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July 11, 2002

Soap opera genre under-appreciated, prof says

Genre unjustly at bottom of U.S. cultural hierarchy

On Monday's episode of "Guiding Light," Richard Winslow, former prince of the mythical tropical island San Cristobal, lies hospitalized in a weeks-long coma in GL homebase town Springfield, dying from the effects of a car accident, as his sister-in-law (and ex-wife) Reva prays for his recovery at his bedside.

The doctors hold out little hope for Richard's recovery, though they could keep him alive indefinitely, they say. Paralyzed, and nearly brain-dead (but evidently with a healthy heart — an important detail), Richard momentarily awakens from his coma and struggles to tell Reva something.

By coincidence, or perhaps by design, young, altruistic but cardiovascularly challenged Dr. Rick Bauer, on staff at the same hospital, awaits a donor heart needed to save his life. Without a new heart, wheelchair-bound Rick's chances for survival are almost non-existent.

Richard, sweating, weak and desperate, whispers to Reva, "Help me die. Help me die." He then has a stroke and relapses into his coma.

Fans of "Guiding Light," — this week celebrating a record 50th year of a continuous five-days-a-week run on television — are waiting to see what Reva will do next.

Such life and death situations are the life-blood of soap operas, also called daytime dramas, a genuine American genre.

"Under different circumstances, analysts of this art form might be considered cognoscenti instead of 'soap opera critics,'" says Pitt English professor Jane Feuer. "It is a very specialized art form, with an audience connoisseurship as discriminating as other art forms like opera and ballet. But in this country there is a cultural hierarchy, and soaps are at or near the bottom."

Feuer, whose areas of interest and research include film, popular culture, television and cultural studies, typically offers a unit on the soap opera genre as part of her courses, such as English Literature 1753, Television Analysis. She has studied soaps as a professional researcher for TV networks and as an academician, and maintains that the form is, at best, under-appreciated and, at worst, unjustly vilified. Currently, she is writing an article on "Guiding Light's" 50 years on TV to be published this fall in Television Quarterly. According to Feuer, TV's longest running dramatic program, with its 13,000-plus installments, started on radio in 1937 and began on TV as a live 15-minute show in 1952. The soap was the brainchild of Irna Phillips, who is considered the originator of the genre.

"Irna Phillips established the rules of the form, which still are in place today," Feuer says. "There are core families in a small-town setting. Everybody knows everybody else. The show has to go on; it never ends. New story lines, which typically last about two or three months, always replace old ones."

Family members supporting each other in times of crisis is among the conservative values that all soaps espouse, she points out, "but there is never more than a few minutes' time when families are actually in harmony or agreement. They're always going at each other. They argue and fight. So the message is not a conservative one, really."

Who first coined the term "soap opera" is unknown. But the soap part comes from the traditional sponsors, such as GL's Procter & Gamble. Opera comes from melodrama, the modus operandi of the genre, Feuer says.

But soap operas — currently there are 10 — are not all alike, contrary to the stereotype. "Regular viewers are aware of small nuances between shows that basically are alike in form," Feuer says. "It's a very intimate form of television," heavy on close-ups, dramatic pauses and deliberate pacing, and well-financed enough to present different styles of sets and costumes.

But what sets soaps apart from other genres, Feuer maintains, is the longevity of core characters. "Susan Lucci [Erica Kane on "All My Children"] has been playing that role my whole adult life," Feuer says, whose soap opera viewing goes back to the early 1970s. "Fans rely on that longevity. It's comforting. It's involving. Fans come to feel part of the characters' lives and decisions."

Most soap opera detractors point to the implausible storylines, but fans focus on character and relationships, Feuer says.

"Of course the plots are ridiculous," she says. "But outlandish plots are nothing new. Just look at 'The Odyssey,'" with its one-eyed monsters, its hero held prisoner by Circe for a year and its Sirens who drive men delirious with desire.

"Really, there are no original story lines. Soaps steal plots from anywhere and everywhere. I think, more and more, for the fans outlandish plots are not only accepted but expected, especially among young fans. In the old days, it was characters just talking about their problems and the soaps were more static in that respect."

Another unfair criticism leveled at soaps concerns the acting, Feuer says. "Soaps have very melodramatic, stylized acting. It's not naturalistic or method acting at all. But that is acceptable to fans, not a detraction. It fits the form."

In fact, many successful actors cut their teeth on soaps before moving to film and/or stage. "Guiding Light" alums include Kevin Bacon, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Chris Sarandon, Cicely Tyson, Christopher Walken, Billy Dee Williams and JoBeth Williams.

"Guiding Light" currently lists 40 actors as "regulars," that is, recurring characters who drift on and off camera as the story line dictates. Often roles are recast — children shipped off to boarding school can return as adults a few weeks later — and actors let go by one soap tend to pop up on others. Less often, but not unheard of, actors return to a soap cast as another character.

According to Feuer, soaps hit their peak of popularity, especially among the college set, in 1977 with the Luke and Laura Spencer (played by Anthony Geary and Genie Francis) story line on "General Hospital."

That off-again, on-again romance, culminating in an elaborate wedding, spawned an interest among the college crowd that lasted until the early 1980s, she says. "In the mid-to-late '70s, students used to watch in groups, it was a social thing, a community thing. You could go to any campus in America and see groups of regular watchers getting together at soaps time."

Interest among college students has been shrinking ever since, she says. "In the early '80s I could go into a class and assume that the students were familiar with one or more of the soaps. In my [current] summer course, only 1 out of 23 said she watched a soap."

Feuer blames the decline in popularity of soaps among young people in part on the once-a-week serial dramas like "Dallas" and "Dynasty" that grabbed viewers with their faster pace.

"I think shows like "Melrose Place" and other serialized so-called night-time soaps, with so many characters 'you love to hate,' put distance between the show and the audience. And students are much more cynical today. There's less identification with characters, which is the central difference" between daytime and evening dramas.

But viewership across the board also has been declining since the heyday of Luke and Laura.

"Soaps have lost a lot of their core audience because many more women now work outside the home," Feuer says. The O.J Simpson murder trial in 1994 and 1995 also drew viewers away from the soaps who did not return, she adds.

"The fans who continue to watch, though, are very loyal, including a certain small segment of people, somewhat pathetic cases, who do not have a satisfying life of their own, for whom soaps are an 'imitation of life,' to borrow a title from a 1950s movie."

One remnant of the soaps' glory days is the growth of a cottage industry that includes soaps-dedicated publications and, more recently, Internet chatrooms.

"But I think for the most part, producers and writers pay only lip service to the Internet audience, because they're not sure of that demographic," Feuer says.

Soap opera story lines, as they have from the beginning, cater to a specific demographic group, Feuer says. "The only audience they measure is 18-49-year old women, because that is the audience that buys the products of the main sponsors. Really, the advertisers drive everything. A lot of other people do watch, of course, but, frankly, the sponsors don't care."

Soap Opera Weekly, for example, lists overall Nielsen ratings but also gives ratings of women 18-49. "So they pay attention to that limited audience, including in their focus groups. They do extensive statistical analysis and measure themselves against competing soaps in that particular demographic," which is why weddings, honeymoons, births, parenting and who's sleeping with whom are common storyline features."

Feuer says a colleague of hers considers soaps an endangered species. "They are so expensive to make, when you take into account production values, occasional location shooting, large casts and crews, costuming, hair and putting on an hour show five days a week, 52 weeks a year," Feuer notes. "Other daytime programming — game shows and talk shows — is much less expensive to produce."

But while they can, loyal fans will continue to tune in tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

–Peter Hart  

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