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Friday, November 28, 2008

Mythbusters, Soap Style - Part One

My latest trip up to Cambridge for the Futures of Entertainment conference was enlightening in a lot of ways, but none more so than breaking a few misconceptions people had about the soap industry. I've been thinking over the last few days about everything I've learned from taking this year off and learning all I can from the fans. There are a lot of myths out there in the soap world - and even though my silly little blog might not change any minds when it comes to the higher-ups, I wanted it stated for the record that we... and I say we, as I have been a part of it for the last ten years, and in one way or another, contributed... we are completely wrong about.

I'll be taking off for the Florida Keys next Thursday, but over the next five days, I'm going to take the time to dispel the five myths The Powers That Be have convinced themselves of.

First up?

The Teen Story Myth

Somehow, The Powers That Be have convinced themselves that viewers under the age of twenty-five only want to watch characters who are under the age of twenty-five.

I have spent many months trying to figure out where this started. I can look back to characters like Jeff and Penny on As the World Turns, as well as the Dusty/Holden/Lily triangle. I can also look back at Luke/Laura/Scotty on General Hospital, Leo and Greenlee of All My Children, or Frankie and Jennifer on Days of Our Lives. These are all immensely popular love stories told with young people.

These are the examples people in higher positions at soap operas use to convince themselves they need to showcase young people in order to get young people to watch. I don't believe this is true. First of all, I speak from personal experience - I adored watching Cass and Frankie on AW, as well as Mac and Rachel... or Mason and Julia on Santa Barbara, or Robert and Anna on GH (and later, Duke and Anna). They made me look at adults I really admired and respected, and jumpstarted my imagination to show me the kind of man I wanted to me, the kind of love I wanted to experience - and that I shouldn't settle for anything less in life.

I do think back in the late seventies and early eighties, viewers did want to see people their age, because for so long on soaps, middle-aged characters were the centerpiece of every show (not that there's anything wrong with that).

But times have changed, and here's the biggest change in 2008 - young people WANT to be older now. They see themselves as mentally twenty-five when they're physically sixteen. Whether it comes to fashion, romance, sexuality, social issues - they're basically growing up far faster than anybody wants them to.

So here's a suggestion - perhaps we should be showing these young people that characters in their twenties and thirties make mistakes, but learn from them and grow from them and evolve from them. Seventeen year olds will want to watch them because they like to think they're indicative of the people they are in spite of their age, they'll see them screw up and become better people (and maybe learn a few lessons in the meantime), and viewers in their forties and fifties won't feel like they're watching ungrateful, one-note, one-dimensional teens played by inexperienced actors.

Balance those characters out with the kind of older couples young viewers wish they had as parents, and play these families interacting with each other and encountering the same problems these young viewers experience with their families (in spite of the fact they're much younger in real life), and suddenly you've got a multi-generational drama that maybe gives kids something to look forward to, and titillates them in ways eighteen year olds with in bathing suits can't, no matter how many push-ups they do.

Don't get me wrong - men and women of all ages don't mind the eye candy. But it needs to be organically incorporated in, as opposed to the central hub the "spokes of the wheel" turn around (to coin a popular phrase on the blogosphere these days.

Young viewers know what it's like to be around other young people. They live it all day long. That's not what they're interested in watching on television. I promise you. Give them older people to entertain them, to model themselves after (in positive ways), to laugh at, and cry with, and learn from - and I promise you. They'll watch after class.

The rest of us did. They will too. No lie.

Tomorrow - Myth #2.


Regis said...

I don't watch DAYS but am one of your biggest fans. You inspire me on a daily basis and I just wanted to thank you.

Scott N said...

Hi, Tom:

I'm kind of torn on this one. While I agree that this myth exists in the minds of TPTB based on the growing number of younger stories that have cropped up on soaps over the years, I have to wonder how this myth got into their heads. I know it wasn't there when I started watching soaps with my mom. I was watching in my teen and pre-teen years, but three weren't a lot of younger characters on. I think it was when GH brought soaps a bit into the mainstream with "Luke and Laura" that the trend started. As young audiences started flocking to soaps more, the writers saw the need to bring in more young stories like the ones you mention. But it's reached its worst point now, probably based on the demographics that the advertisers seek, even if those demos might not hold true for the core audiences of daytime drama.

MarkH said...

One of the big failures of some soaps in recent years has been to build a true intergnerational canvas. One show I (try to, am embarrassed to) watch, B&B, is a perfect demonstration of the problem. There are a handful of poorly integrated characters in their 20s, and all the rest are 40+. The canvas also has other problems (everyone is related), but it means that recently they've had to script romances between 20- and 50-years olds...solely because of a lack of alternatives.

The good soap canvas has a steady influx of "next generation". We DO want to see young people...but we want to see young people who are tied to others we love...whom we've had time to get to know (in supporting roles) before they embark on their own adventures. Moreover, when the young people are front burner, we want to see how their older siblings and parents and grandparents and neighbors and aunts and uncles REACT to their stories.

The failure to maintain the intergenerational canvas is a key failing of the modern daytime soap.

bl said...

Tom enjoy your time away and bring some sun back to us in the northeast.

The Teen Story Myth has been around for years. It is just as the show's have cut casts in size it has gotten a lot more annoying. And since the younger performers tend to be cheaper they seem to be on more episodes all year round with a larger story focus. They get dropped on a show with a huge story from the beginning before we get to know them (though this can happen with new characters that are older as well). This causes frustration too. Let's watch a group of young performers interact and pick up each other's bad acting habits. UGH (sorry if that comes off as harsh, as there are some younger characters I do like--see OLTL though I didn't care for the musical and I like musicals!)

I do have to wonder if it is easier for the writing staff to write for new characters than focus on ones with years of history.

That isn't to say there shouldn't be younger characters on screen. They just shouldn't be in a bubble only interacting with other younger people. The O.C. was a great example on how a show could intermingle adult and teen characters.

From my personal experience I don't believe that younger viewers only like people close to them in age. Many of my favorite performers are *much* older than me, and I started liking them when I was in my teens. A lot of times, the characters that were closer to my age annoyed me as the performers playing the roles were clearly much older than the parts they were playing.

Anonymous said...

You bring up a very fundamental point here Tom, but in reality it really started when the marketing departments started running programming. Everything then started to be created to appeal to the sponsor and not the audience. Today no one seems to appreciate that the core audience for daytime soaps is still "the baby boomers" except they are much older. Any programmer in Network will pretty much admit that pursut of the "youth" market for daytime drama is a myth. They plain are not going to watch a program their parents grew up with. They want "their own" shows and I support that. So where does that leave daytime? Well, there's probably about thirty million "lapsed" viewers out there who would probably tune in if they found something that struck a chord with them. There are probably more who would tune in if they also found something interesting to watch. Trouble is this group are thrown a bone occaisionally to lure them in and then when they start to get comfortable with something they identify with, they suddenly find everything changes and they are in the middle of "the dysynfunctional tribulations of youth". This is fine if you came in knowing what you were looking at. But to get conned into the show on the basis of something else, generally just pisses of the viewer and they never come back. And here in lies a problem. Much has been said over the last few months about luring back the "lapsed" viewer. Before you do this it's best to find out, "why they were lapsed to begin with".

Anonymous said...

I think you are wrong on this one. Laura Webber, Hope Williams, Sami Brady, Tina Lord, Hope Bauer,Beth Raines, Jenny Gardner were all teenagers who revitalized their shows. What has happened is it takes a magical actess and story line to make it work. And it usually doesn't becasue the storytelling has became more juvenile and stupid. In the eighties Doug Marland wrote a storyline where 16 year old Laura Webber had an affair with her familly friend, over 40 Uncle David and killed him. 16 year old Beth Raines was molested by her stepfather. Tina Lord was a very promiscuous teenager. I don't believe those stories would be approved by the networks today. Soaps dumbed down their audience. How many abortions have their been in daytime since Erica Kane had one in the 70's. Gay relationships are still in the closet. How many drug addiction stories do you see that don't have a pat, AA meeting and all is right with the world. Addiction and mental illness is something everyone is interested in. Its a long and tortuous process witness Brittney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Magazines make millions putting stars on the cover with these problems. Why isn't it incorporated in a soap. Because soaps want to do teen on the run for the 500th time. I remember on Days when Phillip came back. You did that dreadful island storyline. I kept thinking, if only Belle would have stayed in Salem with Phillip having custody of Claire. Men winning custody of their children occur everyday. Bitter contentious custody battles are so common but its something you never see on daytime. The genre has dumbed down its audience.

Legine said...

"I think you are wrong on this one. Laura Webber, Hope Williams, Sami Brady, Tina Lord, Hope Bauer,Beth Raines, Jenny Gardner were all teenagers who revitalized their shows. What has happened is it takes a magical actress and story line to make it work."

I've gotta both agree AND disagree here. I was a teen (well actually more of a pre-teen)in the mid-90's when I started watching Days and GH at about the same time.

While a character like Sami Brady was great, I was definitely watching DAYS for John/Marlena/Kristen. Their story was what had me running home from school everyday.

Sure, a great younger actress can help provide balance and it's wonderful that DAYS still has Allison Sweeney and can now use her as a true leading lady, but I'd still argue that the older characters with rich intriguing stories are more appealing to a younger audience.

Scott Berg said...

I have kind of mixed feelings on this topic. While the reason that I even knew what soaps were was because of my mother, however, I was little and school and hadn't yet mastered the art of making the VCR do anything other than stop blinking 12:00.

When I got older, I would say probably around 2000ish as I was headed into high school and had a firm grasp on technology I began watching one summer. I believe it was Days actually that got me started, and it was the teen summer story where Shawn D, Belle, Phillip, Mimi, and Jan (and some of the other assorted Salem High crew) went away for the summer and ended up on an island. I saw these teenagers in this story and that interested me at that time, but as I continued watching I got more and more attracted to the older characters as well.

Maybe the "Last Blast" crew was different, but that is what got me started in soaps, though it was after my initial introduction to them from my mother.

That summer also lead me to other soaps, most notably Port Charles and One Life to Live, and I was able to get attached to those worlds quite quickly.

I just think that if Execs and the Networks want new viewers then they cannot focus on any one segment of the canvas, and even more, they need to integrate the characters. If these shows are supposed to be somewhat realistic dramas then there is nothing more unrealistic I can think of than to have 4 or 5 characters stuck in what I call their "story pod" and not interacting with ANYONE else. It gets very tired very quickly.