Soaps’ search for tomorrow

Brian D. Johnson October 6 1986

Soaps’ search for tomorrow

Brian D. Johnson October 6 1986

Soaps’ search for tomorrow


Beneath the lofty glass dome of the suburban mall, he stood on display like a visiting deity. Hundreds of fans pressed around the lip of the stage with arms outstretched.

There were housewives, career women, preteen girls, grandmothers—and even some men—all struggling to get closer to Eric Braeden, star of TV’s daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless. Most of them knew him simply as Victor—the show’s ruggedly handsome millionaire who is divorcing Nikki, the sultry and sad-eyed model who is now involved with Victor’s brother, unaware that she suffers from a potentially fatal disease.

Soap fans, familiar with every detail of Victor’s tempestuous life, had come to Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga,

Ont., to see him in the flesh. The obliging actor, tanned and muscular in tennis shirt and gym shorts, fielded their questions (“Is Nikki going to die?” “Does Ashley kiss better than Nikki?”). As he worked his way offstage, the crowd, in a typical lathering of soap hysteria, surged forward with gasps and shrieks. Then a young girl’s voice, shrill with disbelief, rose above the pandemonium: “He’s coming this way!”

Similar scenes erupt across Canada almost every month. Over the past summer, luminaries from The Guiding Light appeared at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, stars from Another World toured plazas in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, and the staff of General Hospital presided over a bingo game attended by 3,000 fans in St. John’s. A surprising number of the stars are Canadian-born (page 73). And the relentless campaigns to make them and their American colleagues accessible to fans help explain why soap opera continues to be one of the most populist—and profitable—areas of television. Day-

time television generates more than 50 per cent of all earnings. Audiences are surprisingly large—an estimated 50 million North Americans follow the daytime soaps. And for many devoted fans, making personal contact with their stars is the ultimate fantasy. Said Lilana Novakovich, a Toronto promoter who has hosted nearly 1,000 personal appearances by soap stars across Canada: “It’s as if I spend my life making wishes come true.”

Daytime soaps offer an intimacy unavailable in the fast-paced action of prime time. Soap scenes are designed to be savored rather than consumed at a gulp. Dialogue is stretched out with pregnant pauses and meaningful glances. The Young and the Restless, the most popular afternoon soap in

Canada, relies heavily on lingering close-ups of faces transfigured by makeup, lighting and emotion. In one recent episode, the camera offered a long, uncut close-up of a weeping Nikki (Melody Scott Thomas) that began with a single teardrop and continued until black streams of mascara from one eye, then the other, had gradually trickled all the way down to her chin. Her lachrymose dilemma: how to tell her sixyear-old daughter about her impending divorce.

For the past eight years such evening serials as Dallas and Dynasty have streamlined the soap formula and given it a glamorous sheen. Last week an estimated 65 million viewers tuned into the fall première of Dallas to learn the secret of Bobby Ewing’s return from the grave. But unlike the durable daytime soaps, the evening’s luxury products are prey to fickle prime-time trends and fierce competition. Ratings are slipping, and the evening dramas are resorting to high-powered injections of intrigue to pump them back up. But the popular addiction to TV’s 13 daytime serials remains as constant as an intravenous drip. Their sagas churn on, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, without reprieve.

Network executives once feared that the entry of women into the workforce would wash away the audience for daytime soaps. Instead, the traditional daytime soap fan—a housewife in curlers bent over an ironing board—has been joined by a surprising assortment of other addicts. About 30 per cent of the audience is now male—among them, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. And technology has broadened the market further, allowing female viewers with full-time jobs outside the home to tape their favorite shows on VCRs and watch them at night. One frontline fan competing to make eye contact with

Braeden at the Mississauga mall was Ann Davies, a 39-year-old inventory manager. “We all talk about The Young and the Restless at work,” she said. “One of the girls in the office watches it on tape before she leaves in the morning. Even our parish priest has a Y&R T-shirt. He leaves the

church every day to get home by 4:30 to watch it.”

As the market grows and daytime serials become a respectable subject for gossip in the workplace, soap addicts are coming out of the closet. Even celebrities—from Elizabeth Taylor to Wayne Gretzky—have gone public with their addictions and made guest appearances on their favorite serials. Lorraine Segato, 30, lead singer for the Toronto-based band the Parachute Club, has watched Another World since she was 15. “What I find interesting about soap operas,” she said, “is that they are based totally and utterly on deceit. It’s not what’s said that counts. It’s what isn’t said. And that fascinates me because a lot of the sordid part of relationships— and politics—has to do with what is left unsaid.”

It is a sign of soapdom’s new respectability that, although its longtressed heroines hardly serve as symbols of female liberation, feminists find redeeming virtues. Agi Lukács, an adult-education teacher at the University of Toronto, describes the daytime serials as “a secret communications

channel among women that tells them how to handle their men and their kids.” Lukács, who has watched soaps since she was 14, says that “the soaps’ treatment of class and race stinks. But the depth in which they develop relationships is very good.” Harriet Rosenberg, who teaches social sciences at

York University in Toronto, described soaps as “a guilt-free form of gossip.” One reason women are so attracted to soapdom, she said, “is that it’s the only place where men pay attention to

women and relationships. They’re willing to drop their work at a moment’s notice. And that’s completely untrue in the rest of the world.”

The plots that dominate soaps do indeed strain credulity. Story lines expose their characters to heartache, disease, murder, rape, adultery, abduction, amnesia and incest at an absurd rate. But increasingly, shows are using emotional realism to grapple with social issues. With the fervor of a moral crusade, The Young and The Restless has taken a soapbox stand against targets ranging from drug abuse to wife-battering. And last summer Y&R overtook North America’s No. 1-rated soap, General Hospital, with a highly popular story line about teenage pregnancy.

Although the pregnant girl’s final fate was left unresolved, the story climaxed with a concert in which the show’s resident rock star, Michael Damian, led the audience in a chant of “It’s okay to say no.” Many younger fans take such soap sermons very seriously. Lisa Annette, a pixyish 12-yearold with braces who was among the Y&R faithful in Mississauga, said that she liked the show for its “good stories and good endings. You learn things from it—about pregnancy. You learn that you should not just go with anybody.”

With so many young viewers in the audience, soap writers still must tread a fine line between melodrama and morality. Toronto-born Sally Sussman, a writer on Y&R, is conscious of her limits. “Advocating a position can be really touchy,” she said. “You can’t advocate birth control or abortion.” Yet Sussman is often shocked by her influence. “It’s frightening. Sometimes I read the mail and think, ‘Oh my God, I really do have an impact on these people.’ There are a lot of weirdos out there, and they send you these sevenpage letters.” But the sheer intensity of a soap writer’s work load makes it difficult to agonize over social consequences: each week Sussman grinds out 150 pages of story lines and script.

Compared to prime time’s thoroughbreds, soap operas have been the workhorses of network television. Many evening dramas are so expensive to produce that they usually do not turn a profit for their producers until they go into syndicated reruns. But the toprated daytime serials, manufactured at a fraction of the cost, generate a healthy revenue even with lower advertising rates. Although exact figures are unavailable, Y&R producer Edward Scott concedes that his show is “a very efficient moneymaking machine.”

The economics of some daytime shows still echo a bygone era when sponsors controlled TV programming.

The largest single owner of soap operas is, in fact, a soap company—Procter & Gamble. It owns four vintage serials— Guiding Light, As the World Turns, Another World and Search For Tomorrow. And the company is involved in every level of production, from scripts to casting. Resisting the trend to spice up story lines to lure a younger audience, Procter & Gamble remains devoted to an image of physical and moral hygiene. “Their products are notoriously clean,” said Steve Schnetzer, who plays Cass Winthrop on Another World. “And our show is very conservative in its philosophy.” Still, with their sanitized moral code and fast-food production values, the soaps carry a certain stigma within the acting profession. Top stars earn $2,500 to $3,000 a day, but their work can be frustrating. Said Schnetzer: “The soap formula demands a constantly heightened sense of emotion, and that violates my actor’s sense of truth.” A classically trained actor who says his dream is to play Shakespeare on Canada’s Stratford stage, Schnetzer says that daytime soaps “look pretty much the same to me. I don’t know how one can be No. 1 and another No. 14.”

Others seem more comfortable with the criticism. The stigma that some actors attach to soaps is “totally ludicrous,” said the Y&R’s Braeden.

“Nighttime television and feature films are directors’ mediums. Daytime is an actor’s medium—we’re doing 80 pages of script a day.” Before coming to Y&R, the German-born Braeden was typecast as a villain in TV and movie roles. “I’ve played bad guys ad nauseum,” he said, “from werewolves to psychotic killers. At last I’m allowed to play a relatively normal human being with normal emotions.” And Braeden insists that the average soap fan “is far brighter, far more discerning that people give them credit for.”

In fact, for some viewers, soapwatching is literally an intellecutal exercise. Each year about 60 University of Buffalo students enrol in two soapopera courses taught by communications professor Mary Cassata. Each student watches one show and keeps a log. Graduate students then use the observations to analyse the programs’ content. “We try to saturate ourselves in the soap opera,” said Cassata. “We look at the content, the character demographics and the way they treat social issues.”

Academics are even subjecting soap plots to computer analysis. Another professor, Columbia University’s Michael Lebowitz, is designing a computer program to write soap-opera story lines, based on a data bank of plot twists—most of them from Days of Our Lives. During two years of the show, Lebowitz reports, three spouses who were presumed dead turned up alive. Other relationships were ruined by amnesia, blindness, a heart attack—and, in one couple’s case, the discovery that they were siblings. But Lebowitz said that he doubts that a computer program can concoct a compelling soap, adding, “Whatever that spark is which makes Dallas more than just another soap opera is much harder to figure out.”

For generations, people have been searching for the alchemy that turns simple melodrama into successful soap opera. The world’s longest-running serial, Guiding Light, has kept its narrative flame alive since its debut on radio 49 years ago. Soap opera is basically an old-fashioned form, a video throwback to the serialized novels of the 19th century. With techniques of modern marketing, soap producers are constantly remolding their stories and characters to the tastes of a changing audience. But the questions they pose are eternal. Will tomorrow ever come? How long can the young stay restless? Will they find true happiness in another world? As long as the world turns, soap fans will keep searching for answers in a wishing well that, for now at least, appears to be bottomless.

— BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Toronto