival of a soap.
One of the reasons Y&R still 'works' just happened in my home. My parents visited. They haven't watched the show regularly since the late 1980s. But, when I clicked it on, there was Katherine and Jill and Nikki and Victor and Paul and Jack and Ashley and Neil and Brad... Moreover, to the extent that those characters were seen, they all still acted like they used to. Victor was still controlling, and still in his love-hate dance with Nikki. Jack was still trying to bring down the moustache.
Because Y&R offers a consistent feeling of "home" to its loyal viewers, they keep returning. Obviously in ever-shrinking numbers (see below...there are reasons for that)...but more of them keep returning than for any other show.
(I should add that Y&R also manages to remain visually pleasurable to watch. Sumptuous sets and lighting, in crisp widescreen high definition. Y&R has been the trademark 'beautiful' soap from the beginning. It is easier for viewers to keep tuning into something that is a sensual treat, with stirring music, and a wide array of captivating sets...than to watch something that just looks cheap).
But what about the future?
2. Consider changing the timeslots
I have previously written that, in the rest of the world, soaps have mostly left the daytime. In those countries where they are enormously successful, late afternoon/early evening/even primetime berths assure sufficient numbers.
To this, Maria Arena Bell says, in her Branco interview,
All I can tell you is that there is talk about a lot of possibilities. We’ll have to see. As you know, there are constant changes in programming. Look at Jay Leno — he is filling the 10 p.m. slot five days a week! So, who knows?
In my view, the experiment to do is to let Y&R premiere each new episode weeknights at 8 pm (Eastern Time), and then rebroadcast the next day (on CBS) at 12:30 pm (Eastern Time), or the equivalent Central/Mountain/Pacific times. The cost savings for CBS would be enormous...that is five hours of primetime they wouldn't have to program. There would be only relatively small incremental licensing costs to Bell. If CBS follows the "Leno" model, I'd urge them to try it with Y&R. (This would likely mean cancelling the Soapnet deal).
3. On TV: Build it, they will come, and then show the advertisers
Following on what Sara Bibel said, Maria Bell notes in her Branco interview:
If you take into account that a third more viewers are watching our show since that’s the statistic — if you factor in DVR+7 — then the soaps have not taken the dip media analysts have claimed. There are still a lot of eyes on this show. Yesterday, we celebrated 20 years as the No. 1 soap opera in America — along with being No. 1 in all the demos by the widest margin we’ve ever had. Yes, I agree — we need the numbers from viewers who catch us on their computer, DVR, and SOAPnet. Even without those numbers, we’re second only to Oprah in daytime. That’s a lot of eyes! We’re certainly more viable than people give us credit for.Think about that! It is true. Y&R is usually the #2 show in daytime...overall and with the "desirable" demographic.
Moreover, it gains a large number with those DVR views. I confess I am one of them.
This is a huge audience. The problem is not the show's...they are still delivering the eyeballs.
The flaw is the networks and the advertisers, who have failed to find better ways to capture these fast-forwarding eyeballs. The lack of creativity is on the part of the advertisers and the broadcasters.
Why are none of the successful internet strategies being used on TV? Banner ads? DVR codes that prohibit fast-forwarding (with the quid-pro-quo of fewer and more memorable ads)? Ads that flash a single "slide like" message on screen...so you can't miss the message even if you fast forward?
Product placement is also a clever approach, but it has really been done badly so far.
The next few points were not stated by Arena Bell, but are consistent (I believe) with her vision.
4. On the Internet: Build it, they will come, and then show the advertisers
I have mentioned before how broadly Y&R is streaming these days: Fancast.com, msn.com, cbs.com, youtube.com, yr.globaltv.com.
Every one of these is a countable hit, often with a cookie-trackable user, and with the ability to track minute-by-minute tuneouts, fast-forwards, reversals, quits. CBS.com even recently added a social networking/chat component (dish while you watch). Honestly, it is a data analyst's wet dream. Think of all the rich qualitative data you could get from the chat transcripts!
Interestingly this is all being done with virtually no promotion. My fear is that they don't want to inflame the affiliates.
Technologically, they have already figured out that delivering a smaller number of ads makes the audience happy, and increases the memorability of the ads. The presentations sometimes allow surrounding screens and banners to keep the ad ALWAYS PRESENT during the show. You cannot skip or fast forward the ads...but few fans get upset because the promotions are few in number.
Let us also add that if we could just DUMP the expensive infrastructure of affiliates and broadcast (too many middlemen), it would cost a lot less to deliver these shows over the internet. No FCC licensing.
The infrastructure is there. It is time to stop living in fear of the old media, and to sell-sell-sell the new!
There are clear indications of success in this sphere. In Canada, Y&R was recently listed among the top internet search terms. At CBS.com, Y&R consistently appears (solely among daytime soaps) as among the "most popular" streaming shows.
I'd add "move to cable" as an option...but...err...Soapnet hasn't exactly embraced soaps these days. I will note, though, that by airing Y&R in "early prime", that show is the number-one rated show for the network. Soapnet may not want soaps anymore...but surely some cable outfit wouldn't mind?
5. Cultivate and maintain an international base
The Bell shows are clear international winners. B&B is the big daddy here, but Y&R does pretty well too. Per the Young and the Restless 35th anniversary fact sheet,
The Young and the Restless international markets include Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, the Middle East, New Zealand, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.K.
The Young and the Restless is currently distributed in nearly 30 foreign countries on five continents through Sony Pictures Television International. The episodes currently aired abroad are not concurrent with the episodes airing in the U.S. and Canada.
The Young and the Restless is the top-rated daytime drama (M-F) in France.
These are extra sources of revenue. Along with (hopefully) growing revenues from cable and internet streaming and clever ways of monetizing DVR views, this international base buttresses a show against declines in the homeland.
I also think that the historical consistency and lush beauty of the show helps in international distribution. Having lived overseas, one of the things that international viewers love about American serials is their conspicuous consumption. Big cars, big houses, (at one time) big shoulders. Y&R is one of the few soaps that still embraces this quintessential component of the American serial.
Personally, I love verite too. I think there is room for that. But the traditional base of the international appeal of US shows is "lifestyles of the rich and famous". Y&R offers that.