Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

Understanding the U.S. Soap Opera, Part 2

Posted by nathanpowers22 on March 8, 2017

Something I thought about as I read through “Soap operas and the history of fan discussion” was how similar soap operas are to reality television shows in several respects. I’m not talking about more disposable, episodic programs like say American Pickers, Say Yes to the Dress, or Pawn Stars, but shows like Real World, Jersey Shore, and Big Brother, which are reasonably considered “structured reality” shows. These examples pay close attention to character relationships and dialogue that results from imposed novel circumstances (i.e. strangers brought together under one roof), making plot more of an afterthought than the central focus of the show. (There may be an argument about the driving force of Big Brother being the plot—the competition for prize money and the various trials that decide the fate of “house guests”—but the true core of audience interest depends on interpersonal dynamics.) I’ve experienced this personally with Big Brother, since my family and I would often discuss players’ strategies, who we wanted to win and lose due to their perceived social/athletic skills (or lack thereof), and a lot of the time, the comedy (intentional or otherwise) resulting from emotional outbursts.

Furthermore, these shows borrow (either directly or indirectly) certain techniques and ideas from soap operas, the most obvious of which probably being the facial zoom-ins to capture emotional reactions. However, something that may be less clear is how because these shows follow the lives of its cast members from the moment they first wake up to the last moments before they’re all asleep, the producers are seeking to create a more intimate depiction of the characters in order to establish a quick connection between them and the audience. In a way, this is just a “shortcut” to circumvent the far more frequency- and longevity-dependent route that soap operas take for providing insight into the thoughts of each character. (This is also clearly assisted by individual “confessionals” that provide a much more direct avenue for understanding someone’s reactions, motives, etc., which doesn’t exist in soap operas.)

Each season also relies on a sense of continuity between episodes throughout and, in some cases, between seasons to capture and engage audiences. More recently (excluding Jersey Shore, which was cancelled in 2012), producers for these programs have capitalized on their fan followings by bringing back fan favorites, original roommates, and past winners (for Big Brother). This action doesn’t detract from or confuse new viewers, but rather enhances the experience of older fans by rewarding them, in a sense, for their continued patronage. This is comparable to the “self-referential ties to events from a rich textual history,” discussed in Ford’s article. Considering these striking similarities, but distinct differences in pacing, depth of engagement, and conflict resolution, I could see how these shows might be fulfilling the soap opera niche for many viewers as soap ratings decline and lead to their cancellation, as was the case for As the World Turns.


3 Responses to “Understanding the U.S. Soap Opera, Part 2”

  1. tommistowers said

    First off, I love Big Brother so great example!!! I also like how you used the example of the driving force for Big Brother was the competition for prize money and to win “house guests” each week. Another example that caught my eye was the fact that you talked about the facial zoom-ins that soap operas use. When one is sent home the camera man zooms into the cast members to see their reactions! GOOD JOB!

  2. jasendavis said

    The cutting from one episode to another isn’t unique to the soap opera and reality television genres, but that is where it is most often seen. It functions to create continuity, but I also believe it can scare some potential viewers. Many people would prefer the type of show that has resolution of some minor story at the end of each episode.

    • nathanpowers22 said

      I agree it’s not a unique feature, but I don’t know if I entirely agree about it scaring off potential viewers. In the case of soap operas, there’s an obvious disconnect with an audience seeing a new episode start in the middle of a conversation, as Sam mentioned in class. However, for other TV shows, reality or otherwise, breaking up larger story arcs is almost always necessary given the narrative format, but a key difference from soap operas exists as well: the bookending of episodes with a recap at the beginning and “next time on…” at the end. Rather than “scaring” potential viewers, this method does the opposite by enticing the audience to keep watching even if they didn’t catch the last episode.

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