October 05, 2009

Soap Operas and Postmodern Theory

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

On September 18th, the CBS daytime drama Guiding Light aired its final episode after 72 years on the air (fifteen years on radio and 57 on television). Ratings declined as they have for many soap operas over the past few years, leading to the network’s decision to end the longest running program in television history. Both my grandmother and great-grandmother watched the show religiously, and its end represents the passing of more than just a television show. It marks a major social shift.

Daytime melodramas became popular during a time when women spent less time in the paid labor force than they did in the early and image later years of the twentieth century. In pre-television radio days, these dramas became known as soap operas because manufacturers of cleaning products advertised heavily to the mostly female audience.

The content of the soaps offered an escapist fantasy of outlandish plots that could temper the tedium of regular housework. For the uninitiated, soap opera characters regularly commit infidelity, plot each others’ deaths, come back from the dead, grow from childhood to adulthood after a year’s absence, and marry and divorce at a rate that would make Elizabeth Taylor’s eight marriages seem normal. Good and evil characters can change overnight and even come back in the form of another person, especially if a surgeon managed a scar-less face transplant.

When I would visit my grandmother, I would hear the plot twists unfold to dramatic music, watch the camera zoom into an actor’s dramatic facial expression and think that this style of storytelling seemed so different than many other programs on the air today.

One might argue that reality shows are a twenty-first century answer to twentieth century melodramas. For those who watch them, reality shows suggest that we are getting an inside glimpse into someone’s private life, usually someone whose life is marked by drama (or edited to highlight--if not produce--dramatic incidents). Most viewers are now savvy enough to know that reality shows are not entirely unfiltered windows into participants’ lives, but it is their illusion of reality that is part of the interest.

This fascination highlights some of the ideas of postmodern theory, particularly French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. According to Baudrillard, the real and the simulated are no longer distinguishable. He argues that in our media age, images of reality and reality itself interact so much so that they have become interchangeable.

You can think of this as like a mirror that reflects an image from another mirror so much that the original image can no longer be identified. Baudriallard calls the outcome of this endless interaction hyperreality, and suggests in his 1983 book Simulations that we are fascinated by the "thrill of the real," particularly clip_image002because in his view "reality" has imploded with simulation.

There are certainly limits to the application of postmodern theory, but it might help us understand why traditional twentieth century soaps are watching their audiences dwindle. Yes, with more women in the labor force fewer are at home during the day to watch television. And as women have more opportunities outside of the home they might find their lives less mundane and therefore would be less interested in melodrama.

Despite including younger characters, part of the soaps’ recent challenge has been that their audiences have aged and younger viewers have not begun watching in large number. A 2008 Boston Globe article describes how producers attempted to adopt the style of reality shows to attract new viewers. In particular, they sometimes use smaller cameras to mirror the informality of reality shows. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is that soaps are a product of twentieth-century modernity. Audiences may now prefer to observe people “being themselves” in our hyper-mediated age.

We can also look at the genre itself and see how it does not reflect our postmodern condition, where reality itself seems more entertaining than fiction. Soaps are deliberately unreal, asking viewers to enter a fantasy world and suspend their disbelief. We know the characters are played by actors, even if sometimes fans blur the boundary and think of the actor as their character. But the actors and producers make no claim that their character is real.

Realities shows like the Real Housewives and the Kardashian family shows, however, ask us to enjoy the illusion of reality itself by suggesting to us that these programs are depictions of real events. The stories are not limited to a television time slot: events can develop in blogs, tweets, texts, or even in the news, as pregnancies or marriages are reported by the press. Further complicating things, reality show participants are called casts and shows can win Emmys.

I think back to my grandmother, who to my knowledge had no interest in reality shows, and her mother before her, who knew nothing of them since she lived well before they existed. For those coming of age in an era of multimedia, a fantasy melodrama might not be as interesting as something that bleeds into many other forms of media. Rather than just different content, the different forms of media attract audiences today. How else might Baudrillard’s theory help explain today’s media environment?


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It seems like social network sites such as facebook have also replaced the time that used to be spent watching these type of shows. Especially if one looks at the activity of Facebook as an activity of "comparison"-constantly comparing your plight with that of others-how do I look in relation to the pictures I see or what is my life like in relation to the extravagant trips others take, etc

Karen, depending on what your grandmother might have watched growing up, she may have been tuned into "Queen for a day" or "Candid Camera," which some have suggested are early reality TV shows (or at least proto-reality TV shows).

My mother is a religous Days of our Lives watcher. When she was young her grandmother watched it every day and the tradition just kind of stuck with my mom as well. She works, however cable providers such as comcast and direct tv allow you to record programs even when you are not at home. So I do not think that the reason that the number of people watching the soaps have declined because women are now working. If people want to watch the show, there are options out there with will allow them to do so. The reason the number of viewers and ratings are declining is because they are so over dramatic, and the cast is made up of horrible actors. Compared to reality shows today, soap operas are incredible cheesy and obviously unrealistic. Realtity shows have taken over and replaced day time shows such as soaps, because it is true, we would much rather take a glimse into someones "real" life, than one that is entirely scripted. Today there are way more media outlets than just tv that we use to entertain us, which is why we do not have to relay on tv alone for our day time entertainment. Times have changed and soaps are a thing of the past (thank god)

My Mother, too, is a religious Days of our Lives watcher. Upon watching it a few times, even I got drawn into the dramatic plot line. I try to keep up with the theme and watch it whenever I can. When my Mother tells me about her teen years, she describes how Days of our Lives was so much better than it is today. That got me to thinking; maybe it's modern times that has specifically changed the viewer rating. In saying that, I mean societies taste has changed. The other day, I watched my Grandparents enthusiastically watch an episode of M.A.S.H! I highly doubt that any teenager would find it just as thrilling.
Perhaps it's us who have changed.

My Grandmother has watched soap's for as long as I can remember. I would sometimes find myself watching bits and pieces of it whenever she watched it and found it to be very dramatic. I do believe that reality shows have taken over most television stations. For example MTV started out being a place to watch music videos but throughout the years it has become more of a reality t.v. station. I find that when I do watch reality t.v. I become absorbed into the events taking place. I think that reality will keep being popular among people for a quite a long time.

My mom was a General Hospital kind of girl, Ive never been able to get into it myself. I can definitely see how housewives in the later years of the twentieth century loved the plots of Guiding Light; it offered them escape and adevnture as they cooked and cleaned. The reality shows of today that have taken over MTV and VH1 seem to be the new age realm of soaps. I also have to agree with some of the above comments about myspace and facebook replacing tv time.

Does audience decline also relate to the number of TV-owning households? Maybe there is a possibility that the Internet generation, (especially those, who were born after the advent of the web) are less likely to own a TV once they start living on their own? Thus, the Internet or "accidentally" perceived media (such as advertising stands, street posters or fragments of conversation overheard in public transport) naturally take the place of older means of communication.

Marshall McLuhan suggests that we may percieve media as an extension of man. The statement may be broadened to a two-way relationship: not only is media an extension of man, but man is an extension of media, as well. Then, thinking over Baudrillard's simulation theory, we can try to imagine that the simulated hyperreality pertains not only to our "external reality", but is also internalised as a part of our very own consciousness.

Does this make any sense? :)

My grandma has watched Days of Our Lives since it has started. She used to watch it everyday religiously and she use to be so into it, she would talk about it as if was really happening, and they weren't not actors. Now when I hear her talk about she says how it has become so unrealistic. The writers have people coming back to life, that have already died and are bring all of these random people. I believe that the writers are trying to hard, to keep people watching and this is turning people away. The way they are writing the show now is not realistic.

I have never been one to watch a soap opera, but today I think people watch them less than they used to a few decades ago. My grandmother's generation watched them all the time; I think they liked to escape from reality for an hour a day. But nowadays the acting is so terrible and the plots are drawn out and over-dramatic that nobody wants to sit through that. They would rather watch a reality t.v. show, which are much more popular these days. Even if somebody wanted to watch a soap opera but was not able to be at the t.v. they could still record it. Soap operas were just a fad that is now fading to the past.

I think the transfer from Soap operas to reality television just magnifies how life moves faster and why would one wait until next week or even the next daily episode when reality moves so much faster. Reality TV provides instant gratification and in the end isn't that what the majority look for these days? It has long been said that truth is stranger than fiction and therefore more interesting, not to mention way cheaper in production.

Drama to me just isn't bad things happening to good people. If I wanted to watch crappy things happening to people who are nice to each other, I'd watch Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

In the article it states that soap operas are dwindling because there aren't as many women to watch them. There are more and more women joining the workforce and they have no time to watch them. Another reason the article says it is dwindling is because the viewers that watched them are now aging and the younger people have not begun to watch them. The reason for this is because the new, younger audiences prefer to watch reality television instead of corny soap opera fantasies. The idea of getting a look at a celebrity's personal life interests the average, middle-class person. People are interested in seeing what someone with so much money and power does with their lives. While most people notice that most of reality television is not completely one hundred percent real, the producers and cast make it seem like it is. This also draws people in. Another reason is because celebrities in these "reality" shows set new trends and show everyone what is "cool" and what is not. Like the article states, soap operas do not reflect our postmodern condition, thus making "reality" television more entertaining than the fiction that soap operas display.

Because back in the day you had to use your imagination of what was going on when you listen to the radio. Most of the time fantazise about what was going on. Now, today you can just turn on the T.V. and see everything, and you do not have to imagine what is goin on. Reality shows are more watched now, because it is happening for real in this life time. People get more out of watching other people problems, and flaws and they can really relate to what is going on in the world.

My mother has watched the soaps since I can remember. She had the channels and times down to a science. I since grew up I watch them because she watches them and that gives something to talk about since she as moved to another state. I agree with the author of the article to some degree when she mentioned that the rating were down due to women working. But on the other hand I think that the ratings are drop because the soaps are so predictable and do the same things over and over.
As for the reality shows goes, I don't care for them. The people that make them does so because they know that the people interested in them are just like to look into other people's lives. These reality shows are so popular because the audience that watches believe that people really do live as shown on television. They are more fantasy the soap operas.

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